The Controversial Optimism of Henry Tyson

Henry Tyson is as controversial as he is optimistic as he articulate as he is driven. All of those traits were on view when Tyson, the superintendent of Saint Marcus Lutheran School, 2215 N. Palmer St., Milwaukee, was the guest last week in an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” session at Marquette Law School.

Despite what Tyson called “crazy battles” among advocates for different schools and streams of schools, the most significant trait about Tyson may well be his optimism about Milwaukee education in general, including his confidence that student achievement levels can and will rise across the city.

Since Tyson arrived in Milwaukee a little over a decade ago, he has become a force on Milwaukee’s school scene, both as an advocate for the private school voucher program and as an advocate for high expectations and the approach to urban education sometimes given the label “no excuses.”

Tyson is currently at the center of a controversy in which Saint Marcus is seeking to buy the closed Malcolm X school building at 1st and Center Sts. owned by Milwaukee Public Schools. The Milwaukee School Board has been united in opposing that, although it appears willing to consider selling other school buildings to Saint Marcus.

Saint Marcus had about 100 students when Tyson moved to Milwaukee after working in city and suburban schools in the Chicago area. After expanding its facilities several times, the school has about 700 students now. It wants to add up to 900 over several years if it succeeds in getting the Malcolm X building, Tyson said. The building has been unused for six years; School Board members say they are working on plans to turn it into a community center and it is not for sale. Tyson said the building is four blocks from Saint Marcus and is decidedly the best candidate for expanding the school.

“We’re not going to go away. We will open another campus,” Tyson said. And the opposition from MPS leaders has not changed his mind about the Malcolm X building.

“The building needs to be occupied and used as a school,” Tyson told Gousha. He said MPS leaders had given “an unacceptable answer for the children of Milwaukee who are lining up at our doors, desperate for quality education.” He said he did not think MPS had practical plans to use the building and MPS leaders were trying to protect their “market share” of the city’s school children. “The market share conversation has to go away,” Tyson said, and the focus for all schools and streams of schools in Milwaukee needs to focus on improving quality.

Beyond the current controversy – and the broader continuing intense controversies over school vouchers – Tyson said he thought there was a growing movement in Milwaukee to push for higher quality education. The work on this involves people in MPS, charter schools, and private schools in the city and is bringing people together, Tyson said. He said there is a groundswell of good work going on.

Several years ago, Tyson was a leader of in the launching of school improvement efforts around a slogan of having 20,000 students in high quality school schools by 2020. That was roughly triple the number advocates said was available at that point. Saint Marcus, along with Milwaukee College Prep and Bruce-Guadalupe schools were founders of the growing organization called Schools That Can-Milwaukee.

Tyson told Gousha he not only was optimistic that the 20,000-seat goal would be met, but that by 15 or so years from now, Milwaukee would be a model for the nation of success in urban education because of what was being done in all sectors of local schools. He said that, despite his voucher advocacy, he regards himself as a strong supporter of strengthening and improving MPS.

Tyson said there are “pitiful” schools in the voucher program, among the charter schools in the city, and within MPS. They should be closed or turned around. But, he said, “the best way to close bad schools is to open good schools.”

Tyson described the program at Saint Marcus, which includes longer school days and extended hours well into the evening and on Saturdays for students who need more help. He said the school will go as far as it possibly can to move students to the point of success.

Gousha read from a recent blog post by Bob Peterson, president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, that listed some of the positions of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod on social issues such as the role of women and gay rights. Peterson questioned spending public money on organizations that support such positions. Saint Marcus is part of WELS. Tyson declined to discuss specific religious positions, but said both the US Supreme Court and Wisconsin Supreme Court have ruled that use of publicly-funded vouchers at religious schools is constitutional.

Tyson described the school’s approach to student success as “unrelenting.” It’s a good word to describe him also.

The “On the Issues” session with Tyson may be viewed by clicking here.


This Post Has 7 Comments

  1. Jay Craig

    Why is the City reneging on its handshake agreement to sell the school to St. Marcus?

  2. bob homas

    Tyson was honest, fresh and passionate. St. Marcus should be able to buy the empty MPS bldg. Michael Bonds and the MPS system are scared to death of voucher schools and any competition.

    I just sent St. Marcus a big check today.

    1. Christopher Lawrence

      Thank you.

  3. Greg Johnson

    Mr. Tyson was very impressive, and he is a powerful voice in Milwaukee’s education reform discussion. We are very fortunate to have him here. I was particularly taken with his enthusiastic endorsement of the Schools That Can Milwaukee partnership.

    I hope that the Mayor and MPS administrators step up and vote for children rather than focus on their loss of “market share.”

  4. CJ Szafir

    It’s interesting to note that 70% of Milwaukee residents believe that the City and MPS should sell/lease their empty school buildings to charter and private schools in the choice program. See Wisconsin Policy Research Institute poll, 12/12. When you take a position that 70% of residents take, as Mr. Tyson is doing, I’m not sure if you are really “controversial.”

    1. Christopher Lawrence


  5. Christopher Lawrence

    Still to this day, the school board is not on board with some of these ideas. It’s sad because the victims are children who need access to a good education. Bureaucracy is destructive.

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