Racine’s most popular ‘parental choice’ school tailors its program to students

January 23, 2013

Ben Velderman Ben Velderman

Ben was a communications specialist for EAG from 2010 until August 2014. He is a former member of the Michigan Education Association.
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Editor’s note: This story is the third in a six-part series.

RACINE, Wis. – They didn’t know it at the time, but a lot of future Racine parents got a lucky break about 20 years ago when Frank Trecroci became fed up with public education.

school choice seriesTrecroci, then a middle school vice principal, was attending a board of education meeting when another round of tiresome labor issues came up. The discussion centered on a variety of petty grievances filed by teachers against administrators.

Most of the grievances were related to simple violations of the local teacher union contract.

“I was listening to the nonsense and getting more and more frustrated,” Trecroci recalls. “I finally stood up and said, ‘You people aren’t serious about educating children,’ and I quit right on the spot.”

By the time he got home that night, Trecroci decided to open his own school – one that maximized the potential of every child by tailoring the curriculum to individual interests and abilities. It would be a radical departure from the one-size-fits-all approach used by the “sausage factories,” which is Trecroci’s term for traditional public schools.

After gaining his wife’s approval and taking out a second mortgage on their house, Trecroci created Pleasant Prairie Childcare Center, a pre-kindergarten and Head Start school in Kenosha. The school opened its doors in September of 1995 and was an immediate success with families eager to find something better for their kids.

Enrollment grew rapidly and the school moved to a larger building three years later. The school – which was renamed the Pleasant Prairie Renaissance School – caught the attention of then Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson, who awarded Trecroci a $1.2 million grant to create a “model early childhood center of excellence” for the community.

In 2002, Trecroci opened another early childhood school –Mount Pleasant Renaissance School – located in Racine.

When Gov. Scott Walker and the state legislature created the Racine Parental Choice Program in 2011, Mount Pleasant Renaissance School expanded and become a full-service elementary school offering classes from pre-school through fifth grade.

Today Mount Pleasant Renaissance is the most popular school in parental choice program, serving 140 students with another 100 on a waiting list.

It’s probably safe to say that all 240 of those kids (and their parents) are just as tired of the “sausage factories” as Trecroci was on that fateful night roughly 20 years ago.

‘A challenging way to educate kids’

Mount Pleasant Renaissance students come from a variety of backgrounds, but they all have one thing in common – they are all from families that fall within 180 percent of the federal poverty level, which means they all qualify for the free and reduced lunch program.

The school also has students who struggle with learning disabilities, though the staff is reluctant to label students as having emotional or behavioral disorders. They leave those types of inhibiting labels to traditional public schools, and instead focus on getting all students to do the best they can do.

“We’re not in the medical profession. We’re educators,” Trecroci says. “We don’t want to get stuck in the quagmire of behavioral bureaucracy issues. We view that as an incredible waste of time, talent and energy.”

Many students arrive at Mount Pleasant Renaissance lagging in academic achievement. MPR teachers frequently spend a considerable amount of time getting students up to speed on core subjects, but that doesn’t alter the school’s overall approach of seeking out and building upon each student’s individual strengths and interests.

“This is a challenging way to educate kids,” Trecroci admits. “It takes a tremendous amount of investment and documentation to find out what’s in their head. But the last thing you want to do is to discourage an innate ability or strength that you may have failed to observe in a student.”

For example, if the staff determines that a student has a special talent for music, they will work together to apply that musical predisposition to the rest of the curriculum. A math teacher might show how the principles behind composing a song (i.e. measures, beats) relate to the principles of mathematics.

Such methods take a lot of time and effort. They also require a staff of talented teachers who aren’t afraid of hard work, Trecroci says.

Mount Pleasant Renaissance teachers believe in the school’s mission, as evidenced by the fact that all but one of them has a child in the program.

Trecroci says he looks for teachers who “are well-rounded, balanced individuals” who can handle constructive criticism and who treasure the freedom to teach to the best of their ability.

It’s a luxury that many public school teachers don’t have.

“The tragedy of public education doesn’t just affect children,” Trecroci says. “It affects thousands of bright, intelligent young (teachers) who could have really made a difference in the lives of children but were beaten down. They were never left alone to teach.”

‘Our own corner of paradise’

Mount Pleasant Renaissance’s unique and personalized approach to education has won the gratitude of many parents.

“Many of parents approach us with tears in their eyes, thanking us for taking the time to listen to them and to figure out how their child learns academically and socially,” Trecroci says.

While many schools have difficulty getting parents involved with their child’s education, Trecroci says MPR parents are eager to help because they want to be a part of the school’s mission.

“I don’t mean to make it seem utopian, but to us it’s our own corner of paradise,” he says. “We’re all energized. We love coming here and being part of this.”

The students seem to agree. The school’s unexcused absence rate is 2 percent, a tiny sliver of the state average, and the school’s suspension and expulsion rate is less than 1 percent.

That’s not to suggest that MPR students never have behavioral problems. But when problems arise, strong teacher-parent relationships ensure that issues are quickly addressed, Trecroci says.

“We love it when there’s a problem because it allows us to identify it, fix it and move forward,” he says.

Trecroci believes his school will eventually expand and offer classes through the eighth grade. When that happens, Mount Pleasant Renaissance will probably phase out its pre-kindergarten program, though he makes it clear that students already in the program will be allowed to stay.

“We’re not giving any of our kids back to the sausage factory,” he says.

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