How Do Milwaukee Parents Choose A School For Their Children?

Jan 22, 2018

In Milwaukee, there are more school options than ever for families to choose from. So many, that making a choice can seem overwhelming to some. With such a wide selection, how do parents go about picking a school for their kids?

"Where do we go to start learning about all of that?"

This week marks National School Choice Week. And organizers say, the celebration is not just about voucher schools.

“We’re talking about all options: traditional public schools, public charter schools, public magnet schools, online academies, private schools and homeschooling,” says Choice Week president Andrew Campanella. “[There are] so many different types of programs to give parents more access to a good education for their kids.”

Credit National School Choice Week

This time of year, many folks are thinking about where to send their kids to school. The open enrollment period begins for many districts in January and February -- Milwaukee Public Schools hosts its annual Enrollment Fair in just a few days' time. 

Milwaukee is home to the longest-running school choice program in the country. The city also boasts Wisconsin’s largest public school district, Milwaukee Public Schools, as well as a robust slate of charter, private, religious and alternative school options.  

It’s all new to Beats Me question asker Jill Wesolowski. She and her husband didn’t grow up in Milwaukee. When they moved here 12 years ago, they had to learn about the city day by day. But until a year and a half ago – when Wesolowski gave birth to her daughter – she hadn’t paid much attention to local schools.  

“We’re starting to think about, how does the whole school thing work -- and we realized that we didn’t really know how it worked, or where to start,” she reflects. “We’ve been trying to look around for a resource and kind of coming up short.”

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Wesolowski thinks she wants her daughter to attend public school – at least, at first. It seems like a good return on investment, she says, for her property taxes.

She’s driven past schools in her neighborhood, done some googling, and reached out to friends for their advice. Beyond that, she and her husband aren’t sure where to look for information.

“I didn’t find anything that seemed to be geared toward an audience of, ‘Here’s how you get started,’” she says. “How do I know what sort of approach they’re taking to curriculum, disciplinary approaches, some of the social aspects of school? Where do we go to start learning about all of that?”

Question-asked Amanda Albert sits at her desk, in the offices of College Possible Milwaukee.
Credit Rachel Morello

Even folks who do have knowledge of the city struggle with this question of how to choose a school.

Amanda Albert works in the education sector here, so her friends often approach her for help. But often, she finds she can’t offer much counsel.

“I know how to help them maybe if they’re trying to compare within one sector. But when you’re looking at, ‘Do we pick our public school? Do we pick a Montessori school? Do we pick that charter or that voucher school?’ -- I don’t know how to help them get the information to make the right choice for their family,” Albert says.

She says she’s not sure a single, go-to resource exists – a “getting started guide” to orient Milwaukee families to the city’s complicated school scene, and help them make solid comparisons.

And without one, the struggle is real.

“When you go to a restaurant and there are six things on the menu, it’s usually pretty easy to figure out what you want,” she analogizes. “When you go to a restaurant and it’s, like, ten pages, it’s going to take you a lot longer to try and figure it out.”

“Having more choices, I think, always makes things harder -- but especially when you don’t have all the information.”

Looking for the 'Holy Grail'

Dave Steele runs the local nonprofit PAVE, Partners for Advancing Values in Education. He agrees that Milwaukee could benefit from a single system or app -- like the ones that exist in New Orleans, Indianapolis and New York City – to help parents search for schools across all sectors.

“No city has arrived at the ‘holy grail’, which is a system of getting the information out there that’s used by 100 percent of the parents -- but many cities are much further along than Milwaukee,” he explains.

Right now, the closest thing we have is an interactive map on the Milwaukee Metropolitan Association of Commerce website, which displays state report card data for all schools in the county.

But, Steele says, we need more. And in the meantime, our best asset is our curiosity.

“As a parent, really ask yourself: what kind of environment do I want for the child? What do I want the outcome to be?” Steele recommends. “You can find those schools that pursue that course of study, but then seek information. Visit the school. Spend some time there. Discern for yourself, based on the data you can get from the state report card, information that you can gather there at the school.”

"As a parent, really ask yourself: what kind of environment do I want for the child? What do I want the outcome to be?"

His advice also comes with a warning…

“Just because a school says they do those things, doesn’t mean that they do them well,” Steele continues. “It’s really up to us parents to do that due diligence, to make sure that what these schools say that they’re doing, what their vision is, that they’re doing well.”

…and, a caveat.

“My advice to parents, I would just take with a huge grain of salt. What do I know?” Steele says, in a serious tone. “If we’re going to move things forward as a city, we really have to listen to the community we serve. And not try to come up with a prescription of something to solve the problem for them. But to really get more parents engaged.”

Making a list, Checking it twice

This is something I heard repeatedly from education insiders, as a tip for anyone trying to choose a school: talk to other parents.

Parents like Gladys Manzanet. She’s a Milwaukee native – and she went through several schools here. Now, she has four kids of her own, and she’s tried many a tactic to figure out where to send them to school.

“One can get overwhelmed,” she agrees. “But I think that because you know your child, you’ll know what resonates with them. So you also know how to whittle away those that are not even possibilities.”

Milwaukee mother of four, Gladys Manzanet, poses in her office building.
Credit Rachel Morello

What was on the list of possibilities for Manzanet’s family?

“I just want an education where they can thrive,” she explains. “Each child is different – they each have their own strengths and weaknesses. And I think those [schools] that can play up those strengths, that can help them find their passions -- those are the schools I’m looking for.”

No two parents’ lists will look the same. To prove it, I am asking Milwaukee parents to tell me what factors went into their decision about where to send your child to school. Here are the responses I have received so far:

If you’re one of those people going up against the clock to make this big decision, now you’ve been properly peppered with tons of advice, and factors to consider – which probably did not help to calm the anxiety you were already feeling.

Milwaukee parent Gladys Manzanet encourages folks to remember: when it comes to school, one size does not fit all.

“Don’t allow any one person to kind of color the research that you do,” she says. “There are a lot of well-meaning families out there that will want you to choose their school. But their school might not necessarily work for your child.”

“The reality is that school choice needs to be talked about in personal terms, not political terms,” adds National School Choice Week president Andrew Campanella. “This is about matching students up with the schools and the environments that work best for them. Whether it’s traditional public schools, charters, magnets, online schools, private schools, or homeschooling – it doesn’t’ matter. It matters for individual families what choices they make.”

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