Time to emulate a longtime educator’s proven methods

Alan Borsuk

What if Larry Siewert is right?
Or to put the question differently, what if things that actually work in the education of students from disadvantaged backgrounds require more than the education system generally is able to provide?
But before we get into that, let me say this: Thank you, Larry Siewert, for dedicating your life to helping thousands of young Milwaukeeans along paths that lead to success and positive values. Siewert, 72, is retiring after 49 years in two rather contrasting settings.
He was a teacher and administrator at prestigious Marquette University High School for 28 years, the last 11 of them as principal. The work presented a lot of challenges, but it mostly involved boys on their way to success. The school had resources and high expectations. The families had resources and high expectations.
Twenty-one years ago, Siewert switched gears in a big way. He and Father Bill Johnson co-founded Nativity Jesuit Middle School on the south side. Like Marquette High, the students were all boys. Otherwise, it was very different. The kids were low-income and Hispanic, from families with little academic or economic success. When it came to, say, standardized test scores, they were well behind those Marquette High kids. The school had very modest facilities and finding money was a constant effort.
Nativity started with 14 students in sixth grade and a distinctive approach: To focus the lives of the students around school to a much greater degree than is conventional. The school day was long. There were evening sessions several nights a week. There were programs on many Saturdays. Going to summer camp in northern Wisconsin was required.
Kids are shaped by the schools they go to, but Nativity wanted to exert that shaping influence a lot more than most schools. At the same time, the school made a priority of encouraging parents and their support of education.