Professor aids ‘school with a human heart’

School president Jesus (Zeus) Rodriguez reads with a student at the school. The school is piloting a Spanish literacy program next year with the help of UWM faculty member Javier Tapia.

A School of Education faculty member at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee is helping a predominately Latino school develop quality educational programs for students.

St. Anthony School on Milwaukee’s South Side serves more than 1,500 students, with the majority from homes where Spanish is spoken. It is the largest Catholic school serving Hispanic students in the U.S., according to Javier Tapia, associate professor of education. Among other things, Tapia is working with the school to develop a Spanish language program.

“Up to now, all instruction in K-8 [kindergarten through eighth grade] has been done in English,” says Tapia. “Only at the high school level did students get a chance to take Spanish classes on an irregular basis.”

“I want to develop a quality school that will serve as Hispanic students’ beacon of hope.”

As a consequence, he says, many students lost the opportunity to learn to read and write in Spanish. “They don’t have literacy skills in their home language,” he says. “This places Hispanic students at a disadvantage, as an increasing number of Caucasian students in schools in Waukesha, Madison and other districts are developing bilingual skills in the primary grades.”

The goal: bilingual and biliterate

Tapia (center)with Dana (left) and Jesus Rodriguez in the school's recently opened pediatric clinic.

However, as bilingualism increases employment opportunities for students, St. Anthony officials have decided to offer a Spanish language pilot program starting in third grade, beginning in fall 2012. According to Tapia, the program will take into consideration the cultural, linguistic and academic needs of the students. In the future, Tapia expects to expand the program for more students in the school.

The move to support children in becoming bilingual came from St. Anthony’s president, Jesus (Zeus) Rodriguez. Like many Hispanic students who attended English-only instruction in school, Rodriguez did not develop bilingual skills. According to Tapia, Rodriguez had read the literature on the benefits of bilingualism and bilingual education, but he was not sure it would work with the student and staff characteristics of the school. He decided to start the project as a pilot program.

St. Anthony’s became a part of the school choice program in 1997 and has grown rapidly since then, spreading out to several campuses on the South Side. In 2003, the school had 500 students; by 2009, the number had grown to more than 1,300, and a high school was added.

While instruction has been in English at the elementary level, the school does offer support for limited-English-proficient students. Other forms of support include math and reading in fourth through eighth grade; high school students participate in extracurricular activities and in a college-motivational class, according to Tapia.

A commitment to students

He became involved in working with the school after observing the efforts of Jesus and his wife Dana in developing a quality school for Hispanic students. Dana Rodriguez, who is a doctoral nursing student and certified pediatric nurse practitioner, helped the school open a much-needed pediatric clinic on site in January 2012.

Most families served by the school are low-income – nearly 98 percent of the school’s students qualify for the free or reduced lunch program, and many students do not have health insurance.

According to Tapia, many parents see the clinic as an example of the school’s commitment to the students. “From my professional perspective, St. Anthony is developing a comprehensive program designed to address the educational and health well-being of the students,” says Tapia. This assessment in seen in Jesus’ vision: “I want to develop a quality school that will serve as Hispanic students’ beacon of hope.”

The story of St. Anthony is spreading throughout Milwaukee, says Tapia.  On March 17, Paddy’s Pub held a St. Patrick’s Day fundraiser for the school’s Padre Pio clinic, raising more than $1,300.

Tapia believes that St. Anthony will have a strong, positive impact in the Hispanic community and in Milwaukee as a whole. “Working with colleagues at UWM, community members and education officials in Wisconsin and Mexico, I will be investing the next three to five years assisting Jesus and Dana in developing a quality school for Hispanic students,” Tapia says. “They are bright and hardworking individuals committed to work on behalf of the community. They are developing a ‘pedagogy of care’ in the school which will result in high academic achievement.

“I see St. Anthony as a school with a human heart.”