An Interview with Henry Tyson
(mp3 audio)

Jim Zellmer: Henry, what is public education today? How do you define it? What does it mean?
Henry Tyson: Well, I'll tell you that's a good question because it's changing. It seems to be changing quickly. It's clearly much broader in definition and now would include really anything that receives public dollars. You could argue that, in a sense, vouchers are public funding, public education because it now pays for, in some cities and states, a vast majority of the cost of educating children. Clearly, charter schools are defined as publicly funded, even though they often operate outside of the context of traditional public school governance. Even home schooling and online schooling, there's government funding available for those things as well. A much broader definition than we had in the past.
Jim: What do we want to achieve? Given that expanding array of education (options), what should society achieve? What's your view on that?
Henry: I think the goal in the United States, and then more locally city by city, is to have an educational system that propels the economy, locally, and enables the United States to compete effectively worldwide. People disagree on how well we're doing in that, but the general sense is that increasingly our educational system is falling behind. It's to be the best because if you have the best educational system then you will be able to provide the best workers and then your economy will obviously will be more successful. That, I guess, is the goal.
Jim: OK. Let's talk a bit about your education, Henry. How were you educated and how did you get from a young child to your position today?
Henry: I was blessed with a phenomenal education, which is I'm so passionate because there's no doubt in my mind that the specific schools I went to, and the high quality of the education that I got, enabled me to do what matches my gifts, and talents, and what I'm passionate about. My feeling is simple. Every single child in the United States ought to have that opportunity regardless of their race, their socioeconomic level. Everybody should have it. Even their family, whatever your family's like you still have access to a great school. I started my formal education really in the United States, moving here when I was four. Got a phenomenal foundation in the New York City public school system, and then at age seven was sent to a boarding school in England. I did 10 years in British boarding schools, which both of them were very good, very academic, very challenging.

By the time I was ready to go to college, I had decided I wanted to go to college in the United States and had set my heart on Northwestern University and was able to get admitted. I spent four years there and then decided to do work in the central city. I worked for Habitat for Humanity through the AmeriCorps National Service program.

After doing that, I was hired by Habitat to do two more years. It was during that time that I was really confronted with the reality that in Chicago, while housing was an important issue, unless we were educating kids effectively, we would be just repeating the same old cycle of kids not being able to get decent jobs and then needing specialized housing, living off welfare or whatever else.

I started to read about school reform in Chicago, which at the time was very vibrant. I decided to go back to school, got my masters of secondary education at DePaul University and then entered the Chicago Public Schools. I student taught in CPS and taught for one year at a middle school in Uptown, Chicago. Then went to the suburbs. Taught two years in a public high school in Niles, Illinois. Then moved to Milwaukee and joined St. Marcus. I've now been serving here for a decade.

Jim: Wow. [laughs] That's a fairly elaborate path for an educator, really, I mean today.
Henry: Yeah it's not where I thought I would end up. It's interesting to me in hindsight, every step of the way really helped me be prepared for what I do today.
Jim: Yeah, fascinating. What is success? Given where you are today, how do you define success with your students and staff? What is that?
Henry: Good question. Complicated is what it is. Success for students is that in eight years after they graduate eighth grade that they are productive, fulfilled members of society. That's a big part of it. We are a Christian school. We prioritize heavily on religious instruction. First and foremost, for me, it's that children understand who they are in Christ and that they know that they were created by God with gifts and talents, and for a purpose. To me, even at the K-8 level, obviously that's transformative information. When kids understand that, they step up to live very effective, fulfilled lives...despite some major obstacles in their lives.

For me, the number one success is measured by eight years later are they still living that way, as somebody who's created with a purpose, with gifts and talents, and has some purpose in life. Secondly, are they able to use their gifts and talents in a productive way. In general, we would expect a high percentage of our students to attend and graduate from a four year university, but we do have students that are better suited to a two year technical degree and then some that would choose to go right into the work force.

Although that's now a very small percentage. Even then, our city has some jobs that you can get out of high school that are effective, meaningful work that generally, though, would be accompanied by future training. Eight years on, are they living their lives in a fulfilled and effective kind of way?

That's success. Now clearly you need benchmarks every step of the way as you move through that. Before they graduate eighth grade, we would expect that every graduate is in the top 30 percent of students in the state in their core subject areas as measured by the state standardized test, which is the WKCE, ...

Jim: Right.
Henry: ...and that the eighth graders as they go into ninth grade all get placed specifically and individually into high schools that would be the best possible fit for them. Backing it up even further on a year to year basis...Are kids overcoming the behavioral, or social, behaviors that are negative, or are those being addressed? Are they growing? Are they growing in their faith and what it means to be a practicing Christian? Are they moving forward academically at a pace that no matter what their starting point, and many of our students come in very far behind, are they moving forward quickly enough to be in the top 30 percent by the time they graduate eighth grade?

