At the start of the pandemic in 2020, Wishkub Kinepoway faced two family crises with some crying, some praying and a lot of determination. A member of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians and a Shawano County transplant, Kinepoway knew she needed to make a change for her children. She also knew that change wouldn’t come without school choice.
Her children, Enae-maehkiw-hsaeh, a 16-year-old junior at Martin Luther High School in Greendale, Anniimiik-Ikwe, a 13-year-old eighth grader, and Muqsahkwatuhkiw, a 10-year-old fifth grader, both at St. Marcus Lutheran School on N. Palmer St. in Milwaukee, are thriving.
The full-time early childhood teacher at Gam Ami School at the Jewish Community Center in Whitefish Bay is no professional advocate, but says she welcomes telling her story and the story of school choice so that other parents can benefit from her experience. She spoke with Mark Lisheron, managing editor of Diggings, the Badger Institute’s magazine.
In March of 2020, I was just noticing some very strong academic struggles in my son. He was in 8th grade and, academically, he was just struggling. And so, then I reached out to the pediatrician, and she suggested like it was probably a learning disability of some sort that should have been caught.
And so, then I was like, well, he’s had repeated turnover. Every year, he’s had a different teacher with no continuity in his learning.
We are originally from Shawano County. If you know Wisconsin – that’s Northern Wisconsin. A small county town, one school. You didn’t have a choice.
When I made the decision to move to Milwaukee, I didn’t know you had to apply to schools. That was a new process for me, knowing that there was an application, waiting lists, testing at some. It was an emotional rollercoaster, to say the least. I didn’t know where to start. I didn’t know if this move was going to work for my family because it was just unfamiliar.
So, we found that first school, Woodland School on State Street, and we were there for five years until the pandemic hit. Like the second week of March 2020, everything, everybody was on a stay-at-home order.
And then April 3rd, I got a phone call that their dad committed suicide. I don’t know what my children to this day even still feel.
That’s when I made the decision. It’s almost like a fire was underneath me. Like, where was our next option going to be because there was no, “I’m going to keep riding this rollercoaster with my daughters,” so it’s like you hate that your first child has to go through everything with you, but that’s just how it went.
And so, it was like, “Let’s fix this because we’re not going to have the next one in the same boat, and then the next one in the same boat.”
I wanted diversity. I wanted my children to see, like, different nationalities. I wanted them to feel included. And I also wanted, like – I’m an educator, so I have an education background with early childhood, and I just wanted intentional learning experiences for my children.
I was actually unfamiliar with what a choice school was. I really didn’t have a connection. I didn’t have a source. I didn’t have anybody to say, “Do step one, two and three.” It was an emotional rollercoaster. I wanted the best for my kids, but how do I get there?
I really truly – I went down on my hands and knees praying, like I need something different for my children. And I spent days crying, trying to figure X, Y, and Z out. I kind of like did everything, and then I just, kind of like, threw my hands in the air, and I just left it to the universe. Whatever happens from here, I did my part.
And so, we did it, and we got accepted, every child got accepted, and I was like, it’s a weight that lifts off of you. Like you’ve been accepted to the choice.
I have a 10-year-old who is going into fifth grade starting tomorrow, and I have a 13-year-old who will be entering eighth grade tomorrow at St. Marcus. My son attends Martin Luther High School in Greendale.
Without Choice, I could not have afforded to send my children to St. Marcus or Martin Luther. It’s money well spent. I would agree, both as a professional, as a parent and from a personal standpoint. I couldn’t be more thankful for this opportunity.
It would just be the over-excelling academic piece that I was like, this is what they need – the challenge. And he (my son) plays sports, so for us choosing Martin Luther specifically is their academics are really high, but their sports program is really good, too.
I have seen an increase from his (my son’s) freshman report card to his ending sophomore year last year. He’s not making honor roll like his sisters, but I’ve learned to meet my child where he’s at.
He even said, one teacher that just – he’s like, “I feel like I could just tell her I’m struggling in this class,” and he’s like, “She makes the time for me.” And so, I feel like he’s also feeling that intentional learning experience.
When I came to parent night, St. Marcus had so many resources. Lutheran Family Services being here, I don’t have to take off of work, pull them out of school. That’s just one piece of it to take them to therapy because, like I said, I don’t know what they’re going through, but I need them to be healthy, focused adults that can express themselves in a healthy manner.
Once I said it out loud that they had gotten accepted to St. Marcus, people were like, “That’s such a great school. They must have their work cut out for them because St. Marcus really challenges their students.”
I feel like it’s (the educating) dedicated, it’s purposeful. You can tell that this means more to them than reporting to a job every day. It’s part of their life. And I really felt like that with their teachers.
I just really love that they (my daughters) see those gears turning, and they keep oiling them, almost, like they’re going to keep oiling those gears so that they can keep on going.
Individual attention, I feel like they’re getting structured learning environments. It’s the same. I hear from the same teachers. You know I hear the same teachers are still here.
My oldest daughter made a comment last year that she loves St. Marcus. And I said, “I love St. Marcus. Why do you love St. Marcus?”
She said, “Because I can be smart, and I don’t have to pretend.” And I was like, “What do you mean?” And she said, “I can be smart, and my friends don’t make fun of me here. I fit in.”
And I will never forget it. St. Marcus feels like it’s part of my family. It’s part of my community. We belong here. It’s just given us what we needed.
(At their former school) If I’m being completely honest, I don’t think that it was a lot of intentional learning, and the turnover was just… As a parent, I want to see the same teacher. It just makes you feel comfortable. It’s already hard to leave your child with somebody for eight hours a day, and then when you don’t see the same face, so now I don’t feel secure. My child is not going to feel secure as well, even if I’m not vocalizing that.
And so, that was a hard thing for me, and I think I just stuck it out where we were because it was just a small school, and I was like, “We can make it work. We can make it work,” until I just couldn’t make it work.
So, I feel like God works in mysterious ways. Everybody doesn’t have to believe it. Everybody doesn’t have to trust it. St. Marcus came to us for a reason. This is a little off track, but I’m Native American, and so we grew up near the reservation, and so that’s the background that I know.
And now my children are in Lutheran schools, choice schools, phenomenal. My daughter, my oldest, has said she wants to be baptized to be closer to God before she leaves St. Marcus because it’s just left that impact on her, and my son said, his senior year, he’s like, “I’m going to ask my math teacher to be my sponsor.”
I was very nervous sending them to religious schools with that not being anything that I was familiar with. Very spiritual is how I grew up. It’s just the Creator and natural earth medicines, very homeopathic.
In my parenting, I wanted my children to find their own religious path, so the fact that my daughter was like, “I want to be closer to God,” like she cites her favorite scripture and they pull out their Bibles, and they’re like, “I bet you can’t find this one,” and they’re racing through their Bible.
It has not been easy. It has not been an easy story to tell. I feel like I’ve had a rough journey here in Milwaukee, but I didn’t let my journey determine my outcome. I kept pushing through, and it has been great for us.
I always say this, if we’re the same person we were five years ago, are we growing? And so, I should be able to talk about those things not for attention and for all these other things, because I don’t know who I’m helping on the other end of the spectrum.
Most of the friends that I have made in my time here in Milwaukee have little kids, like newborns and one year old. And I would hope that they would choose St. Marcus as a school, given the opportunity to get a choice seat, because of my story.
And I think that that has brought me closer to God, so when I say that I believe that God brought St. Marcus to us, that He knew that we needed it, that’s what I mean.
This is an edited synopsis of a longer interview. Some quotes have been moved in order to help the narrative flow.