Belief in student ability key to success at Milwaukee charter school

YES YOU CAN: High expectations and no excuses make the kids at Bruce Guadalupe Community School perform well academically.
Part 40 of 41 in the series Educating America

By Mary C. Tillotson |

Pascual Rodriguez said he won’t hire teachers who feel sorry for the low-income, often Hispanic students his school serves.

“Don’t come in with a passive attitude, ‘I feel sorry because you’re Latino and you’re impoverished,’” he said. “I want teachers not because they feel sorry and want to give back to the community, but because they know our kids can learn just like any other demographic in the state.”

YES YOU CAN: High expectations and no excuses make the kids at Bruce Guadalupe Community School perform well academically.

Bruce Guadalupe Community School, an independent charter school in Milwaukee, serves students from age 3 to eighth grade. The school is 97 percent Latino and 80 percent of the students’ families meet low-income requirements for free and reduced-price lunch. Though the school is not bilingual, many of the students enter speaking little or no English.

Yet the students’ test scores are competitive with wealthier schools that don’t need to teach their students English, Rodriguez said.

“Black, white, green, yellow — I’m going to treat you like you’re the smartest individual and you can learn, and I’m going to set those expectations high,” he said.

In a typical year, Bruce Guadalupe receives about 200 applications for only 30 seats in K-3, or kindergarten for 3-year-olds, and 100 to 150 applications for just 40 seats in K-4. Applicants are chosen by lottery, and any students applying later than age four have chances of “slim to none” of being accepted, Rodriguez said.

The school is planning to expand in the next few years to accommodate more students.

High expectations and a student-focused approach keep the school running and get the kids educated, he said. Teachers and administrators aren’t afraid to upset the status quo if it isn’t working.

When teachers and administrators noticed their sixth-graders had limited science skills, for example, they built a science lab for elementary students. Science scores rose, and sixth-grade science teachers could begin the year teaching at a higher level than they had been.

Students and classes have peaks and valleys in performance, he said, and sometimes all it takes is some tweaks in how the material is presented. But other times, as with the science lab, more dramatic measures are needed.

“We don’t just change on a whim,” Rodriguez said. “If it doesn’t work one year, well, let’s uncover every stone and see what went wrong.”

Since teachers spend the most time directly with the students, he makes a point to listen to them and understand their concerns before making decisions.

“I’m the lead principal here. My job is to hire people smarter than me,” he said.

For years, the school taught students one grade level ahead in math, and the system was working well.

But recently, “we were noticing that the kids aren’t getting it. The teachers were wondering, ‘What’s going on?’” Rodriguez said. “So we decided we need to go back to grade level, and it’s made a difference. Our first graders are first-grade material; our K-5s aren’t.”

It took humility, but the students’ needs took priority, Rodriguez said.

“It sounds real nice and fancy to say, ‘We teach our kids one level ahead,’ but in our circumstances, we were doing our kids an injustice,” he said.

Rodriguez has no illusions that poverty doesn’t impact students’ academics, but he refuses to lower expectations because of it.

“Poverty does have an impact. A child goes home that doesn’t have access to a computer, that is in front of TV because the parents are working — that just means we have to work a little harder and provide more services after school,” he said. “If we do that, they will perform.”

“We don’t buy the excuse that they’re poor. That’s just some other districts’ excuse to explain their test scores.”

Contact Mary C. Tillotson at

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