Ideas to Impact Blog

Schools as the Heart of Community

In a breakout session highlighting two exceptional educational leaders in Milwaukee, Alicia Manning, VP for Programs for The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, noted both the Foundation’s long history of supporting education reform and the Board of Directors’ insistence that education remain a top priority today. In today’s context, this requires focusing not only on policy, but on incentives for meaningful parent engagement and identifying and supporting excellent schools run by courageous leaders.

Because the latter is increasingly important as parental choice measures advance at the state level, Ms. Manning spoke with two of Milwaukee’s most impactful school founders—leaders whose remarkable results owe more to building a culture of high expectations and character than, at least to date, leveraging significant investment.

Chris Her-Xiong, Founder and Principal of Hmong American Peace Academy (HAPA), realized early on that children were not being challenged in public schools. Recounting the trials her family endured to come to America and live the American Dream, Ms. Her-Xiong became a passionate advocate for education as a means of escaping poverty. So, she built a local movement to launch a school that would emphasize character formation from the beginning. Since HAPA opened in 2000, the poverty rate in the Hmong community has dropped twenty percent, and more young women and men are seeing opportunities to grow and flourish. It’s a bit of an understatement to say that what Ms. Her-Xiong and her staff have accomplished at HAPA is attracting a great deal of attention.

Kevin Festerling, Founding Principal of Kingdom Prep Lutheran High School, taught at Milwaukee’s St. Marcus Lutheran School right out of college. With an eye toward creating the best possible school for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, Mr. Festerling looked across the country for the best models. He found that for the most heroic schools, the common denominator was high expectations— what he calls the cheapest, most innovative way to transform a whole school. So, when he saw the city’s strongest Lutheran high schools turning down hundreds of kids each year, he saw an opportunity, and he built a winning team of teachers from across the country with a profound sense of mission.

Both HAPA and Kingdom Prep buck national “teacher shortage” trends with full teaching staffs precisely by cultivating a culture of challenge, high expectations, and mission. It’s a lesson with applications far beyond the classroom.

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