To say that St. Anthony's School in Milwaukee is a bedrock of the local Hispanic community is an understatement. St. Anthony's is the largest grade school in Milwaukee and 98% of their students are Hispanic. The quality of education children receive at St. Anthony's is nothing short of innovative and remarkable.
Even things that most people take for granted, St. Anthony's considers carefully. If a room needs painting, they research wall colors that best promote creativity, concentration, and productivity. If lights need to be replaced, they find the sort of lighting that reduces stress and anxiety while promoting improved attitude and behavior. Because they lack bureaucratic strictures in schools with teachers' unions, St. Anthony's makes it a regular practice to seek out experts across the country to implement proven methodologies in the best interest of our children.
St. Anthony's philosophy is that if students struggle to read, they will struggle in all areas of learning. St. Anthony's, therefore, requires their students to complete 90 minutes of reading per day. Reading is such a high priority that St. Anthony's school body can boast of reading more than 50,000 books per school year. Not bad for a student body consisting predominately of Spanish speakers.
Ideas are great, but parents want results. Within a student's first year at the academy, 3rd grade students improve their reading proficiency from 22% to 55%. And even more remarkable, 8th grade students improve from 20% to 68%. How is St. Anthony's able to get stunning results?
Students are immersed in English-only classes under a curriculum called "English is a Flash". English is a Flash is a visual methodology that pairs language with images resulting in accelerated learning. And no student is left behind. If students receive a grade below 85% in math or reading, their teacher reviews the course material with them. If they continue to fall below the mark, the lesson is repeated until they score above 85%. If students hand in late homework assignments, teachers call their parents the next day.
Teachers are not without help either. Once-a-month, "coaches" observe all of the classrooms to provide teachers with constructive criticism. Teachers who struggle in their performance receive support from their colleagues. And teachers who excel receive merit pay for their achievements.
Sounds unreal? It's not. If the School Choice program were to falter, however, the Hispanic community would suffer a serious setback. This is why having the right legislators in office is paramount to the School Choice program.
On July 1st, candidate for U.S. Senate Ron Johnson met with Hispanic leaders at St. Anthony's to discuss Wisconsin's School Choice program. Johnson said he was "an ardent supporter of school choice" because he is a "free market guy". One thing not talked about, however, is how school vouchers can save taxpayers substantial costs.
To educate a student at MPS, the cost to taxpayers is about $13,000 per pupil. To educate a student at a Choice School, it costs taxpayers about $6,500. If the state were to lift the School Choice student enrollment cap from say 22,000 to 32,000, it would save the state approximately $65 million (presuming that 32,000 students had enrolled). It makes a fairly powerful argument that the free market approach is the most fiscally responsible.
But the School Choice program found an enemy in the teachers' union, and it is therefore vulnerable to legislative attacks by Democrats in the state and federal legislatures. In 2009, Wisconsin Democrats tried to pass a motion to cap the School Choice program at 19,500 students. If it had passed, hundreds of students would have been sent back to the public school system.
On a federal level, Wisconsin Democrat Dave Obey recently tried to redirect $100 million from the federal Charter Schools Programs to the public school system to sustain teachers' jobs. If his maneuver succeeds, schools in the program would lose up to 40% of their annual funding thus putting the jobs of 6,000 charter school professionals in jeopardy. If elected, Johnson could be a deciding vote for school choice.
As the discussion about School Choice came to a close, we began talking about the strained relationship between Conservative Hispanics and the GOP. Ivan Gamboa, a former Hispanic Outreach Director, opened up with the line saying "If you're a Hispanic Republican, you're probably in an abusive relationship". Gamboa explained that since Hispanics and Republicans share core principles, Hispanics are naturally drawn back to the GOP even though they tend to snub us when the political winds shift.
Although we all got a good chuckle, there is a lot of truth to Gamboa's statement. Politicians flirt with Hispanic leaders when their base isn't looking. But when their GOP turns jealous, Republicans are quick to brush us aside for something more useful.
Johnson said his campaign would do no such thing and stated we would hear no anti-immigrant rhetoric from his camp. He said he believes that immigrants should respect the rule of law, but conceded that illegal immigrants should be treated with dignity and respect as human beings.
Johnson also stressed the importance of securing our borders and laid out two ways to reduce the influx of illegal immigration. First, he said, "We must secure our borders to protect citizens against the violence of drug cartels." And second, we need to implement a "verification system" for employees that stops employers from exploiting immigrants and decreases "the incentive for immigrants to cross the border illegally'.
Ron Johnson's visit to St. Anthony's school is a step in the right direction for our community. St. Anthony's school is a beacon of hope, and School Choice is the vessel that can father great success. This is why it's important for Hispanic parents to get involved and tap community leaders about promoting School Choice. And this includes candidates competing for Pedro Colon's seat in the 8th district. No politician can claim to be an advocate for the Hispanic community and refuse to fight for the very thing that promotes achievement and prosperity for our children.