Editor’s note: This story is the fifth in a six-part series.

MILWAUKEE – At first glance, Young Minds Preparatory School appears to be just an ordinary elementary and middle school.

school choice seriesThe long hallway that leads from the school’s entrance to its central office is brightly decorated with student art, much of it depicting inspirational figures from history. It’s a decorating technique used in many American schools to prepare students for learning.

The first indication that something unusual is happening at Young Minds Prep is found on a little sign displayed at the end of the hallway: “It is EXPECTED that everyone is present for prayer. It just starts the day on a great foot!”

That simple sign reflects the mission of Young Minds Prep Founder Tracy Laster, who also serves as a teacher and the school’s principal. Laster started the private K-8 Christian school in 2005 not only to provide students with a quality education, but also to change lives, homes and neighborhoods throughout inner-city Milwaukee.

The school is attempting to do this by promoting Christian principles, which is where the daily prayer meeting comes in.

“The staff prays as a unit every single day, and the kids join in that prayer with us,” Laster tells EAGnews. “We begin and end each day in prayer with students.”

It’s a large gathering. The school has 15 staff members and more than 250 students, all of whom attend through the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, the voucher system that was established in 1990. The student body is predominately African-American.

While it’s too early to track how many Young Minds Prep alumni will succeed in college and beyond – the school’s inaugural students are still in high school – Laster says her staff can already see the difference the school is making in students’ lives.

“We expose children to the word of God so they can be changed,” she says. “We have truly, truly, truly watched children come in angry, violent and hostile, and have watched them become loving and kind. It’s what I’m most proud of.”

A quality private education for everyone

Ina Johnson is the mother of one of those changed students.

Johnson says her son, Elijah, began attending Young Minds Prep as a second-grader, after it became clear his charter school didn’t know what to do with him.

“The other school wasn’t taking the time to help him,” Johnson says. “I picked him up from school almost every day because he was getting into trouble.”

Johnson says Young Minds Prep’s religious values were not the reason she chose the school for her son, but acknowledges that Biblical principles have played “a positive role” in helping improve his behavior.

Young Minds Prep provided Elijah, who is now an eighth-grader, with counseling and a supportive atmosphere.

“The teachers are used to him,” Johnson says. “They pull him aside and talk to him (when he gets out of line). At the other school, he would be suspended. They weren’t willing to give him a chance.”

Johnson says her son still struggles with “maturity issues,” but she is happy with the progress he has made during his time at Young Minds Prep. Johnson is so pleased with the school that she tells her friends to consider it for their children.

“I’ve recommended quite a few people to Ms. Laster,” she says.

That’s a very key point. In Milwaukee and Racine, ordinary people with limited incomes can actually consider private, religious schools for their children. Traditionally such schools are mainly accessible to wealthy families that can afford the tuition.

That’s the unique and special benefit that private school voucher programs offer children and their families.

Higher expectations

The religious training at Young Minds Prep helps create student harmony, which is essential to the school’s approach to academics. Students begin their daily schedule in their homeroom class – where they do a Bible study – but then move on to academic classes where they are grouped with other students of similar ability, regardless of age.

The high school-like system has students changing classes throughout the day. Placing older, struggling students in a class with younger, more advanced students might present behavioral problems in many K-8 schools, but Laster says it works at Young Minds Prep.

Students seem to agree.

Eighth-grader Corey Winters is in his fifth year at Young Minds Prep, and he still appreciates the school’s positive atmosphere.

“This school is more controlled and has less chaos. It has higher expectations,” Winters says, comparing it to his former school.

“It’s nice and calm,” agrees fifth-grader Justice Kruel, who started at Young Minds Prep this past August. “It’s a good school.”

In addition to the usual subjects, the school teaches students the basics of financial literacy through the use of the popular “Cashflow” board game, which emphasizes investing and accounting techniques. Laster believes those are important life skills for students to have, especially those coming from low-income backgrounds.

One former student who is now a high school junior told Laster that the financial lessons he learned at Young Minds Prep have carried over into his high school career, and that he’s working toward a future career as a business owner.

A lasting influence

The school only offers classes through the eighth grade, but Laster’s influence follows the kids into high school.

“When eighth-graders leave – because we know our students very well – we hand-pick schools that we think they would do well in,” Laster says.

Students are given three high school recommendations. Many families act on those recommendations because they’ve come to trust Laster’s judgment.

Laster says it’s difficult to find suitable high schools for her eighth-grade boys. She believes African-American high school boys need a Christian learning environment in order to improve the condition of Milwaukee’s families and neighborhoods.

She is considering opening an all-boys high school, though it remains cost-prohibitive for now.

“If boys were in this school from kindergarten through twelfth grade, we know their lives would be changed,” Laster says.

And changing lives is the reason Young Minds Preparatory exists in the first place.

Laster says several former students have such a strong connection with the school that they stay in contact with her. One former student volunteers at Young Minds Prep every Wednesday and often tells current students that they don’t know how good they have it.

In case students need reminding, there’s another message located in the school’s brightly decorated main hallway. It’s painted in large letters above the doors and is visible as students, teachers and visitors leave the building: “Blessed as we go.”

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