Miracle at St. Marcus

On the Frontlines of reform with writer Sunny Schubert

Miracle at St. Marcus

Henry Tyson shows how urban education can succeed in the right setting.


"I never wanted to be involved in helping the poor. My mother was born in Africa and was always very sympathetic toward the poor and people of other races. But the whole inner-city thing came about during my senior year at Northwestern," says the superintendent of Milwaukee's St. Marcus School.

"I was majoring in Russian, so in the summer of my junior year, I went to Russia. I absolutely hated it - just hated it. So when I got back to school, I realized I had a problem figuring out what to do next," he remembers.

About that time, he was having a discussion with a black friend, "and she basically told me I didn't have a clue what it was like in the inner city. She challenged me to do an ‘Urban Plunge,' which is a program where you spend a week in an inner-city neighborhood.

"We were in the Austin neighborhood, on the West Side of Chicago. It was a defining moment for me," he says. "I was so struck by the inequity and therefore the injustice of it all. I couldn't believe that people lived - and children were growing up! - in such an environment, such abject poverty."

"I knew after that week that I wanted to work with the urban poor. I felt a deep tug, like this was what I was meant to do. In my view, it was like a spiritual calling."

Tyson's Journey

It was the start of several journeys for Tyson: an educational journey into the failing milieu of inner-city schools; a physical journey that would carry him to St. Marcus Lutheran School on Milwaukee's north side, and a spiritual journey that would lead him to the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod.

The programs he oversees at St. Marcus are the embodiment of everything he learned along the way. Tyson's students are proof of the ability of poor black children to perform just as well academically as their affluent white peers when placed in a highly structured and challenging environment, and testimony to the power of the Christian Gospel to transform lives.

Tyson, meanwhile, has become a powerful spokesman for the successes of the 20-year-old Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. He is an eloquent and elegant speaker with a direct gaze that conveys the strength of his convictions. It doesn't hurt that he is Hollywood-handsome as well, looking like he might be actor Colin Farrell's older, smarter brother.

AmeriCorps Volunteer

The 36-year-old bachelor was 4 when his family moved to the United States from Britain, but three years later, his parents sent him back to attend Felsted School in the south of England. That decision, he says, was based partly on tradition - I had five older siblings, three of whom were at Felsted - and partly because they were disappointed in American schools. Years later, he would come to share that disappointment.

After graduating from Northwestern, he joined AmeriCorps and was assigned to work with Habitat for Humanity in Chicago. "I became involved with several Habitat families, and through them I became aware of how bad many of the Chicago public schools were."

Then his boss invited him to dinner, where Tyson met fellow guest Arne Duncan, who would eventually become the reforming CEO of the Chicago public schools and President Barack Obama's pick for U.S. secretary of Education.

That night, over dinner, Duncan convinced him that education "was a more involved, systemic solution than housing" for the problems facing the urban poor.
Tyson enrolled in DePaul University, earning a master's degree in secondary education. "I had a good experience at DePaul, but I did not learn what I consider to be the critical elements of great urban education there. I'm a firm believer that great urban educators aren't educated on college campuses - only in great urban schools."

Which the Chicago high school where he began teaching emphatically was not. His fellow teachers lacked passion and commitment. The students were out of control. The classrooms were chaotic.

After a year, he moved to a suburban high school, which was somewhat better. But then a former colleague, Kole Knueppel, called him up. Knueppel had moved to Milwaukee to become principal of St. Marcus Lutheran School.

"You've got to come up here!" Tyson remembers Knueppel telling him. "We're going to do great things!"

Testing His Ideas

St. Marcus was about to undergo a $5 million renovation that would allow the student body to expand from 220 to 330. But best of all, St. Marcus would give Tyson the freedom to put his ideas concerning urban education into practice, and he would be surrounded by fellow teachers who shared his passion and commitment.

That was six years ago. Today, Tyson is superintendent of St. Marcus. Knueppel has moved on to head Hope High School, St. Marcus' "sister" choice school.

"When I got hired at St. Marcus, the first thing they did was send me to New York to look at a KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program) school." He has visited other excellent urban schools in Houston and Chicago as well.

"What I saw in those schools revolutionized my thinking. When you walk into a great urban school, you can tell the difference immediately."

"The kids are focused. The teachers are teaching with passion. It's happy and calm.
The school day is crazy-long. There's direction. You see college stuff everywhere. And if you talk to a student, they make eye contact. They talk confidently, and they're polite."

That's what St. Marcus is like. At first glance, it looks like any school, albeit cleaner and neater than some. But the difference between St. Marcus and an average public school becomes apparent when students are between classes.

There is no jostling, no yelling, no slamming each other into lockers. The students, wearing uniforms of blue pants, blue blazers, white shirts and red ties, walk swiftly and quietly to their next class.

And they are excelling. Tyson pushed for them to take standardized tests, which are not required for private schools, and they are testing far ahead of their demographic peers.

Like their teachers, they are serious about learning. They arrive at St. Marcus as early as 6:30 a.m., and middle-school students often stay as late as 8:30 p.m. Tardiness, truancy and any kind of disruptive behavior are met with instantaneous discipline.

In the early grades, the teachers eschew educational fads like the new math or "whole language" reading instruction. Instead, they focus on the basics. In the upper grades, the curriculum is rigorous. Students are expected to complete three to four hours of homework every night. Along with academic subjects (including Latin), they have daily religious instruction.

"The transformative power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ" is a crucial element of St. Marcus' success, Tyson says, and in his own life.

"I have never been a good Christian," he says. "Christ said only God is good. I am a miserable, broken sinner saved by grace, which brings me a tremendous amount of joy."

He and his colleagues are driven to share that joy with their students.
"We teach these kids that ‘God made you, God loves you, and God has a purpose for you. And when they know that, they will do anything to serve him."

"Love is absolutely the No. 1 ingredient" at St. Marcus, Tyson says. "The kids don't go nuts on us because they know we love them. There are all kinds of things you can do to kids in terms of discipline when they know that they are loved."

Long Hours, Hard Work

Likewise, St. Marcus teachers are willing to put in 12-hour days in service to God and their students.

"Any school that is successful has very extended hours," Tyson says. "That single point right there is absolutely critical. As long as the schools want to stick with the 6.5-hour day, we will never be successful.

"I never have to fight with my teachers. I think there are a lot of teachers out there who would jump at the chance to teach at a school like this. When you give a teacher the opportunity to change lives, the job becomes a consuming passion."

"Teaching is impossibly difficult. Period. You get better with practice. That's one thing that's wrong with our teacher training programs: Students don't spend enough time in the classroom, not enough time practicing.

"Urban education is not rocket science. Our model is largely stolen. People who are serious about school reform need to ask themselves why St. Marcus is more successful than most inner-city public schools at about half the cost," Tyson says.
"What we do here works. We should be replicating what works, but society has chosen not to."

Sunny Schubert is a Monona freelance writer and a former editorial writer for the Wisconsin State Journal.