RACINE — A group has come to Racine Unified School District in the hopes of establishing a new K-5 charter school, Racine Leaders Academy.

There’s one primary thing RLA’s board, which includes several retired RUSD educators and Police Chief Art Howell, wants to provide to local parents: “Choice.”

“The simple act of choosing ‘This is where I want my child to be’” can make a big difference in encouraging parents to engage with education, according to Milton Thompson, who is a member of the proposed school’s board board and its proposed director.

“We want to add this (RLA) to that buffet of choices (within RUSD) … focused on the experience of black and brown students,” added Devin Anderson, RLA’s treasurer and co-chair of NAACP Racine Branch’s education committee. “We think we can do something different, and we think we can do something better.”

Leaders of RUSD and the teachers’ union are skeptical.

“I think they’re very well intentioned, so I feel like it’s incumbent on us as the educational experts to help them along that path,” said Angelina Cruz, president of Racine Educators United.

Racine Leaders Academy is still a glint in the eyes of its planners. There isn’t a location picked or a tentative school year when it could be up and running. First, they need to get approval from RUSD, then apply for a Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction grant before anything else can come together, Anderson said.

The plan would be to start with two kindergarten classes and a first grade, then add one grade each year until RLA is K-5. Students who apply would be admitted to the school through a lottery system.

Making tough choices

Racine Unified has a School Choice program through which parents can apply for their kids to be enrolled in certain schools — like the STEAM-focused Red Apple Academy, Walden III or Gilmore Fine Arts — instead of automatically enrolling in their neighborhood school.

But Thompson says that’s not enough. As a charter school, Racine Leaders Academy would have its own board that would function independently of Racine Unified with its own curriculum and instructional strategies, although funding would still come via taxpayer dollars.

RUSD doesn’t have any charter schools right now. Its last charter school, Racine Civil Leaders Academy, closed in 2017 due to low enrollment. Despite the similarity in names, Racine Civil Leaders Academy and Racine Leaders Academy aren’t directly affiliated.

When members of RLA’s board went before the Racine Unified School Board on July 1, they got some pushback from leaders of the teachers’ union.

Ryan Knudson, vice president of REU, didn’t appreciate how one of RLA’s board members represented RUSD in an email that was later forwarded to members of the union. One sentence in the email, that Knudson read during the July 1 meeting, said: “Many of you know that public schools here (in Racine) for the most part are not meeting the mark of the most basic curriculum.”

That’s a reputation that RUSD is looking to change, and also is a reputation that Knudson and Cruz believe to be inaccurate — after receiving a failing cumulative grade on the state’s report card the year prior, Racine Unified’s overall grade improved to 58/100 after the 2017 school year and cumulatively “meets few expectations” two years in a row, according to DPI.

In response to that email, Knudson said: “Nothing could be further from the truth. There are students here who are wildly successful in our schools.”

“There’s some rhetoric going around about our public schools not meeting the needs of our kids with our curriculum. I think that’s very much a false narrative,” Cruz added.

Anderson said he didn’t want Racine Leaders Academy to appear to be a condemnation of Racine’s public schools.

“Most of us went to RUSD. We want to see this district succeed,” said Anderson, who attended Racine Unified schools throughout his childhood and graduated from Park High School in 2014; Thompson is a Horlick graduate.

Still, RUSD’s reputation has pushed some parents to seek educational options outside of traditional public schools.

A Journal Times report found that many parents who send their kids to private or voucher schools do so because they didn’t want their children to go to a public school.

Craig Hansen of Racine said he sends his kids to Renaissance School in Mount Pleasant after hearing “many stories of unruly and violent students” at RUSD’s schools.

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Caroline Gabellini told The Journal Times in January that she sent her son to Our Lady of Grace Academy not only because of the religious connection, but also because of the small class sizes.

“I had my heart set on private school,” she said.

To keep parents from abandoning public schools, Thompson said charter schools could offer a solution.

“If you can create good public charter schools, why would somebody go to a private charter school?” wondered Thompson, who has previously worked in Racine Unified and Kenosha Unified, and helped establish 21st Century Prep Academy.

“Here’s the thing people haven’t caught onto, and it’s this: We’re in a consumer age,” Thompson continued. “You can buy anything. People are driven as consumers. But then when they hit schoolhouse door, we say ‘This is how the way your kid is going to be educated. We don’t want you to have choice.’”

With RLA’s planned emphasis on underprivileged students, Thompson said the school would provide choice to families who previously didn’t have much control over where their kids were enrolled.

“Somebody who has money, they say ‘I’m done with you (public schools). I’m sending my kids to Prairie or St. Cat’s’ … Charter schools can simulate the same opportunities for people who don’t have money, that people who have money have.”

State level

“We have to fully fund our public schools, and we have to make sure voucher schools are accountable and transparent, not just for kids and parents, but for Wisconsin taxpayers, too,” he said in a statement.

But the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction that Evers previously headed seems to be moving in the other direction, in part because of the reception of federal funds. On June 6, DPI announced $7 million in federal funds was being directed “to plan, open, or expand charter schools in the state.”

Last month, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Carolyn Stanford Taylor said: “Charter schools are one way for educators to innovate and engage the wide range of students in our communities.”

An NAACP connection

Cruz pointed out during the July 1 meeting that the national NAACP called for a moratorium on charter schools in 2016. The NAACP’s resolution called for members to focus on “eliminating the severe racial inequities that continue to plague the education system” and to make sure “public funds are not diverted to charter schools at the expense of the public school system.”

RLA isn’t directly affiliated with the NAACP. However, Anderson is a member and so is Beverly Hicks, a retired RUSD teacher who is president of the charter school’s board.

Cruz shares a concern with the national NAACP, worrying about the cost of establishing a new school.

“I think that’s a dangerous road to head down at this point, given our budget constraints and trying to build the confidence in the community back up into our public schools,” Cruz said.

Thompson dismisses the narrative that charter schools hurt public schools because of cost.

“It wasn’t a matter of taking money from public schools and giving them to charter schools,” Thompson said. “Instead of using the straw man argument that charter schools take away money from public schools, school districts can sponsor charter schools.”

“You can buy anything. People are driven as consumers. But then when they hit schoolhouse door, we say ‘This is how the way your kid is going to be educated. We don’t want you to have choice.’” Milton Thompson, Racine Leaders Academy board member

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