Dreamers and Dream Makers

The alarm rings. It’s 8 a.m. on a Monday morning — time for statistics class. You roll your eyes, groan and sludge out the door. But across town, there are middle and high school students dreaming of their chance to do just that.

The Dreamer

Zach Simmons looks to his mother, Jenny Omernick, as a source of motivation and guidance on his academic journey. photo credit: AJ Trela

Zach Simmons gets uneasy when he talks about where he’ll be in two years. It’s his future, after all. He’s applied to several schools — some with higher admissions standards and some designated as his “safety” schools. To these schools, he is a number, stored in a database, judged by his grades and performance on standardized tests. He can show them what he has done in the classroom, what he does after school. And, if he’s lucky, he might land a face-to-face interview.

But Simmons isn’t ready for college yet. He’s only 13.

Simmons is going to high school.

His seventh grade year at Wedgewood Park International School in Milwaukee had a parallel reminiscence to what his junior year of high school will be like. In the Milwaukee Public School system, middle school students go through a system similar to a college application process, choosing and applying to the high schools that fit them best.

Now, ask Simmons where he will be in five years. He sits up in his chair. His uneasiness becomes indomitable confidence.

“I want to go to Marquette, and if they won’t take me, then someone will,” Simmons says. “All I know is that I am going to college. Just ask my mom.”

It’s his mom, Jenny Omernick, who Simmons glances up at whenever he starts to talk about college. It’s his mom, the only parent in his home, his academic advisor, his life advisor. She does it all.

And when she talks about Simmons going to college, it’s him she can’t take her eyes off. He’s the last kid she has left in the house; he keeps her busy. He’s her baby.

“I am hoping to do it differently with Zach,” Omernick says. “Different than what I did.”

Omernick, an MPS product like her son, doesn’t have a college degree. Neither does Simmons’ father.

“And that is why Zach will,” Omernick says. “He knows that while he is living under my roof, he will get a college education. I know first-hand how important education is now.”

Omernick, who is an administrative assistant for Aurora UW Medical Group in Milwaukee said she has learned the
importance of education the hard way. Her lack of a college education has prevented her from job promotions to the point where she feels she may have to go back to school.

When Simmons talks about college, his every sentence starts with a soft pause, an indication of thought and genuine purpose for what he is about to say.

“I have no choice. I am going to college,” Simmons says. “I would let too many people down if I didn’t: myself, my teachers, my family and anyone else who has taught me anything.”

And Simmons’ mother is the one teacher he refuses to let down.

“I trust what my mom tells me and what she knows,” Simmons says. “When she tells me how important college is, I believe her.”

For a kid who has yet to enroll in a high school class, Simmons’ college dreams might seem overambitious.

“That comes from his school,” Omernick says. “They start them so early in learning about the process and thinking about college.”

Simmons echoed his mom’s assessment.

“Our teachers want us to get through high school, but they tell us how important college is and show us what happens if you don’t go to college,” Simmons said. “And it doesn’t scare me because I won’t be that guy who doesn’t. I will be the one who went to college.”

 

The Achiever 

Vanessa Harris was an MPS student in the EOP program. photo credit: AJ Trela

Vanessa Harris was Simmons’ age, a seventh grade student at John Burroughs Middle School, when she started thinking about college. Today, she is living Simmons dream: an MPS alum and a junior at Marquette University.

“I never really felt pressure to go to Marquette,” Harris says. “And I wouldn’t say I even felt pressure to go to college, because it was expected. I was going to do it.”

Yet her confidence needed a direction, which came from Marquette’s Educational Opportunity Program, a grant-based organization started in the 1960s that aims to get Milwaukee high school students the opportunities and resources they need to go to college.

“I heard about EOP because my older cousin did it and it was her who gave me direction,” Harris says. “She made me realize that Marquette was a good fit.”

Harris grins when asked about the challenges MPS students face that other public students may not.

She knows what people think when they hear about MPS schools. They think about the statistics they see in a newspaper. According to the Department of Public Instruction, a statewide proficiency test administered last year showed only 47.8 percent of MPS students score proficient or better in math, and 59 percent of students scoring proficient or better in reading. When it came to low-income MPS students, reading proficiency dropped to 55.3 percent.

“People do sometimes seem surprised when they hear I went to MPS, because people think they are bad schools,” Harris says.