That's how we would measure success for students. For staff, very oddly, very similar. Are they in a context where they're on the right seat on the bus so that they can use their God given gifts and talents to be of greatest service to the kingdom of God? That means effectively helping kids understand who they are in Christ and effectively training them to use their gifts and talents effectively.

Jim: Obviously you're tracking this because as I see behind you, you have the board of your graduates and what they're doing. Describe how you're tracking them, a bit, after they leave?
Henry: We now have an alumni coordinator who's responsible for placing every kid in the right high school. Working with the child, and when possible their parents, and then gathering data from those high schools, or colleges, for the next eight years. We're tracking now the last eight graduating classes. The oldest one was the class of 2005, who are going into their senior year in college. We're in touch with every single one of them with one exception. We can't find Kadeem Edwards, if anybody knows where he is, please call me.
Jim: [laughs] OK.
Henry: Other than that, we get the information from the high schools and then with the colleges, we literally go student by student, family by family using social media making sure we know where everybody is. We've been able to keep track of almost everybody.
Jim: Fascinating.
Henry: That's how we do it.
Jim: When you hire teachers, what do you look for? What have you learned to be effective over this past decade?
Henry: I've learned that it's most effective to train teachers in house. Our model is unusual. We have very specific pedagogical methods and beliefs. Training them in house, if you want a smooth transition for a new teacher they need to have either student taught at St. Marcus, or served as an educational assistant under and expert teacher. Increasingly we've been able to place students into yearlong internships, where they would actually be onsite for the whole year student teaching and working during the mornings on site and then taking classes in the afternoons.

Those methods are by far the most effective. Beyond that, if we can't find enough teachers who are in that pipeline we go to fairly specific training colleges. Martin Luther College in New Ulm, MN is the traditional training route for St. Marcus teachers. Now if they're from Martin Luther College, we would definitely that they [indecipherable 10:21] with a place like the Center for Urban Teaching at Wisconsin Lutheran College, which is our second main feeder.

The Center for Urban Teaching at Wisconsin Lutheran College. These are students who have been trained very specifically in a no excuses approach to education, which is the one that we adhere to. That's where we look. If we're unable to find enough teachers from those pipelines, then we look a little bit further afield for particular personality types.

People who are very high energy, have strong personalities, and bring with them a natural refusal to make excuses for themselves personally, or to make excuses for the children that they'll be working with. The fundamental philosophy that you have to have walking in the door is a non-negotiable belief that every single child can and must be successful.

When I'm interviewing candidates, we look right away for excuse making or a sense of excessive sympathy for kids who are growing up in tough circumstances, where that sympathy so easily converts to not expecting a whole lot out of them.

Jim: Right. The tyranny of low expectations, right?
Henry: Correct, correct.
Jim: What about parents? When we met the first time, you said that you have no expectations from parents, more or less. Maybe you could describe that a bit?
Henry: Yeah, I would have to retract that statement.
Jim: [laughs]
Henry: Or rephrase it. Both because it will get me into trouble, and it's not quite accurate. Clearly when we have engaged parents, we're more successful. That's sort of a no-brainer. Reality is, 90 percent of our students are low income students, predominantly African American. The reality is that many, they're family structures are dealing with all of the issues that surround people growing up in poverty. Even when you have a single mother with three kids, who may be radically committed to their children's education, she's probably working a full time job, and in some instances a job and a half.
Jim: Right, right.
Henry: Then there's three kids and she's doing that on a low income. She may be taking the bus to work. Everywhere she goes, she's got to take a bus. How do you ask a parent like that to be intricately engaged in their child's education? We have a slightly unusually approach, which is we have a doors open policy. Parents are always welcome. They can always be in the building. When it comes to actually delivering the product, we don't rely heavily on parents. The rule of thumb that we now use is, we actually have relatively low expectations for active parent participation, but we do enforce those parents 100 percent.

For example, you have to attend parent teacher conferences. If a parent doesn't show up, they've got a week to do it, and if they don't do it in a week then there are painful consequences. Either for the parent, or the child, or both depending on the age, but you have to do the parent teacher conference.

We'll make all kinds of ways to make it easy on the parent, but you have to come to the building and you have to meet with the teachers. That's a non-negotiable. Another one would be getting children to school on time and being in school. We will do anything to help a parent with those issues.

Just don't make excuses for why your child can't get to school on time, and don't keep them home for bogus reasons. Most parents don't. Ae will go to war, as you might say, with parents who aren't cooperating with those basic fundamentals. We expect parents to make sure their children do their homework. When that doesn't happen, we come up with creative solutions.

