By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Jan 09, 2014 at 8:57 AM

Sometimes even the most trusted brand has cautious customers. When that brand is a school and parents have their eyes on their children’s education, a dose of skepticism is especially expected.

Consider Golda Meir Elementary, an MPS urban gifted and talented program at 1555 N. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. The school, which currently enrolls a little more than 500 third through eighth graders, is one of the most respected and in-demand education "brands" in Milwaukee.

But as Golda administration and staff prepare to launch its expansion to include grades 9-12, they're finding that some potential students and their parents are taking a wait and see approach.

It’s a big shift for a school at which a paucity of space used to mean that only about one in two fifth graders could stay on for middle school.

Thanks to expansion into the vacant former Milwaukee Education Center next door and across the street, all fifth graders can now stay and nearly all do.

Of the current eighth graders, says Principal Michelle Morris Carter, about half are planning on staying for the new ninth grade program next year. Some will leave to join siblings at other schools and others will follow what’s become something of a traditional path through the district.

"For many, many years, the history or the legacy of the school has been that 'we go to Golda, and then we go to King, or Riverside, or Reagan or High School of the Arts'," she says. "They’re great schools, they’re great school experiences. It’s kind of challenging, you know, to sell our program, which I think is going to be extremely rigorous."

Those schools, after all, have established programs that parents and prospective students can go see in action.

"It’s kind of hard to buy into a vision," Carter admits.

Carter says she's confident that when students see Golda’s high school program in place, they will be convinced.

That vision is, unsurprisingly for Golda Meir, an ambitious one.

A partnership with College Board has already kicked off, with Golda offering the SpringBoard pre-Advanced Placement program in English language arts and mathematics for grades 6-12.

All of Golda’s middle school students are exposed to pre-AP coursework, which promotes rigor. Golda will be the only high school in the district to offer AP classes to freshmen and has set a goal of ensuring all students graduate with at least two AP courses on their transcripts.

The new high school will have a global studies focus at its foundation, says Carter, and will encourage community involvement and internships.

"In having conversations with parents the big thing that attracted them here were all the experiential learning opportunities that children have access to, especially any opportunity that kids have to travel outside of the state and country. So we looked at that."

The school will partner with Riverside University High School on the East Side to offer a full compliment of high school level sports for its students. Principals at the two schools are also discussing working together to expand AP options for students at both schools.

Golda will also offer a Project Lead the Way high school STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) program, as a continuation of the middle school PLTW program already in place.

"That seemed to be the biggest selling point in keeping our students," says Carter as she shows us around the former Milwaukee Education Center campus, across from the original Golda building, in Schlitz Park. The building currently houses the school’s middle school grades and is perfect for a high school, with large, modern gyms, cafeterias and auditorium, along with plenty of of classroom space, rooms suited to labs, wide hallways and lockers.

"That has been a huge, huge factor in some of our children’s decisions to stay. They love the program, they have been involved in Future City and robotics competition, and to be able to continue that aspect of it is really cool.

"Quite a few of our students are participating in a program with Milwaukee School of Engineering. Currently, they take a large number of students from Golda who are qualified for the program and they are very interested in working together in a partnership, as they try to increase the number of minorities and female students that participate in engineering programs. So we’re going to talk to them about expanding that, and the kids were very, very excited to hear that, because we do have a number of students who are interested in the mathematics and sciences areas."

But what will really distinguish the high school program at Golda Meir will be its size.

Carter and her staff are currently enrolling 150 students for next year’s ninth grade and expect to hold at about 150 seats at each of the four high school grade levels.

"Not everybody wants the large high school experience," says Carter. "We want to be able to provide a small, quality high school option. ... Our counselors will really be able to work with students and encourage them to move forward."

Next year, Golda will also open up more sixth grade seats to accommodate students seeking entry to the program at the middle school level.

"By 2017, we will be completely filled with students," says Carter. "We always want to have space for students to enter the program at the high school level, but we prefer that the foundation be filled with students from Golda Meir. The plan is to grown our own community."

The school will host an open house on Wednesday, Jan. 15, at 6 p.m., and offer a round of entrance and placement testing on Wednesday, Jan. 22, at 5:30 p.m., at its "upper campus," 1615 N. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr.

It held two previous open houses and tests last autumn. Because students don’t have to make their final high school choice until almost mid-January, the number of open seats is still unclear at press time.

"We’re working to get to our 150," says Carter. "A lot of people did not know that we were expanding and growing to a high school program. We are doing another open house because the word is still getting out there. At our winter concert we had a really, really huge crowd. I had at least six parents come to me and say that they were interested in the high school program. They didn’t know about it."

From discussions with parents of children attending MPS, it’s clear that a lot of people are keeping a close eye on the expansion at Golda, hoping that the school will grow its success to the high school level.

Glory Tutaj, parent of a new fifth grader at the school, says she is excited about the expansion.

"I have heard that some parents are apprehensive about the new high school and are waiting to see how the first years of implementation go before making judgement," she says. "Personally, we are excited. Right now, the school seems to be not too large and not too small, which to us seems good, being the parent of a boy who maybe could get lost in the shuffle. It is large enough that they are able to have a band, musical ensembles and put on plays. It is also large enough that at the middle school level they switch classes.

"It is small enough that the staff seems to be able to really know their students, not just the teachers, but the principal and other administrative staff, as well. The school also has very strong leadership. The plan for the high school seems to be maintaining about the current number of children per grade with even more of a focus on academic success and college preparation and if the same leadership is present I don't know how it could not be great."

Carter believes that the school's strong reputation over the years will ultimately win over skeptics.

"I think what has helped is the legacy that Golda Meir has had," Carter says.

"Our kids are doing great things, but it was the foundation that caused them to ... do great things. So, if you believed in it then, just believe that this is where we can go in the future."

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 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 has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.