“There are students who want to learn. There are teachers who want to teach,” Harris says. “I have met such passionate people at MPS.”

Harris said it was the sense of community that she found at Rufus King High School and through Marquette’s EOP program that helped make her college decision. Harris’ community means a lot to her, and she wasn’t going to venture too far from it.

“I think a lot about MPS students who are in high school right now and what they are thinking, and I sometimes worry about the ones who don’t have a support system,” Harris says. “If they can just work to get here, they will find someone who will believe in them and challenge them.”

 

The Believer

T Ullrich helps Milwaukee students realize college is possible. photo credit: AJ Trela

T Ullrich is that believer.

Ullrich is associate director of the pre-college division of EOP, the program that motivated Harris to start thinking about Marquette and the program into which Simmons hopes to be accepted this year. Ullrich visits eighth-grade students from 50 different Milwaukee middle schools each fall — there are few corners of the city he doesn’t see. Every school year, Ullrich will interview 200-300 applicants, all eighth grade students looking for someone to give them a chance. He can only take 45.

“That’s the hardest part of my job right there,” Ullrich says. “But it’s a reality. All I can do is offer opportunities, not dwell on those who I can’t.”

EOP is a four-year commitment for high school students, which includes an intensive six-week program every summer while the students are in high school. The program puts students through classes, workshops and labs on Marquette’s campus.

“When these students go through these yearlong programs and are on campus, they begin to see that Marquette is a possibility,” Ullrich says. “It no longer looks like a palace they pass on the way to school in the morning.”

During the school year, EOP students come to Marquette for tutoring, two to three days a week depending on the individual needs of the student.

“What we are doing here is connecting parents and students with Marquette University,” Ullrich says. “And they don’t have to go to Marquette when the program is over, but through this program they really start thinking about college.”

Ullrich, however, says Marquette’s connection to MPS might have some natural roadblocks.

Ullrich says Marquette has a reputation in Milwaukee for rigorous academic standards, which can be intimidating to some people. But, he says, “these students in EOP go through a program which puts them here on campus and when they are here they realize, ‘Hey if I have made it this far, I can go to school here someday.’”

Ullrich says EOP’s influence is even noticeable in Marquette’s student body.

“I think EOP has raised the profile of underrepresented students on campus, and I like to think my (EOP) students are in the game for the same reason,” Ullrich says. “They are not just coming here for an education — they want to be a part of a university where they feel like they can contribute.”

But for a program that has created such promise, discouragement still lingers.

“I can’t help but think about it sometimes,” Ullrich says with hesitation, “How restrained we are with what we can do. I would love to help everyone but here is the reality: for every one person we serve, there are thousands that we didn’t touch at the right time.”

 

The Teacher

Tammy Kukla encourages her students to start thinking about college at an early age. photo credit: AJ Trela

Tammy Kukla sees the thousands that weren’t touched at the right time, the ones who go unnoticed and the thousands that don’t finish high school.

“Ms. Kukla” is a sixth-grade math and reading teacher at Milwaukee’s Lincoln Center for the Arts, and has been an MPS teacher for 16 years.

Her classroom is unconventionally decorated. Since she started teaching, emails, drawings, thank-you notes and anything else she’s received from a student has gone from her humbled hands to a corner of her classroom. The corner is a showcase of her work.

“These are my credentials,” Kukla says. “This is what I am here for, to be someone they can go to, to be someone who will support them.”

It’s a lack of support from all different areas in a student’s life that Kukla says keeps them from going to college, or in some cases, finishing high school.

“These pictures and emails I keep on my wall are noticeable when kids come in; they see that I have taken an interest in them, I care about them,” Kukla says. “They see someone cares, and that now motivates them to stay in school.”

Kukla says even as young as sixth grade, she gets her students to start thinking about college.

“Every pamphlet, handout, website I get, I tell them,” Kukla says. “I have to because these kids grow up with challenges not every kid grows up with. They need support any place they can get it from.”

 

Marquette Dreams

This fall, Simmons and his mother will interview to be part of Marquette’s EOP.  He will be among more than 200 eighth-grade students across Milwaukee vying for the same opportunity. Less than 25 percent will be accepted. Among last year’s high school seniors who were a part of the four-year EOP program, 100 percent went on to college.

“I don’t get worried about it,” Simmons says. “I trust myself, and I rely on the people around me. We will all get there together.”