Heartlander Magazine | Emily Johnston
A trio of private, religious schools in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, has been closing the academic achievement gap for inner-city kids who attend the school largely using vouchers. HOPE Christian Schools operates three private schools—the Prima and Fortis K-8 schools, and a high school. The schools hold tight to their Christian identity.
“The real secret to HOPE’s success is love,” said Jamie Luehring, principal of HOPE Prima. “HOPE teachers are in this trade because they love God, and they love their students. For faculty members, HOPE is a calling, not just a job.”
Three Core Promises
HOPE stands for the organization’s key message: Hold Onto the Promises Everywhere. The schools teaches three core promises: salvation through Jesus Christ, the school will help students reach college, and students will serve others and strive for excellence
HOPE schools participate in the nation’s largest and oldest voucher program, which the Wisconsin legislature expanded to all of Milwaukee County and parts of Racine County in June. HOPE’s parent company, Educational Enterprises, also operates two charter schools in Phoenix, Arizona.
Author Samuel Casey Carter recently named Prima one of the top 12 schools in the country. His book describes the school’s academic accomplishments and culture.
“Maybe the greatest lesson coming out of HOPE is that the willingness to love is also a habit that a community can learn and cultivate,” Carter wrote.
Closing Achievement Gaps
Ninety-six percent of HOPE students are eligible for free or reduced school meals, a common measure of poverty. Nearly all are African-American, and nearly all also receive vouchers.
New HOPE students typically perform below average on math and reading exams. At Prima, new students performed 7 percentile points below the Milwaukee public school average in math and 16 percentile points below average in reading. Incoming students at Fortis performed even worse.
This trend reverses after students attend HOPE for two to three consecutive years. Fortis was the only HOPE school with scores below the Milwaukee average in the most recent tests, but it significantly shrank the gap from 32 percentage points below average in math to 4 points below. On every other test, HOPE students performed above their contemporaries. Prima students performed 26 percentage points above the average in math.
Last year, students completing their second year in a HOPE school averaged three and a half years of educational growth since attending.
While local public schools spend $14,863 per student, annual tuition at HOPE is $6,442, the extent of Milwaukee’s vouchers.
The HOPE Organization was founded in 2000. Two years later, the first HOPE school, Prima, opened its doors to 49 students, grades K-4, in Milwaukee’s Amani neighborhood. In 2004, HOPE opened a high school in the Harambee neighborhood. The first year, 108 freshmen enrolled. In 2005, Fortis opened in the Riverwest neighborhood, with 76 students in grades 5-8 its first year. Prima and Fortis have expanded to K-8 schools that feed into HOPE’s high school.
“Enrollment at HOPE’s grade schools has grown by about 30 percent each year for the past four years, from roughly 245 students in 2007-2008 to 700 students in 2011-2012,” said Wendy Greenfield, HOPE’s vice president of development and communications. Currently, 320 students attend the high school.
HOPE expects continued growth in enrollment, projecting 1,100 elementary students and 250 high school students enrolled by 2015, Greenfield said.
HOPE’s vision statement emphasizes its dedication to expanding and “developing a network of schools that provide a Christian education that is genuinely transformational for our students.”
Part of this expansion involves integrating new technology to increase student learning while decreasing costs. A sister school in Arizona is piloting its first hybrid model, which combines digital learning with traditional classroom instruction, this fall. Greenfield said the schools anticipate incorporating more technology in the future.
Successful School Structure
“Genuine Midwestern manners are proudly in evidence: Even the youngest kindergartners eagerly hold the door open for you. In fact, every classroom has posters reminding students to HYSTEP it, that is, say hello, yes, smile, thank you, excuse me, and please,” Carter said.
Teachers frequently incorporate songs and chants into lesson plans to add energy and help students retain information.
“Learning your math facts is necessary. Rapping your math facts is fun,” Luehring said.
Students spend 90 to 120 minutes every day learning math and English. For two-thirds of this time, teachers give lessons to full classes by grade. Students spend the remaining time learning at their individual level.
“The flexibility of this program allows struggling students to work side-by-side with their peers, helping them through challenges and keeping them focused on success,” said Dr. Andrew Neumann, president of HOPE Christian Schools and Educational Enterprises.
‘Everybody Is Striving for Excellence’
HOPE teachers receive regular training on classroom management and instructional strategies. All teachers are available to students 24 hours a day by phone, Neumann said, to promote student-teacher interaction and eliminate student excuses for failing to complete assignments. Teachers and administrators expect students to arrive at school on time, in uniform, with their homework completed, Luehring said.
“A love for teaching is not only encouraged, it’s required at HOPE,” said Prima teacher Liz Hochtritt. “To teach in an environment where everybody is striving for excellence is exciting. Even when we have success in the classroom or in the school, nobody rests. Instead, we all ask, ‘How can we do this better?’”