Video: How to find a middle school
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By GreatSchools Staff
When Annie Gentil and her husband set out to register their son for a Milwaukee area public school for 2010-2011, they found the experience especially frustrating. "It has been a ridiculous process filled with poor communication," said Gentil.
As with roughly a third of Wisconsin's school districts, Milwaukee's offers separate kindergarten programs for 4- and 5-year-olds. When a "5K" teacher was laid off at the family's neighborhood school, 95th Street Elementary (GS rating 3), the Gentils' son was placed on a waiting list and eventually assigned to Emerson(GS rating 1), a school in another neighborhood across town. But Gentil admitted her situation could have been worse, as a neighbor's daughter was not admitted to any school and remained on a waiting list. "There's really no appeals process," said Gentil. "All you can do is wait it out."
Enrolling a child in a large public school district — especially one as complex and diverse as Milwaukee's — can sometimes feel like a Herculean task. But there's a method to the madness — or, at least, approaching the process methodically can prevent some of the frustration.
Researching Milwaukee schools
While you're searching for a school, it helps to begin with your community and those people who know your child. Talk to your friends and neighbors for their ideas about local schools and what makes sense for your child. After learning what you can from your community, begin a search on GreatSchools.org, browsing schools to find out more about ones you've heard about.
GreatSchools has a local program based in Milwaukee to help parents make informed choices about school, including free, local workshops and a hot line (414-297-9715). The GreatSchools Milwaukee site offers in-depth information for parents interested in enrolling their children in the area's schools. GreatSchools' Milwaukee School Chooser is a handy, exhaustive guide that outlines the choices available to parents in the clearest possible terms — including a guide to school visits and indexes of schools according to high test scores and thematic curriculum. You can download it here or pick it up at school fairs or GreatSchools workshops.
Milwaukee's schools give priority to families registering a child for their neighborhood (or "attendance area") school. Families list their top three choices, and, according to the district's website, the great majority of students get into the school they want.
School admissions are determined based on the number of kids who apply. For the 2009-2010 school year, 94 percent of new students were assigned to the school they listed as their first choice, and 99 percent got into either a first-, second-, or third-choice school.
But what makes Milwaukee's school system special — and potentially so complicated — is that there are many options beyond the neighborhood school.
Citywide specialty schools
Within Milwaukee's vast public school system, not all schools are made alike. Various "specialty schools" within the district give special attention to certain academic or extracurricular subjects.
One example of a successful specialty school is the Milwaukee French Immersion School. Focusing on intensive French-language instruction, the quality of teachers is high, and the school has received plentiful praise from GreatSchools readers.
Milwaukee has over 40 charter schools that provide another avenue for parents searching for a public option. Some are independent charter schools that are authorized by the City of Milwaukee or the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM), and some are independent charter schools that merely contract through the district, such as Carmen High School of Science and Technology and Milwaukee College Preparatory School—Lloyd Street.
About half of the charter schools in Milwaukee are more like traditional public schools with district-employed teachers, such as Fairview School or IDEAL School, but they do have an increased level of autonomy compared to other district schools.
Milwaukee has a school voucher program for low-income families known as the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), which offsets the entire cost of tution at many private schools, meaning students cannot be charged any tuition or fees related to attendance, including any required field trips. (Families can qualify for school vouchers if they earn up to 175% of the federal poverty level.) Over 100 Milwaukee’s private schools accept vouchers in lieu of tuition.
One parent, Bonnie Juettner, moved to Fox Point, Wisc., a suburb north of Milwaukee, from Kenosha, Wisconsin's fourth-largest city, in search of better schools. "I was very dissatisfied with the Kenosha middle schools," she said. The schools in Fox Point boast plentiful opportunities for extracurricular activities and allow her children to immerse themselves in foreign language and the arts.
"I was pleased that my 12-year-old could take a language every day, and that she was not penalized for doing orchestra [in Kenosha the punishment for sixth graders taking orchestra is that they don't get to take a partial quarter of foreign language]," said Juettner.
Maple Dale School, which serves grades 3 through 8, was also flexible enough to accommodate a more specialized and accelerated course load for Juettner's children. "Maple Dale-Indian Hill has customized its curriculum for my daughter, giving her the chance to take accelerated classes and even distance learning classes when it turned out that her language arts class was only covering books she had already read," she said.
And for families who can afford them, private schools are a perennial but pricey alternative. (One of the better private schools in the Milwaukee area is the University School of Milwaukee.) With an enrollment of roughly 1,000 students, the school offers rigorous academics and an impressive array of extracurricular activities.
Prepare the paperwork
Once you've decided on the school where you'd like to enroll your child, you'll need to be ready with the following documents:
Parents should bring these documents directly to their neighborhood school or take them to Milwaukee Public Schools Central Services on W. Vliet Street.
If the phrase "early admissions" conjures up scenes of savvy high school seniors applying to the nation's top colleges, it might come as a surprise that some Milwaukee middle and high schools also use early admissions as part of their school selection process. Parents interested in sending their child to a school that uses early admissions must submit an application directly to the school of their choice. (Schools usually send out acceptance letters in December.) If there's still room after early admissions, the school will offer the remaining spaces to students who apply during the regular admissions season.
One school that uses early enrollment, Riverside University High School (GS rating 3), hosts an open house so eighth graders and their parents can tour the building while learning more about the admissions process.
Prepare for tests
Some schools in Milwaukee use tests as part of the admissions process. Rufus King International School (GS rating 6), a public high school in Milwaukee, was named Wisconsin's top high school in 2003 and 2005 by Newsweek magazine. It holds an entrance test in November that measures kids' reading and writing abilities — and students need a minimum score to be eligible.