The other side of it that's sort of new for us is that more recently we have been able to increase our pastoral support for parents. We're finding new and creative ways to reach parents from a pastoral family support perspective. Now we do something called Thankful Thursdays.

Every Thursday one classroom's parents are invited to come in for a really decent breakfast, to meet with school administrators and the pastoral staff, to learn about the church and the school. Then the students come down from the class and they read a poem or they do a short song performance. Then everybody goes up to the classroom, and we do a 30-minute reading instruction class, instructing both the students and the parents...

Jim: The parents. Right.
Henry: ...on some really key reading mechanisms. We've had great response, great turnout. We're getting more parents engaged, but there are some families where we have to go it alone requiring very little, but enforcing it 100 percent.
Jim: Wow. What about expanding your model? Obviously, we have extremely large educational organizations across the country. We have small ones. Can you replicate this model? You mentioned when we met sort of this school within a school thing to then expand that way? Is that working? How will that work? Tell me about it.
Henry: Sure. Let me start small and then get bigger. Just over a decade ago we had 95 kids.
Jim: Right.
Henry: It was a big, audacious goal to build a new building and get to 300 kids. We did that, and literally instantly, we needed another building with 350 kids. We built that building. It filled instantly just this last September. Then we had hundreds of kids on waiting lists. Clearly, fundamentally there's a huge commitment not to compromise quality. When you have hundreds and hundreds of parents who are walking in, some of them, literally, sort of in tears of frustration saying, "You've got to help me." There is a obligation to figure out well, so how quickly can we grow this thing? A year ago we found ourselves with both buildings completely full, and a whole classroom of first and second graders on the waiting list.

We made room for them and admitted a third first grade and a third second grade. Now the board just last week has authorized a six-month feasibility study to look at the possibility of opening a second campus. The model that we've created is to seed that campus our parent site, train the administrators, train a core set of teachers, and then pick up those kids and move them onto a new site with the staff intact.

Then grow it from the seed school of about 200 kids up to a major school between 500 and 600 kids. The biggest struggle, frankly, isn't the money from a capital perspective. It isn't the supply of kids. It's how many teachers can we find that can do this.

Jim: Right.
Henry: This last year, because of the rate of expansion, 15 of our 23 lead classroom teachers were brand new. There were some hiccups along the way, but we had a phenomenally effective year, and our kids continued to perform at a very high level. I have now come to believe that the model is replicable. Personally, I believe that 600 to 700 kids on one campus, K through eight is as big as you should go for all kinds of reasons. The goal is ultimately to have this campus at 600 kids by moving a group of them onto a second campus, and then rolling out another campus, and beyond that a third campus.

It's really a question of how quickly can we find the teachers, and how quickly can we find buildings that we could use, acquire, and operate as quickly as possible? We're just going to keep going. On a local level highly replicable. Then I'd say, and this is why I'm such an optimist about urban education, both in Milwaukee and in America.

We're not an anomaly. There are schools public, charter and private all over our country that are with very high levels of kids in poverty achieving very high levels of success. We are not like the first trip to the moon. This would be like we'd been to the moon a hundred times. Let's go again. Let's keep going to the moon. I'm a tremendous optimist about what can be done in Milwaukee and nationally.

Jim: Great, great. You've had experience both in public and private so given the challenges you describe in the urban setting and success...Can both models succeed for these kids? What's you sense of that given your experience?
Henry: Both models absolutely can be successful, and in some cities in the United States they've been far more successful than others. Whether you are talking about charter, voucher, public, or purely private education, what we have to do is look at the models that work, and then expand and replicate them. This is where as a city historically, we've failed. We have been so caught up in a fight between the different sectors.
Jim: Right, right.
Henry: Have so failed to focus on what works that we haven't frankly, made a whole lot of progress. I'm thrilled that in the last 18 months that dynamic has changed dramatically. As a community we are focusing on the models that work. As a community, we're trying to expand and replicate them. Finally, we have a very healthy dialog between the three different sectors where we're visiting each other's schools, at least on the principal level. I'm in touch with a whole bunch of MPS principals. They're coming here. I've been to their schools. There's a much more productive dialog that's beginning to take place.
Jim: That's great.
Henry: Clearly, I think that we all understand that a single independent school, be it largely publicly funded private school like St. Marcus, can move much more quickly, can implement and change much more quickly without some of the major restrictions that a public school would have. Where it's become very dramatic, very big changes, there would need some strong political support. I personally believe that MPS has the capacity to become a highly effective educational system for our city.
Jim: Interesting, interesting. One of the things voucher schools are criticized for is the apparent lack of special education support. Can you discuss that a bit? I mean how do you address that? In your school?
Henry: I first of all say that in some senses the criticism is valid. It's valid in the sense that especially with the neediest, the absolute neediest special education students, the ones with the heaviest physical impairments that there would require for example one to one help.
Jim: Right.
Henry: MPS operates some phenomenal schools at huge expense that serves those children. Gaenslen Elementary is not far from here, and I was awed by the work that they do. They're partly able to do that work because they get a very significant amount of funding to work with those students. Whereas when we have special education students, whatever their needs, there isn't a penny in additional funding for that. It's a little hard to make the criticism that voucher schools don't effectively serve special education students when absolutely no money is provided for those services. It just doesn't make sense. The voucher amount that we operate under is $6,400. That's what it costs to Wisconsin taxpayer to send a child to St. Marcus.

