An Oasis in Satan’s Backyard

Published May 1, 2004

When Tim McNeill held a neighborhood meeting in Milwaukee’s Metcalf Park to discuss his proposed Hope Christian School, one parent warned him against it.

“This is Satan’s backyard,” she said. “You don’t want to do that here.”

True to his upper Midwest Lutheran roots, that parent’s despair only steeled McNeill’s resolve.

In 1999, enrollment in Wisconsin’s Lutheran schools was dwindling. Although some schools continued to thrive, enrollment had become tougher and tougher to maintain in Milwaukee’s newly competitive private school market. The directors of the Lutheran schools, however, were convinced their system worked, and they wanted to make a statement.

After poring over Census tract data, they decided to open a new school in Metcalf Park, the roughest of Milwaukee’s neighborhoods. The unemployment rate is 32 percent. Forty-two percent of adults 25 and older don’t have a GED or a high school diploma, and 67 percent of the children live below the poverty line. Drugs, violence, and other crime are commonplace. Despite those demographics, McNeill was undaunted.

“We can do better than this. There are no excuses for children failing,” he said. “You teach children by any means necessary.”

After splitting his time in 2000 and 2001 between teaching at his old school and raising money for the new school, McNeill was determined to open Hope Christian in 2002. Several hurdles still loomed: He didn’t have teachers, students, or a building. Most Metcalf Park buildings were built around the turn of the twentieth century; getting them up to code would cost thousands of dollars the Lutheran schools just didn’t have.

In February 2002, they found a suitable building, but zoning ordinances prohibited them from opening a school in it. Over the next four months, McNeill negotiated with the realty company and the city, and on July 15 the city endorsed the deal with a change to the building’s zoning. By leasing the building, Hope Christian would get a school, the realty company would have an occupant, and the city would continue receiving property taxes.

In May 2002–while negotiations with the city and the realty company continued–McNeill started recruiting students and teachers. He hoped to have 60 students in three classes: first grade, second grade, and a combined third/fourth grade. He walked the streets, going door to door, talking with families and distributing leaflets. When interested parents called, he personally visited them. Ironically, his biggest obstacle was being able to offer only grades one to four.

With all the drugs and crime in Metcalf Park, McNeill looked for several qualities in his teachers. They needed to be emotionally well centered, and they needed to be stable in their own lives. Complicating his teacher recruitment, he could offer starting salaries above the starting salaries in the Milwaukee public schools, but he couldn’t keep pace with the district’s raises. Nevertheless, he was able to hire three teachers and three teachers’ aides. Two administrators rounded out the school’s staff.

In August 2002, Hope Christian School opened its doors to 54 students–52 with vouchers and two former charter school students for free, because a state snafu made charter students ineligible for the voucher. This year three of the school’s 126 students are in the same situation.

Without prompting from him, McNeill’s teachers are at school by 6:45 a.m. and often stay until 5:00 p.m. On the weekends, they take their students to museums, the zoo, and other field trips. Those extra efforts illustrate McNeill’s education philosophy: “If the kids fail, it’s the teacher’s fault.”

When asked why he’s put himself through this wringer, McNeill admits to moments of doubt. But he remembers times in his own life when someone was there to extend a helping hand.

“I get the feeling that the people in Metcalf Park don’t want a handout, they just want a hand up,” he says. “Someone needs to offer them opportunity and hope.” And Tim McNeill is determined to do just that.

Royce Van Tassell is executive director of Education Excellence Utah. His email address is [email protected].