CITY OF PEWAUKEE — Since Wisconsin’s School Choice program was expanded statewide last year, many private schools have become participants and others are considering doing so. At the Wisconsin Council of Religious and Independent Schools’ leadership conference Feb. 12 at the Country Springs Hotel, several private school administrators offered new or potential participants their experience with the program.

Participants in the Wisconsin Council of Religious and Independent Schools conference, Feb. 12, at the Country Springs Hotel, visit during a break at the Feb. 12 event. (Catholic Herald photo by John Saller) Kay Bobb, principal of St. Agnes School, Butler, said that before the school joined, informational meetings were held with school employees, parish lay leaders and school parents.

“When we rolled it out, we tried to learn about the program and pass it on,” she said.

A 2000 Los Angeles Times article, published when the choice program’s publicly-funded vouchers were strictly for pupils attending schools within the City of Milwaukee, reported that “dramatic changes have taken place within private schools, particularly those with large numbers of voucher students. Educators talk of days filled with a new array of small tasks: tracking down parents whose phones are disconnected, filling out more child abuse reports, tutoring children who are behind.”

So far, new schools in the program haven’t seen many similar experiences.

Bobb said some pupils who have transferred into St. Agnes in middle grades since the school joined the program trailed pupils already at St. Agnes in reading, so teachers have worked harder to bring newcomers up to speed.

“That’s been our biggest challenge dealing with choice,” she said. “Very few people left because of choice.”

Cindi Hummitzsch, administrator of Grace Christian Academy, West Allis, said when her school chose to join, there was some muttering that “those kids” would be enrolling.

Instead, “60 percent of the kids who went into the (choice) program were already our kids.”

Christopher Cody, a school administrator for the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, had been principal at Mount Olive School, Milwaukee, the last Lutheran school in the city to join the program.

“Some of it was concern over how it would affect the culture of the school,” Cody said. “If you go in with doors wide open, and offer every open seat (to voucher pupils), it’s going to change the culture.”

Cody said Mount Olive gradually increased the number of voucher pupils it enrolled, and found that 78 pupils the church had allowed to enroll free qualified for vouchers. He also pointed out that the family income cap for voucher recipients was now 300 percent of the federal poverty level, compared to much lower caps in the program’s early years, enabling a broader socio-economic mix among voucher users.

“Once that happened, we didn’t have any white flight or suburban flight,” he said. He said he told those who “didn’t want ‘those kids’ (that) you’re talking about our kids.”

Terry Brown, vice president of School Choice Wisconsin, and a former president of St. Anthony School, Milwaukee, said religious schools “have been very good in providing education, regardless of (pupil) demographics.”

Brown and Hummitzsch offered advice to schools planning to join the program.

“You need to have a plan,” Brown said, adding that new participants should try to attract at least 10 voucher pupils to offset certain costs associated with the program.

Hummitzsch pointed out that since many families apply to several choice schools, it can be hard to forecast how many pupils actually enroll. “You won’t necessarily know until count day who’s sitting in your chairs,” she said.

Brenda White, associate superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee, advised administrators to “learn as much as you can to get your school ready,” and encouraged them to participate.

“Choice is a way to evangelize that’s compatible with our values,” she said. “Let’s not have affordability be the only way to determine” who attends Catholic schools.

Brown recalled that St. Anthony School had 190 pupils before religious schools were admitted to the program in 1998.

St. Anthony now has well over 2,000 students and has expanded into grades 9-12.

“(Those) kids were learning the faith, that would have been in public schools,” he said. “Let’s do this, and do it well.”