The notion that cultural differences are part of our national strength is the spark that conceived Atlas Preparatory Academy in Milwaukee, Wisconsin seven-and-a-half years ago.
Michelle Lukacs is one of three founders of the academy, which opened in 2001 with 23 students in kindergarten through fifth grade, with the goal of creating a truly multicultural setting. Lukacs, the school’s principal, has since led it through its expansion by one to two grade levels each year.
Atlas Preparatory now serves roughly 750 students from kindergarten through 12th grade, with 100 percent of the students benefiting from the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP).
Created in 1990, MPCP is the nation’s oldest school choice program. It currently provides vouchers to more than 20,000 low-income Milwaukee students to attend any of the 127 participating private or religious schools located in the city at no charge.
“It is important to give parents and children choices,” Lukacs said. “The choice to choose a school for your child forces all schools to strengthen and become better.”
Lukacs’ commitment to diversity runs deep. She was born in New York to a Hungarian father and Dutch mother, both of whom spoke French at home. By the time she was three years old she was fluent in English, French, and German, after her family moved to Wisconsin to live with German-speaking relatives.
Her multicultural upbringing, coupled with seven years as a public and private school teacher, guidance counselor, and principal, united in her vision of a school celebrating the multicultural heritage of its students and staff. The students come from African-American, Hispanic, Asian, interracial, white, and Native American families.
“We are very proud of our diversity,” Lukacs said. “We as adults learn to be racial, [but] through this learning environment at Atlas, these children appreciate each other’s differences, which will help prepare them for the real world, where they will work alongside people of assorted backgrounds and experiences.”
Atlas Preparatory Academy splits its school year into quarters, during which the students and staff celebrate the countries, customs, and languages of Hispanic, Asian, African, and European cultures.
Atlas senior Carlos Gamble believes his school’s diversity makes it easier to learn than in the neighborhood public school he attended five years ago before receiving an MPCP voucher.
“I have been able to connect with classmates through the cultural diversity of the curriculum,” said Gamble, 18. “After the unit on Hispanic culture, I am better able to talk to my Spanish-speaking classmates.”
Gamble recalls his struggles at his previous school, where he remembers usually skipping two classes every day. He attributes his C/D grade-point average there in part to the challenges he faced in English class and the overwhelming task of writing reports.
During his five years at Atlas, Gamble has been on the A/B Honor Roll and a member of the basketball team.
As a single mother of three, Bridgett Gamble needed to find a school that could help her son with his speech skills and ultimately equip him for a college education. After touring multiple Milwaukee schools, she selected Atlas as her top choice for him.
“I was excited for my first day at Atlas Prep,” Carlos said. “It was a fresh start with [new] teachers and students, and you can talk to the teachers here—they really care about the students.”
At Atlas, the grade levels are divided between three campuses, and the average classroom hosts about 20 to 30 students. Atlas offers special education, Title 1, and English Language Learners programs to help meet students’ unique learning needs.
“I can take a child from a rough neighborhood, and with my staff we can work wonders if we have the support and involvement of the parents—we can move mountains,” Lukacs said. “I am very proud of how much the teachers care about the kids and how much they do beyond the eight-hour workday.”
Bridgett Gamble raves about the parent-teacher communication, which is part of the Academy’s “Parents As Partners” campaign. She said she usually hears from her son’s teachers once a week to discuss his progress.
“I’m always proud to hear how he’s doing,” Bridgett said. “It’s great to hear he got an A on a test. The teachers also tell me how we can work as a team and ways I can get involved.”
Gamble will don a cap and gown this spring and join 26 classmates as part of the 2009 graduating class. Atlas graduated its first class of 16 students in 2008. After high school, Gamble would like to attend Cardinal Stritch University in Milwaukee and become a math teacher.
“I get chills,” Lukacs said as she reflected on the 2008 graduation ceremony. “I shed a lot of tears of happiness on that day. I wish my students all the success, and hope that Atlas has provided them with the values and academics to be responsible citizens.”
As the school’s name suggests, Atlas Preparatory Academy works to equip each student with a compass of promise and map of opportunity—a promise that Atlas will provide a safe, multicultural environment and challenging curriculum that will help point out a path to a brighter and more promising future for each child.
Jillian Metz ([email protected]) writes from Florida.