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Published in Print: June 23, 1999, as Milwaukee Public, Catholic Leaders Vow Cooperation

Milwaukee Public, Catholic Leaders Vow Cooperation

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Citing their unwillingness to let the city's voucher program pit them against each other, Milwaukee's public and Roman Catholic school leaders have pledged to form joint efforts aimed at serving students in both systems.

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They have yet to outline specific initiatives, but Milwaukee's newly appointed schools superintendent, Spence Korté, and Archbishop Rembert Weakland together declared they were embarking on an era of collaboration at a press conference this month.

"We have to be careful as organizations that we don't spend all of our time checking and checkmating each other while our children don't get served," Mr. Kort‚ said.

Seconding that sentiment, the archbishop of Milwaukee noted that most of the city's Catholic children attend public school. "It is important to the archdiocese that the public schools succeed in their mission," Archbishop Weakland said.

In the coming months, the two leaders plan to explore sharing after-school programs, staff training on technology, programs to recruit volunteers, common measures of student achievement, and initiatives serving students with special needs and limited English proficiency.

The 9-year-old Milwaukee school choice program already has begun to erode some of the distinctions between public and private education there. The state-enacted initiative, which gives low-income parents publicly financed tuition vouchers worth up to about $5,000, experienced a surge this year with the lifting of its enrollment cap from 1,500 to 15,000 and the inclusion of religious schools. Though the legislature approved the expansion in 1995, it wasn't until last summer that the Wisconsin Supreme Court affirmed its constitutionality.

Nearly half the 6,000 students who participated in the program this school year attended Catholic schools. In all, the archdiocese enrolls 40,000 students, 12,000 of them within the city.

Though top administrators from both systems described their past relationship as cordial, they said the political and legal battles around the voucher program may have created the impression that they saw each other as adversaries. "It was a question of, at this moment in time, how can we move forward and not let people drive a wedge between the public and the private but work together," said Jerry Topczewski, the communications director for the archdiocese.

Natural for New Chief

Talks about collaborating on new programs began long before Mr. Kort‚ was appointed to succeed Alan S. Brown, who resigned last month after an election that drastically changed the makeup of the school board of the 105,000-student district.

But the approach is a natural one for the district's new chief. During his 14 years as the principal of a Milwaukee public school, Mr. Kort‚ struck a deal to rent space for kindergarten classes in a nearby Catholic school building. Though instruction was kept separate, children from the two schools have taken part in joint lunches, recesses, and field trips.

Public and Roman Catholic school leaders in Chicago also have worked together to map out improvement strategies for low-performing schools.

Vol. 18, Issue 41, Page 3

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