Riverwest Neighbors Win New Fratney School

This September, Fratney Street Elementary School will become the home of a bold initiative in innovative education. Responding to a groundswell of community support, and a carefully designed plan submitted by the “Neighbors for a New Fratney,” the School Board has designated the school a “Two-way Bilingual, Whole Language, Site-based managed Neighbor­hood Specialty school.”

On the night of January 19, seventy-five parents, teachers, and community activists braved freezing rain to show the School Board’s Instruction and Human Relations Committee their support of the proposal. After listening to seventeen people testify in favor of the plan School Board president David Cullen said, “I appreciate everyone coming out here this evening. I was surprised – with the bad weather I thought we’d come out· and see a near empty auditorium as we usually do. I think it’s a tribute to that neighborhood and the people involved in this proposal.”

The opportunity for a new program at Fratney emerged because the present staff and student body at Fratney will move in April to the newly rebuilt Gaenslen, a nearby school designed to integrate a combined population of disabled and able bodied students. Several parents and teachers who live in Riverwest began meeting to discuss how the soon to be vacated Fratney could become the home of a program which capitalized on the unique features of the neighborhood. As Marty Horning, a Riverwest parent and MPS teacher put it, “We started to dream about a school that would provide the highest quality education for all of our children, black, white, and Hispanic.

​​A Different Kind of School

The new Fratney will be built on four essential features: relying on the cultural strengths of the neighborhood, teaching all students Spanish and English, involving parents and teachers in decision-making, and basing instruction on the child-centered “whole language” approach.

Local cultural resources will be easy to find. The Riverwest community is composed of blacks, whites, and Hispanics. Over the past several years its residents have initiated cultural, political, and artistic activities notable for their diversity and vitality. Food, housing, kindergarten, and childcare cooperatives have been set up to meet basic needs and enhance the cohesiveness of the neighborhood.

Churches, block clubs, and political groups generate a lively community life. Many craftspeople and artists have made Riverwest their home.

The New Fratney proposal anticipates That the school will make heavy use of these resources: “The community can provide tutors, interesting visitors, artists in residence (paid and volunteer), financial support in fundraising campaigns, and places where students and teachers can visit and study (such as local businesses, community organizations, art galleries, and workshops.)” Denise Crumble, director of the Inner City Arts Council and a Riverwest parent for the past eight years, explained the importance of a strong school – community link this way; “I’m real concerned about stabilizing the neighborhood and helping to create a program that’s going to make parents more active in the school. I think this kind of a program goes a long way toward doing that. It builds upon the strength that already exists in the Community.”

For many parents, a key drawing card of the school will be the chance to provide their children with an integrated education without busing. As the plan explains, “The multiracial character of our neighborhood offers the opportunity to create a naturally integrated school with little busing, drawing on the diversity of the populace to enhance the educational program. The actual content of the curriculum will reflect and be strengthened by the multiracial character of the surrounding neighborhood. The development of such a specialty would be an incentive for families to remain in this neighborhood, thus stabilizing an integrated housing pattern.”

This integrated school in an integrated neighborhood will be an excellent context in which to use two-way bilingual instruction. The plan proposes that half the student body be children who speak Spanish as their first language and half be students whose first language is English. Children will learn to read initially in their mother tongue, and then be well on their way to becoming bilingual and biliterate by the end of fifth grade. Bilingual education, besides its increasing practical value, will give all students more tolerance of and appreciation for other cultures. And as Rita Tenorio, a bilingual kindergarten teacher, pointed out at the hearing, integrated bilingual education encourages a healthy interdependence. “Each child who comes into the program would have something to offer another student in that same classroom. No matter who you were, or where you came from, the child would have something, their language, that is needed by another child in the same class.

The self-esteem of all children would be enhanced in such a situation, and especially in the context of a whole-language approach which utilizes and builds on the language and experience of each child.”

“Whole-language” instruction will also be a pedagogical cornerstone of the program. According to the proposal, this means an emphasis will be placed “on using language skills — reading, writing, speaking and listening — as the means to learn and acquire language as well as a way to learn about the real world. This ‘real use’ will be valued over drills and practice exercises, not only because such use provides integrated practice in phonics, spelling, semantics, etc., but also because it shows children that language is for making meaning, for accomplishing something.”

The final key element of the new Fratney will be an approach to site-based management which gives teachers and parents substantive involvement in major decisions concerning the school. To make this possible, the New Fratney group hopes to secure funds to hire three ‘parent literacy organizers.” Besides helping parents and community members become active in all aspects of the life of the school, these organizers will “work to develop a full range of literacy activities in the school and community.” Such activities would include training classroom parent volunteers, planning cultural events that include both parents and students, and helping parents establish positive homework environments and habits at home.

Overcoming Obstacles

From the outset, most school board members were warmly supportive of the efforts of the New Fratney group. Nevertheless, the group had to contend with substantial obstacles in order to win MPS approval of the plan. 

One serious objection to the proposal came from parents and community members associated with the new Gaenslen school. Strongly committed to a Gaenslen which would integrate disabled and able bodied students, they were worried that a new attendance area specialty at Fratney would entice many neighborhood students and thereby turn Gaenslen into an inadvertently segregated facility containing mostly disabled students. New Fratney advocates were able to reassure this group by pointing to the demographic realities of the school age population in the area. Because of inadequate space in existing neighborhood schools, over 2,6(X) students in the Fratney Street district and the six adjacent districts are bused out to other schools. Thus there should be plenty of students to fill up both the new Fratney and the new Gaenslen. 

Another problem arose because MPS had originally planned to turn Fratney into an “Exemplary Teaching Center.” The staff at this center was to be comprised of “master teachers” with master degrees and at least ten years teaching experience. Their job would have been to work with MPS teachers who were having classroom difficulties and were brought in for 2 and 1/2 week long training sessions. The administration was interested in combining this plan with the New Fratney proposal, but the New

Fratney group saw the two proposals as fundamentally incompatible. The school board may in part have been swayed in favor of the community proposal by the fact that a teacher training center could be implemented at any building in the school system while the New Fratney proposal can only unfold as envisioned at its present site.

The Future 

Exhilarated by their hard fought victory, members of “Neighbors for a New Fratney” are beginning to grapple with the difficult challenge of organizing an entirely new school from the ground up. Their desire to see the school open in September of 1988 can only be realized if they establish a strong working relationship with Dr. Faison and the MPS administrators directly responsible for implementation of the program. A mountain of work lies between the School Board’s approval of the initial plan and the actual opening of the school. A principal, an entire staff, and a student body must be recruited. A curriculum and a system of school governance must both be created. Substantial building improvements are also needed.

The members of Neighbors for a New Fratney face this mountain of work with some trepidation, but also with a sustaining vision of a very different kind of school. In a letter of support to the School Board, Dan Grego, director of Shalom High School, eloquently summed up the potential value of the New Fratney: “Here in one package you have everything that studies have shown to be necessary for the creation of a truly effective school, dedicated and empowered educators, concerned and involved parents, site-based management in an integrated neighborhood. If the parents and teachers of every school would be so organized and enthusiastic, Milwaukee Public Schools would become the best in the country.”

Sue Bietila is a parent and resident of the Fratney School attendance district and David Levine is a Milwaukee Public School teacher of English at Shalom High School.