By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Jan 11, 2012 at 9:45 AM

On Monday night, neighborhood activists from Cooper Park and surrounder areas met with School Board Directors Jeff Spence and Terry Falk at the Enderis Park Fieldhouse, where petitions were signed over the weekend supporting a merger of the program at 68th Street School – which the district will close at the end of the year – with nearby 81st Street School.

To make this happen, a number of things need to occur, including moving out the 6th, 7th and 8th grade classes currently at 81st Street.

You can find a lot of background here and another update here.

Last night, canvassers continued to knock on doors in Cooper Park (where 81st is located), Enderis Park, Enderis East and Lenox Heights (where 68th Street School is located) explaining the proposal and getting petitions signed.

One of the folks working to make the merger a reality, Elisabeth Witt, sent this update yesterday:

"We're so happy with how much support and constructive criticism they've given us, and having met with them a few times now, I think they're more and more impressed at the level of community support. We collected 200 signatures in two days, and we plan on collecting more.

"Almost everyone you speak to has a story about why they want a better school in 81st Street: their neighbors moved away when their kids turned 4, or they're competing for seats available at German Immersion or 95th Street, or they've just had kids and they're worried about what to do when it's time to make a school choice, or they did go to 81st Street School back when it was one of MPS' highest achieving schools.

"We've also talked to some parents of children that attend the school, and they're in support, too. It's almost hard to gather enough signatures, because people want to talk so much about their experience in the neighborhood. There is a lot of interest, I'll say that.

"We're hammering out the details of our proposal. It's likely to be a two-step process, which will be good I think because it will allow some time for the two staff bodies to work together, and should give some time for the changes to happen more gradually at 81st Street.

"First, we need to figure out where 68th Street will have its program next year. We're willing to reduce our 3K offering to 50 students and to offer all-day 4K. That, combined with reducing our busing to the Marshall Region, should save the program quite a bit of money. So much, in fact, that we're starting to dig into the numbers of how much it would cost to stay at the building.

"MPS Administration has mentioned Sherman Arts (51st and Locust) and French Immersion (52nd and North) as possible one-year placements for us, but to be honest we're not very thrilled with that. We want to stay in the neighborhoods we serve, and continue being active in Enderis Park and Cooper Park. If the end goal is to move our program to Cooper Park in 2013, then we feel it doesn't make sense to move us out of the neighborhood in 2012.

"Plus there's good evidence that the cost of operating (the 68th Street) building for one more year – which is operating well and doesn't need repairs – will be much cheaper than the cost of MPS moving us into a new building and providing busing for all the kids that now are able to walk or get dropped off at their neighborhood school. Moving a school is hugely expensive. Why do it twice?

"Next, we need to think about the 81st Street merger, and how that might work. On this we're being driven mostly by parent and community voices. We hear the same things over and over again: stop all the busing, make it elementary-only, give neighborhood kids prioritized enrollment, and incorporate a successful Starms-based model that is respected and already well-known in our community from 68th Street School.

"Parents want rigor in their curriculum, and they want their kids to attend a high-achieving school. We feel like we can accomplish that if we start by incorporating an already high-achieving program (68th) that has a supportive base and a good reputation in our neighborhoods.

"We're also looking to keep kids local when they're in the middle school grades, and so our school would work with the two nearby middle schools: Milwaukee School of Languages – just blocks away – and the gifted and talented program at Morse-Marshall, at 68th and Capitol.

Our school would offer Spanish instruction from K3 through 5th grade, so that kids could enter the partial Spanish Immersion program offered at MSL. For older kids, grades 3 through 5, we'd have a Program for Academically Talented (PAT) so kids could, if parents choose, start 6th grade in one of MPS' gifted and talented programs.

"We're also very committed to offering art and gym, and if budgets allow offering music. One great thing about merging is that 68th Street School has long-term partnerships with some of Milwaukee's arts organizations like Sunset Playhouse and Wild Space Dance company. 68th Street has placed an emphasis on the arts for years, and it's very natural that they'd continue that at 81st Street School.

"One of the difficult aspects of this plan is that it would displace some kids at 81st Street, especially the 90 or so kids in grades 6-8. However, School Board members have told us that busing costs are so extreme that in a year or two that might have happened anyway as busing zones become more restricted in an effort to save money.

We're hoping that by taking two years, the kids and parents would have a chance to move to another preferred program – and looking at the sending and receiving data for 81st Street we've seen tha often the kids are coming from neighborhoods where their neighborhood school has better achievement scores than 81st Street does.

"Our plans do allow for other kids who attend 81st Street, especially the 60 or so neighborhood children and others from the Marshall region, to continue there. 68th Street School would bring an influx of younger kids, but if the middle school grades were removed there would still be room for classrooms of the other grades through 5th.

"As we're crunching the numbers, it looks like we'd have one 3K room, three all-day 4K rooms, two or three 5K rooms, then two rooms of each higher grade. We also want to continue our inclusion model for special needs kids in early childhood classrooms, and to continue 81st Street's autism program.

"With only 340 or so seats, and such high demand in the neighborhood for elementary placements – in the 53222 zip code alone there are 777 households with kids 2-5, 768 more if you include 53210 – there simply isn't room for those 90 middle school seats. And with two middle schools so nearby, we feel like the kids have good options available to them.

"One thing we're really concerned about is the merging of the two staffs. School Board members are very wary of shotgun marriages, so we want to start working with the teachers at 81st Street now rather than later – we want to incorporate their ideas. It's been difficult so far because Administrators have not been willing to meet with us and facilitate both staff bodies working together on a plan.

"I was told by the 81st Street principal (Janice K. Love), who seemed nice, that she was told by administration she was not allowed to meet with me – even if all we did was talk about what the Cooper Park and Enderis Park neighborhoods want in their neighborhood school. She wasn't even 'allowed' to attend a community meeting of neighbors and parents! It's all been very odd and very frustrating.

"As a parent, I'm going to start contacting teachers directly – I don't think it's good that they're not part of the process. And I think, or at least I hope, that they'll want to work on being a neighborhood school.

"Still, if the merger went ahead in two years, it seems that the two schools could merge without displacing many teachers or students. Once you combine graduations of students and retirements from the two staffs over the next two years, and think of all the rooms at 81st Street, I think it's very possible.

"I think it's important to mention, too, that Gina Sabatinelli, one of the teachers at 68th Street School and a big part of the Cooper Park community effort, may not even have a job at the school if we pursue a merger. She's not high enough in seniority. She, and all the other teachers involved in the effort, aren't pursuing the 81st Street merger because of their jobs.

"They're doing it as neighbors – all of them live in Cooper or Enderis Park – and they're doing it because they really believe in the 68th Street program. Their work, combined with a whole lot of work from community members and parents and neighborhood associations, is what's driving this effort forward. It's very exciting to be a part of it."

Witt says the community members will contact teachers at both schools tomorrow to request a meeting to gain input on the proposal from both staffs.

" It's really important to us that we workwith  81st Street School staff, " she says.

Stay tuned for more updates on this proposal.

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.