By Paul Brennan | Watchdog.org
MILWAUKEE, Wis. — The joyful voices of a student choir filled the new gymnasium of HOPE Christian School Prima’s campus at the beginning of Wednesday’s dedication ceremony for the school’s new expansion.
The song emphasized that the students could go far if they just kept striving.
It was an appropriate selection for the occasion, because the school’s 10,000-square-foot expansion — providing space for a gymnasium, a library, a science classroom and offices for administrators — showed just how far HOPE Christian School Prima had come since it opened inin 2002 in a converted warehouse located in a strip mall.
When Prima opened it had only 47 students in first through fourth grade.
Now it has a student body of 580, from the 4 year olds attending the K4 early kindergarten classes through the students in the eighth grade.
Following eighth grade, students can go on to HOPE Christian High School, because starting from Prima — Latin for “first” — HOPE Christian has grown into a network of five schools in Milwaukee with 1,600 students.
Even with such impressive growth, Prima has not left behind its humble beginnings.
It’s still in its original location. And while it has expanded to fill almost the entire strip mall, it still has a very plain exterior, unlikely to catch the eye of anyone driving past.
“It was a little odd when I drove up it the first time. It’s not like a normal school,” Principal Anna Greenman told Watchdog.org, recalling her initial impression of Prima.
“But that’s something I really appreciate. Instead of spending money on a lot of large building projects, we put our funds towards the kids,” Greenman said.
Still, the expansion was necessary.
Previousl,y a single multi-purpose room served as a combination gym, library and recess space.
The school’s basketball team frequently had to practice in the hallway when the room was being used for other purposes.
And it wasn’t easy to maintain the normal atmosphere of a library when gym classes were going on or students enjoying indoor recess during inclement weather.
“It was crowded, but it had been working,” Greenman said. “We’d made it work for years.”
A reputation for making it work helped HOPE Christian Schools raise the $2.4 million needed for the Prima expansion.
HOPE Christian High School has received national attention for its success in sending students to college. For the past two years, 100 percent of HOPE’s seniors have received college acceptance letters.
This is despite the fact that more 90 percent of HOPE students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches in a city whose public schools have a poor reputation when it comes to educating such students.
An emphasis on hard work, achievement and the importance of a college education starts as soon as a student arrives at HOPE. Even if the student is one of Prima’s youngest students in K4.
“All our classrooms are named for colleges,” Greenman said.
Outside and inside the classrooms hang pennants and banners for colleges and universities from the University of Wisconsin to Boise State.
“There’s a lot of research that says most kids who go to college go because their families or schools have been talking about it since those students were at a very young age,” Greenman said.
“We have a lot of students who would be the first in their families to go to college. We want to create an atmosphere where it seems like a normal next step for them.”
There will be no next step when it comes to further expanding Prima.
“We’d love to have more room for more students, but we’ve maxed out our space. Unless the Family Dollar Store moves,” Greenman said, referring to the only other tenant of the strip mall.
Although Prima is faced with space limitations, Greenman points out the HOPE Christian School Network is continuing to grow.
“Our other campuses have room for expansion. And next year we’re opening a school in Racine,” Greenman said.
“It’s exciting to be part of a network that can reach so many kids.”
Contact Paul Brennan at [email protected]