Allies in Education: The Alliance School

The Alliance School on Walnut St. in north Milwaukee greets its students with a colorful mural at the school’s front doors.

It’s a Thursday afternoon and Jill Engle’s art class at The Alliance School is in full swing. Scraps fly. Colored pencils are scattered across the tables. Every so often a roar of laughter envelops the room.

Students chat with each other — about school, their projects, what they are wearing or what they are doing after school.

Occasionally, students spill in and out, relaying a message from the teacher next door or the office upstairs.

They are laughing about inside jokes or a funny new story.

They talk about having a sleepover this weekend or a new movie they want to go see.

If it wasn’t for a decision made by Alliance’s founder and lead teacher, Tina Owen, to open Alliance seven years ago, most of these students and teachers would not have known each other.

But today, sitting in the art class, they act like family.

The Alliance School is a small charter school for grades six through 12 in the Milwaukee Public School system. Alliance is known around Milwaukee and the nation for being a safe haven for students who didn’t feel comfortable at other schools. The school has made a name for itself by creating a safe learning environment for any and all who need it: gay, straight, black, white, Christian, atheist and all variations in between.

Those things don’t matter at Alliance.

And currently in Engle’s art room, the only thing that matters is cardboard.

The room is covered inch-by-inch in cardboard boxes of all shapes and sizes. There are scissors in each student’s hand — all cutting furiously.

Today the students are making 3-D objects from cardboard.

“I like what ya’ got going on here,” Engle says. She stands behind a table of students. One boy is making a basketball hoop that he wants to start painting red for his favorite team, the Chicago Bulls. She pauses and watches his progress.

“Check this out,” she says. “It might make it easier.”

She bends down over the table and sketches a variation of the original design on the cardboard then says, “There, now just cut around that and you’ll be good!”

Another student across the room picks up his large cardboard box and yells across the room at Engle.

“Hey Jill, we got any more tape?” he says. He is always in Engle’s classroom, even when he is not in class. He is wearing a bright blue cardigan and a striped shirt underneath. His forearm is covered with brightly colored bracelets, all homemade. (“I just like making new things, trying out how creative I can be,” he says. “I can do that here.”)

Engle, looking back at her student, sighs: “No, no tape. We are all out.”

Engle has already spent $1,500 of her own money on art supplies for her students. And three months into the school year, they are already out.

She turns to the rest of the class: “From now on we are going to have to bring in our own tape and glue. We don’t have anymore to give you all.”

One student sitting at the next table is making a bouquet of flowers. She cuts huge petals out of an old UPS box. Her short black hair is tucked under a black knit hat that falls to the left side of her face. She is wearing a white shirt and black jeans that cling to her small frame. When she smiles, she flashes a slight gap between her two front teeth.

She sits diligently. Her hands tightly grip her yellow pencil. Her face is about three inches away from the soft brown cardboard surface. Her pencil line is sharp and dignified. If she misses her mark by a centimeter she erases it and starts over.

Under her breath, almost murmuring, she sings.

Once she is satisfied with her petal, she cuts it out with the same intensity that she drew it. Every so often, she sets the scissors down and stretches her small, thin fingers and arms. One-by-one she cracks her fingers and shakes out her hand.

After a few painstaking minutes devoted to detail, she sits up straight, smiles a small simple smile and holds up her petal.

She shouts to Engle across the room, and holds up a gigantic cardboard petal.

Engle smiles back, her eyes glazing right over her plastic-rimmed glasses, and yells back: “You go girl!”

Alliance: Its Birth

In 2003, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a non-profit organization set up by Bill Gates and his wife, announced it would give $17.25 million to the Technical Leadership and Assistance Center of Milwaukee, a non-profit organization that focuses on education reform. The Technical Leadership and Assistance Center was given the money with the instructions to help restructure Milwaukee’s large high schools by creating smaller and more autonomous schools. From then on, it took proposals for charter schools to be set up within the Milwaukee Public School System.

Tina Owen, founder and lead teacher (principal) of Alliance, was unsure whether she could do it, or even if her idea was worth proposing. But she saw a problem in Milwaukee’s education system – and the education system as a whole.

She decided something had to be done.

In July of 2003, she took a leap of faith. She sent the Technical Leadership and Assistance Center her proposal.