To send a child to the Milwaukee public schools we debate about the number, but it's somewhere between $12,000 and $14,000, at least twice as much. Having said that I would tell you that we serve a very large number of special education students. Right now it's between 50 and 60 children have special needs at St. Marcus, almost all of which are defined, designated special needs, some of which under the current laws, can't even qualify for the designations, because of state law.

We get tremendous feedback about the special education services we provide the students. Some of them are very severe, both physical and mental specialties. We partner with a wide variety of agencies to provide those services, and we partner with MPS. We have an MPS special education instructor who comes to St. Marcus to service some of our students.

Those services are helpful, but wildly inadequate given what we then have to provide the children, because of what is not provided by the public sector. Finally, I'd say within the voucher schools, there are some like St. Marcus that provide an incredibly high level of education for a good number of special needs students.

Then there are those that really don't do very well at all. I think that's probably true within MPS also. It's a broad spectrum of services. The numbers that you read about in the media in the Department of Public Instruction likes to put out there, numbers like we serve one percent special needs students. Those numbers have clearly been proven to be wholly unreliable and wrong. I would guess that our number is closer to 11 percent or 12 percent system wide.

Jim: You mentioned your per student voucher income, but you spend additional money that's raised elsewhere through your church. Describe the total spending per student, and how you achieve that, Henry.
Henry: The voucher amount is $6,400. We spend right now about $7,800 per child. I would argue that you cannot effectively educate children in the city of Milwaukee with a high percentage that are low income for less than $7,500. The voucher amount has been at $6,400 now for about five years. It went up a little bit, and then it went back down to $6,400. People need to understand that voucher schools are trying to serve a population that is by definition lower income on $6,400. It just is very, very difficult to do. We raise about another $1,500 per child from a whole variety of different sources. What the community needs to understand is that for $7,400, not only do we provide an incredibly rigorous academic product with very strong results, but we also extend our hours of operation dramatically.

For about $7,700 per child, children have access to the building from 6:30 in the morning until 8:30 at night. We also have a Saturday school 32 weeks a year that is mandatory for some students. That's from 9:00 in the morning until 12:30 in the afternoon. We also operate for that same amount of money, a five-week summer school program, which started today, and has 315 students in it.

You're sort of getting the picture. For $7,700, you have a school building that's open from 6:30 in the morning until 8:30 at night, a Saturday school and a five-week summer school program. Well, no wonder that our kids are highly successful.

Jim: Right.
Henry: We should expect nothing less from all of our schools, because for that amount of money I believe it's achievable. I will say this, that if we don't increase the voucher amount very, very soon, it will inhibit our future growth. We cannot continue to raise $1,500 per child at our rate of growth. We will begin to cut some of these programs that are critical for student success. I don't know who's reading this, but a critical message I need to get out there to the governor, to the legislature, to the mayor of Milwaukee is that that number absolutely has to go up, or some of our strongest models in the central city will begin to decline.
Jim: Wow. Thank you very much for taking the time to chat today, Henry. That was great. Anything else that I should ask you about or share?
Henry: I don't think so. I think we've covered the gamut. I would just say maybe one final pitch is my personal conviction that Milwaukee has done an awful lot right. We have a great state. Wisconsinites are good Midwesterners. We have an incredible philanthropic community that's committed to the central city. We have a business community that's incredibly fired up to resolve these issues. What we need now is some strong political leadership to make some fairly simple changes, and some fundamental changes. My conviction is that by 2025, Milwaukee ought to have the best educational system in the United States of any major city.

One of the ways that we'll get there is when the folks in the suburbs, I mean just general people in the suburbs and throughout the community, figure out how they can help. It could be financially or it could be with their expertise. We need business, small business leaders from Waukesha and from Franklin to give a couple hours a month on a board or on an advisory committee.

If the whole community of southeast Wisconsin pulls together, we can absolutely change this, and it will do our economy a world of good, and everybody will benefit. For the general population, the message is get engaged. Come and help us out.

Jim: Great. Thank you.

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