A Milwaukee mom’s take on why more parents need educational choice
Elita Williams is the heart of a bustling home in Milwaukee’s Sherman Park neighborhood. She and her husband preside over a household of six children plus extended family, three dogs and a cat. In addition to managing the comings and goings of her active family, she’s a teacher’s assistant at nearby Milwaukee Math and Science Academy. “I’ve been working with the second-graders for about six years now. And I love my job. I love working with the kids,” she says.
The children in her blended family of three boys and three girls are ages 6, 8, 9, 10, 13 and 14. All attend Milwaukee College Prep, a K3-8 public charter school open to all children who live in the city of Milwaukee.
Elita’s oldest child, Brielle King, will be a freshman in the fall at Milwaukee Lutheran High School through the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program. Brielle likes to play volleyball, dance, write and do a little math. She’s a bit uncertain about what high school will be like. “I’ve gone to Milwaukee College Prep from K4 to eighth for my entire life, so switching is going to be something new for me. But hopefully, it’ll be OK,” she says.
Elita and Brielle recently sat down for a Q&A with veteran journalist Marilyn Krause to talk about the benefits to their family of being able to choose a school and education program for the children and the key role the choice program plays in providing access and funding to attend a private school.
Q: Elita, what made you choose to enroll your children in a charter school (Milwaukee College Prep) rather than traditional public schools?
Elita: I was actually introduced to Milwaukee College Prep by the kids’ dad. His niece and nephew went there. I was young and inexperienced as a mom, so I relied a lot on his side of the family during that time. My mom and dad were both living out of town, so it was really just me learning and coasting and trying to figure it out.
Q: Why do you think it’s important for parents to be able to choose where their children attend school or to have impact on their education — what they’re learning and how they’re learning it?
Elita: I think because everybody deserves a chance to actually do something for their children or at least feel like they’re doing something that’s best for them.
Q: Could your children have an education similar to what they have at Milwaukee College Prep without having access to a charter or choice school? If so, would you have been able to afford the cost?
Elita: My children have never been in a regular public school, so I have no comparison. But I would not be able to send them to a school with this type of education without the choice program. I probably would not be able to afford anything other than a public school because my income is on the low end.
This has been such a blessing. It started with Brielle in K4 when her father enrolled her. Once she was there, we knew the other children in the family could go there, too. (Note: At Milwaukee College Prep, siblings of current students have preference in enrollment.) It all fell into place. But location definitely played a part, too. Everything was in one place — a one-stop shop in the morning. I could take my youngest son to daycare; the other kids went to class and then had a YMCA after-school program.
Right now, I have the perfect school for my kids. They are doing well academically, they are in sports and they are encouraged to be involved in other extracurriculars.
Q: What do you think your children gained that they might not have if you hadn’t been able to choose where they go to school?
Elita: I believe they gained structure for one thing. And when they first started, they learned the mission statement (Knowledge plus character pave the road to college and beyond). It was so positive and so uplifting, so I think that plays a part in their characteristics now. You’ll hear my son, who is 10, say, “Mom, if you can’t make a mistake, you can’t make anything.” You know? So, it’s like, oh, OK. They’re teaching them different ways of looking at certain things in life, and I think it’s showing in their everyday activities.
Brielle: Something I like about school is the teachers because they — they teach me. They teach me to write stuff, but they also look at it from, like, at the end of the day, we’re still human. We still have emotions. The Declaration of Excellence also helped me, with a lot of positive stuff that I can look at every day. And every day, I walk in there knowing I’m going to always be able to go to somebody if I need someone to talk to.
Elita: Something else is that their artistic abilities have blossomed. I’m an artist — I do hair when I’m not at work, but I also draw and paint. They come home and show me all the different things they do in school. Anything that has to do with creating something, I’m all for it because that’s expression. Some of the pictures that come home are, like, “Whoa! Where did you get that from?” But I’ll still take those, too, because I can understand what this little 8-year-old is trying to tell me. You know what I mean?
Q: Right now, we do have access to parental choice in Milwaukee and Wisconsin, but it’s kind of limited.
Elita: There are a lot of parents who would like to be able to have alternatives in parochial schools or in charter schools, and they just don’t. I actually know a couple of people right now whose children are going to or are supposed to go to high school, and they don’t have that choice. They don’t have a place to go, and school is starting soon. So, the choice program is definitely something to share the news about.
Q: Brielle, did you have any say in the choice of where you would go to high school?
Brielle: Yes, I picked my schools. All the schools that I wanted to go to I got accepted to. So, either way, I was happy because I know not a lot of people can get what I did.
Q: So, why did you choose Milwaukee Lutheran?
Brielle: I feel like it has a lot of opportunity for me. They have a good volleyball team; I looked at the players. And I can kind of see that it won’t be hard, I can just feel a little bit of comfort about going there. I feel like I fit there.
Elita: I honestly went with whatever she went with because I am new to the high school game. I wasn’t doing research on high schools until recently. So, I went in kind of blindly, trying to scope it out and see what’s a good fit.
Q: What do you think high school is going to be like?
Brielle: I think high school is going to have a lot of tests and a lot of subjects. I feel like that’s the part that I’m most anxious about. But other than that, I feel like there will be more responsibility, more teachers wanting you to know to do stuff by yourself and get independent because after that, you’re 18. In Milwaukee College Prep, I was used to one way of teaching and one way of tests and work. Now, I don’t know what to expect. I don’t know how they teach. I’m mainly concerned about how many topics and subjects I’m going to have. But I know it’s going to be more and different from Milwaukee College Prep.
Elita: It’s kind of overwhelming a little bit, right?
Elita: It is for me, too. I had to chime in because she’s like me. We like to prep and know all the details. So, I’m like, did I do an injustice by keeping her in just one school all these years, from K4 all the way through? She’s the first one out. So, this is new and foreign.
Q: What would you want other parents to know about your experience with your children’s schools and navigating the choice process?
Elita: Just to stay focused, check out all of the options and start early. My downfall is always technology. The minute you tell me to download something, I’m just like, you know, panicking.
But if you have the right guidance and the right mentors around you, that helps a lot.
And just to not procrastinate because the time just goes so fast, and you want to make sure you take advantage of that opportunity for your child. You don’t want to sit back and let that pass you by.
This is an edited synopsis of a longer interview. Some quotes have been moved in order to make the narrative flow. A brief portion of her remarks are also included in this video.
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 such as Milwaukee College Prep and private schools such as Milwaukee Lutheran 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 and the American Federation for Children) advocating for funding parity.
Here is enrollment information for Milwaukee College Prep, which is open only to students who are residents of the city of Milwaukee, and for Milwaukee Lutheran High School, for the 2023-’24 school year. Both schools maintain a waiting list as needed.