The proposal was to create what she considered the “perfect school” — one built on the foundation of complete and total acceptance.

“Everyone can remember a time he or she didn’t want to go to school because of bullying,” Owen said about her proposal. “When I spoke to people about that — about creating a school where bullying wasn’t the kids’ experience — everyone understood it. Everyone agreed that all students deserve that.”

Owen knew that the only way this was going to work was if she made people identify with her mission. She wanted to make people see that bullying, feeling excluded and alienation were not a part of the educational experience — or at least should not be.

One in four teens is bullied at least once in his or her life. Nine out of 10 LGBTQ students are harassed. A shocking 160,000 students stay home from school — any given day — because they are afraid of bulling. And every seven minutes, a child is bullied, all according to the organization Stomp Out Bullying.

In all of these bullying cases, adults intervened four percent of the time, and students intervened 11 percent of the time. In the rest of the cases, 85 percent, the bullying carried on.

Owen wanted to created a school where this wasn’t the case.

A few months later, the Technical Leadership and Assistance Center accepted her proposal. Owen’s dream was slowly turning into reality.

And in 2005, after a year and half of preparation and determination, Alliance opened its doors to a flood of students who needed a place to call home.

Alliance is painted a simple light gray-blue. From the outside, the school isn’t much to look at.

It has a few windows, each with intricate trim on the edges, telling of the time period when the building was built — around 1920. But sitting between the modern, and much newer, Roosevelt Middle School and Elm Creative Arts School, the building looks even older.

There is no grand entrance, only a simple concrete staircase leading up to two daunting black doors.

There isn’t much that is welcoming about the building. That is, except for one thing. A mural greets all the students and visitors as they walk into Alliance.

With the backdrop of the humdrum gray walls, the colors on the mural pop: crimson, jade, a blushing pink, gold, cobalt, sky blue, purple and all shades in between. The colors swirl together in intricate shapes.

It is the first sign that this school is different — it is something special. The mural depicts people of all types of people interacting. There are symbols of love, equality and peace intricately entwined with the people on the mural.

It reminds each student of his or her mission at Alliance: respect and accept everyone.

A personal proposal

For the 175 students who go to Alliance, it usually means they were often considered a “non-traditional” student at another school. This means they are at risk of dropping out, for various reasons, were bullied, or needed a different teaching technique.

But at Alliance, they do not have this label. It is left at the front door. And soon the “non-traditional” student becomes simply a student.

It is the school Owen had always dreamed of. And one she wanted for herself. Owen was what she described herself as a “non-traditional” student.

Since she was young, Owen moved around a lot: Kentucky, New Jersey, Guam, Greece, Texas.

As she says, “I grew up everywhere.” Her father was in the Air Force, and her family was always moving from base to base.

That was up until Owen was 13, when her father went to prison.

The members of her family relocated back to the United States, where they had not lived in several years, and settled in El Paso, Texas. From then on Owen moved in and out of foster care and group homes.

She became a mother at 17 and had another child shortly after. “Emotional wreck” is a phrase she uses to describe herself.

During her high school years, she said she was simply pushed to get through. Her counselors advised her only to get enough credits to graduate. Ever since she was 13, she had been pushed through the system.

“I was a good student,” Owen said. “But I just didn’t come from that kind of world.”

College wasn’t the goal for Owen. Her world meant taking care of her children and graduating high school.

Shortly after graduation she moved to Milwaukee, where she had family.

In Milwaukee she was able to find a job and opportunities to make ends meet for her children. Most importantly it offered her another opportunity: college.

Owen was 22. She wanted a future for, not only herself, but also for her two children. She pulled out the Milwaukee phone book and flipped to the yellow pages. She went straight to “C.” C, for college.

She pointed her finger on the first name she saw: Marquette University.

She started off as a journalism major on track to go to law school.

But as she was sitting in her freshman year English course, a fellow student introduced herself to Owen. She told Owen she was an education major, and that one day she wanted to become a teacher.

“That moment was like a light bulb went off in my head,” Owen said. “It was just a moment where I got it. It all came together.

She decided to be a teacher: “It became my calling — my vocation.”

Owen’s vocation has brought a world of opportunity to the 175 high school students at Alliance School.