Chershanta Smith can’t imagine her daughter, Gabrielle, attending school anywhere other than St. Marcus Lutheran School in Milwaukee’s Brewer’s Hill neighborhood. And that’s not only because she believes her daughter is receiving an excellent education at St. Marcus through the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, but because the school’s community has embraced and supported her entire family. She teared up when describing a financial empowerment program the school offers that has helped her family improve their finances to the point where they are close to being able to purchase a home for the first time.
Smith, a social worker, and her partner have two daughters – Gabrielle (Gabby), 7 and Zyndaia, 2; her partner also has a son, 14 and a daughter, 11 who attend traditional MPS schools. Smith, a former teacher herself, describes them as “a pretty tight-knit family, you know, goal orientated. We pretty much all get along, very friendly, just a normal family, I believe.”
Smith talked with veteran journalist Marilyn Krause at St. Marcus shortly before the start of the fall semester about the benefits of being able to choose a school and education program for Gabrielle, who is in Grade 2, and the key role the choice program plays in providing access and funding to attend a private school.
I look for an educational system that will challenge students, but not put them at a disadvantage. I feel like Gabrielle gets that here at St. Marcus. I feel like choice schools have a higher standard than regular public schools in that they actually challenge the students.
St. Marcus is not the first school Gabby attended; she went to K3 at an MPS school, Craig Montessori School. Initially, I had heard really good things from other parents whose kids attended here. I mean, Milwaukee is big, but it’s also very small – someone knows somebody else. Now I know how good of a community St. Marcus is for Gabby and how comfortable she feels in it.
And there are different opportunities here as well. I get to meet a lot of new people in the services that St. Marcus offers. It’s helpful for my family as well, so I now know that it was a great choice. For Gabrielle, it’s the extra resources they have for her – she receives extra help in reading and math.
The assistant teacher in her classroom and I already have agreed on some meetings in the evening, using Zoom, for reading exercises. I don’t think she would have gotten those same opportunities had she been attending any other school or regular public school. I feel like the choice schools, they just have a variety of resources set up for the students, so if a parent reaches out, they have it available for them. Having someone who is committed to her education is the reason why she’s still here at St. Marcus. It’s great. It is.
We would not have been able to afford a private school without the choice program. I mean, kids are expensive and especially being a working-class family, a lot of services that are available to help, like tutoring, cost a lot. And if you are working parents, you don’t qualify [for financial assistance.]
I think all students deserve a chance to get a really good education. This is the only experience that I have, but I feel like St. Marcus shows how much the community can become a part of your family. It’s not just, “This is a student. This is their parent,” you know, like we’re nothing. It feels like we’re a part of the larger family.
You’re able to reach out to someone. I’m one of those parents who is heavily involved in their child’s education, and when I see or feel like I can step up and do more, I try to reach out. If I need something extra, I’ll reach out.
If there’s – I wouldn’t even say a concern – but just any thought that I might have regarding how something may be able to help Gabrielle or if something is not working, someone is always there for me to talk to. And I didn’t quite that have that experience prior. Before, even when I was teaching, myself, I didn’t really see opportunity like that available for students.
So, I feel like choice schools are very flexible. They’re very available for families, and they care about their students’ education.
Plus, besides that Gabrielle’s receiving a great education here, an example of the resources that I access is the financial coaching. We decided we wanted to buy a home but didn’t know how to go about even starting that process, like getting your credit together, saving the money, creating the financial budget and also saving.
I like to think I’m good with money, but that initial appointment made me realize we were spending too much. I get that help through Moe*, and she’s really good with motivating family members, being supportive and being a silent partner, nudging you forward.
Through Moe, I’ve got a partnership with Acts Housing**, which can help with finding and buying a home. We’ve been working for about a year, learning about the different factors of what affects your credit score and getting that right. And I think we’re two points away from having a credit score that would help us qualify to buy a home.
It helped me to put my family in a better position. I don’t think I would have gotten that from anywhere else. Even this summer, they were reaching out to me. It lets me know that someone cares not only about my daughter’s education but about her family members, too. It’s pretty awesome. Do you have some tissue? These are happy tears. I’m sorry….
The dean of students, the director of primary, the primary school – everyone is just pretty involved. I have not met one person that wasn’t about the students here. I think that’s comforting. You know? Being a mom, especially with Gabrielle being my first child. It’s kind of hard to let go of that and, for me, I’m always thinking about who my child is around or who is taking part in that care for her.
But here at St. Marcus, I know she’s in good care. I know she’s surrounded by people who care about her safety as well as her education.
She looks forward to coming to school. She loves math. She’s always excited about learning and, of course, starting here in K4, now it’s like her family.
It’s her community, and she loves it.
Right now in Wisconsin, traditional public schools receive an average of approximately $15,000 per student in funding from federal, state and local taxpayers. Independent, public charter schools and private schools such as St. Marcus Lutheran School that are part of one of Wisconsin’s parental choice programs receive thousands of dollars less. The Badger Institute is part of a coalition (other members include School Choice Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, Americans for Prosperity, the American Federation for Children and K12/Stride) advocating for funding parity.
Here is enrollment information for St. Marcus Lutheran School.
*Maureen “Moe” Lawrenz is a life coach at St. Marcus School, focusing on helping families in areas such as home ownership, careers, and financial stability.
**Acts Housing provides one-on-one and online, HUD-approved homebuyer and financial counseling for individuals and families to help them become ready to buy.