A diploma from University School of Milwaukee signifies many things. For starters, it signifies that successful completion of a challenging, engaging, and exciting curriculum from one of the nation’s top independent schools. It also signifies a commitment to academic excellence and exceptional behavioral standards. Perhaps most importantly, it denotes membership in an extraordinary community of alumni, students, parents, faculty, and staff.
But just what is the USM community?
While there are many things that make a USM education outstanding—world-class faculty and exceptional facilities, to start—the community is what makes it unique, loved, and cherished. But how is it that same, or different, for students from prekindergarten to 12th grade? Why is it important, and how does it impact students’ educational experiences?
“Faculty work to build trust, understanding, and empathy amongst their students”
When examining the USM community it’s helpful to start at the beginning, in the Lower School. This is where children begin to learn about the Common Trust—relating to one another and the School with respect, trust, honesty, fairness, and kindness—before they can even tie their shoes. Examples abound of how community is established and bolstered in the Lower School.
“Lunch is an obvious place to start,” said Gina Bongiorno, assistant head of Lower School. “Each teacher sits at a table with the kids, and the grades are mixed so the students can interact and make connections.” Within the classrooms, faculty work to build trust, understanding, and empathy amongst their students. “Many classrooms have what’s called a ‘VIP’ or ‘Star of the Week’ where students are invited to bring in something that’s special to them, tell a story about themselves or get interviewed by their class,” Bongiorno added. Every child is spotlighted at some point, and it allows the class to get to know that student on a deeper level. Establishing an understanding of the Common Trust and learning how to apply it to everyday life is a key component of building community in the Lower School, and it positions students for success at USM as they learn and grow.
“Faculty in Middle School have a special saying,” said Will Piper, 5th-grade social studies teacher. “It’s ‘Everyone deserves a good day.'” Establishing a cohesive and supportive community is one way that teachers in the Middle School ensure that students have a good day, during what is often a physically and emotionally turbulent period in their lives.
“USM encourages students to pursue their own interests, things they’re passionate about. Students are their own leaders.”
Middle School recently launched a new program called CAT Academy, in which students suggest course topics via a survey, and faculty design classes around those topics. Students choose their preferred course, which meets twice per cycle for one quarter. Course topics have ranged from clothing design to beekeeping, and fantasy football, among others. “The fantasy football course was a great example of bringing students together who wouldn’t normally interact with each other,” said Piper, who co-taught the course with Brian Markwald, 7th-grade social studies teacher and dean of students for 7th and 8th grades. “I see those same students talking in the hallway and playing together at recess. This one course, plus other CAT Academy courses, has built a supportive, positive community within the Middle School.”
Building a compassionate, cohesive culture in Middle School does more than make for an enjoyable learning environment. “Ultimately, our job is to prepare kids for the outside world,” Piper said. “A key skill for success is the ability to work together. Building a positive community in the Middle School empowers students and teaches them that we might be different people but we have a responsibility to treat each other with respect, trust, honesty, fairness, and kindness.” By the time students reach Upper School, and in many cases even before, community as taken on a broader context. Students are provided with different opportunities to learn about various service organizations in Milwaukee and encouraged to get more involved with those that interest them.
Some students, like Erica Lofton ’19, take it one step further and start their own organizations. The sophomore is the CEO and founder of the nonprofit Girls in Action, inc., which encourages and educates young girls on how to be successful leaders. “I just love how USM encourages students to pursue their own interests, things they’re passionate about,” Lofton said. “USM students are their own leaders. That, along with the support of my teachers and friends, has allowed me to do bigger and better things.”
“Service is important for our student to understand the world they live in,” said Stuart Cushman, head of Upper School and Upper School English teacher. “In order to do that, we need to build empathy by getting out there and working with people. It also prepares students for when they leave here.”
Djdade Denson ’14 can speak first-hand to the power of USM’s community. “Coming to USM as a freshman was a culture shock,” Denson said. “But the community brought me in without hesitation, and never once did I feel like an outsider. That’s why I enjoyed my time at USM so much, because it was so welcoming and everybody was so nice. I try to at least pay that forward because it meant so much to me.”
“USM is a positive and supportive environment for everyone.”
Denson is currently a junior majoring in environmental engineering at Marquette University, and a volunteer with Project Homeless Connect. “I’d say my time at USM helped me become more focused on service, and it helped me see where people and places needed help,” Denson said. “I try to help out in ways that may seem small but could mean the world to someone else. I’ve been on the other side of the table, and it comes full circle when I can do something for someone who appreciates it like I did. I want to do for others what others have done for me.”
While members of the USM community may have different approaches, values, and attitudes, they all share a desire to make USM a positive and supportive environment for everyone. Furthermore, they all benefit from the community in different ways. Students, as the cornerstone, gain from the obvious support and guidance of their teachers, parents, and other students. Conversely, parents are able to rely on the collective wisdom of other parents, teachers, and staff for helping to navigate the sometimes difficult periods of their children’s lives. They also benefit from the lifelong friendships formed with other parents. Alumni know they have a support system at USM consisting of former teachers, coaches, mentors, and other alumni as they tackle higher education and beyond. Finally, faculty and staff enjoy the encouragement of colleagues, parents, and an organization that applauds innovation and professional development.
This multi-faceted community, with so many different viewpoints, ideas, perspectives, and opinions, leads to one important thing: a better education for USM students. And while students are the common thread that weaves the community together, the group exists to serve and benefit all of its members, not just the students. There are many things that make USM an exceptional place to learn, starting with the superior faculty and world-class facilities. But the heart of USM is its community, which cannot be substituted or replicated. It is each and every one of us.