Statistics made happily real

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel | Patrick McIlheran

A new report says students in Milwaukee ‘s private choice high schools are much more likely to graduate: Such schools had a graduation rate of 85% last year, compared to 58% in the Milwaukee Public Schools.

In flesh-and-blood terms, that means Babatunde Saaka unexpectedly has a future.

The figures are the latest from what is now a five-year report by University of Minnesota sociologist John Robert Warren. Milwaukee students using vouchers are pulling farther ahead. If 2003’s MPS freshmen had done as well in 2007 as students in choice schools, there’d be 1,517 more high school graduates in Milwaukee.

That’s a theoretical number. In life, graduation is more concrete – do or don’t, succeed or fail.

Saaka once expected to fail. When the Milwaukee teen graduates from the HOPE School this weekend as part of its first graduating class, he will be the first in his family merely to make it through high school. A young man who grew up in fatherless poverty, he’s going on to Wisconsin Lutheran College, planning to become a youth counselor, to make a difference for other poor children.

He credits HOPE, a Lutheran school on N. King Drive, for turning around his life.

Saaka’s two brothers and a sister, all older, had been thrown out of high school. He says that when he started at the same school in the Mississippi town to which his family had moved, teachers expected the same of him. Instead, his mother sent him north to Milwaukee, where one of his brothers lived, and through the choice program, he enrolled at HOPE. “Honestly, it was the best decision I ever made,” he said.

The school is rigorous, with extra time for math and reading. Another graduating senior, Rayshawn Hamler, says he breezed through an MPS middle school without trying. HOPE was the first time he found school hard.

“Before I came to HOPE, I didn’t really care about school. It was like, ‘Whatever,’ ” Hamler said. He had no expectation of graduating. No one in his family had. With a father in and out of jail, he’d grown up poor, often hungry. He had a notion he’d play pro basketball.

Now he’s got three years of Latin, and trigonometry, too. “I love trig,” he said. He has plans: After several colleges accepted him, he picked Wisconsin Lutheran. He’ll study business.

HOPE isn’t just rigor. “What’s cool is, you can come to school on a Saturday,” said Saaka. Students twice a month can get a couple hours of weekend tutoring, then, after lunch, they and teachers hang out. The school doesn’t just teach, it nurtures.

Students have teachers’ cell-phone numbers for homework help. “I’ve called at 10 at night,” said Hamler, and got help. That was his biggest shock in coming to HOPE – “getting comfortable with people being nice to you all the time.” It took him most of his first year to realize they weren’t after anything but his success. It was like a family, he says, one where, from the start, it was assumed you’d go to college.

Or to chapel: Both young man had little contact with religion until coming to HOPE. Both chose to go to the daily chapel services, and both credit a new-found faith for getting them through school and life. “Here, it’s different,” said Hamler.

Because it was different, both now have a chance at a better life than their parents had. Hamler looks forward to things that sound ordinary: a career in business, marrying, buying a house. Saaka feels he can be an example to his nieces and nephews by doing what is practically routine in most of Wisconsin: graduating. “That was never the standard in my family,” he said. He’s making it so.

Success can be found in MPS schools, too, and some of Hamler and Saaka’s freshman classmates left because of the school’s demands. Neither choice nor public schools have a monopoly on good results. But the persistently better graduation rates for students on vouchers – even as those students are by law all low-income while MPS students are not – suggest that choice schools are doing things worth duplicating.

And those statistics represent real lives made better. HOPE has about 230 students; all but three of its seniors have already gotten into college. Taxpayers spent about $6,500 a year per student for this result, well below what an average Wisconsin high school education costs. In the case of Hamler and Saaka, it was the price of giving them a future.

Patrick McIlheran is a Journal Sentinel editorial columnist. E-mail