By Royal Brevvaxling Special to Published Oct 30, 2011 at 9:13 AM

The Alliance School, 850 W. Walnut St., is a public charter school founded by a group of teachers with the goal of "providing a safe and accepting environment for all students." On Oct. 21, at a ceremony held in Milwaukee's Discovery World, the school was given the Wisconsin Charter Schools Association's 2011 Charter School of the Year award.

Alliance is a year-round school based on shared, democratic governance between teachers, students and community members that encourages students to design their education in collaboration with teachers. The school's statement of principles and practices includes maintaining a focus on service learning and creating "a safe environment where students are treated fairly regardless of sexuality, ability, appearance or beliefs."

The Alliance School has garnered a lot of media attention, including an article in Time magazine and a feature on the ABC news program "20 / 20." recently caught up with lead teacher Tina Owen after learning of the charter school award in order to check in on the school's successes, continued challenges and to hear about Owen's personal involvement at the school. When did the Alliance School come about and how?

Tina Owen: After witnessing a lot of bullying in the large high school where I was teaching, I decided to write a grant proposal to start a small, public, charter school that would use democratic governance, peacemaking circles, and student empowerment to address the issue of bullying in schools.

I collaborated with a group of teachers, and we petitioned the Milwaukee School Board to allow us to open the school as an MPS school. After receiving approval from the Milwaukee Board of School Directors, Alliance opened in August 2005 with 100 students in grades 6-12. In 2009, the Board approved our proposal to add a middle school program.

OMC: You're known as the lead teacher at the Alliance School. How does that differ from principal? How is Alliance School structured? It's student body? It's faculty?

TO: Alliance uses a democratic governance structure. We don't have a principal or an assistant principal. We are a teacher-led and community-led school that uses a consensus model for decision-making. For example, when the media wants to come to Alliance to do a story about our school, they have to write a letter to the students and staff. We discuss the proposal in advisory classes, and then we vote on whether or not to move forward with the story. Since the interference has the potential to affect the entire school community, the entire community has a voice in the decision.

OMC: What are your thoughts on Alliance earning the award for best charter school?

TO: I am incredibly honored to know that Alliance was chosen by the Wisconsin Charter Schools Association to receive the 2011 Charter School of the Year Award. This is an organization that is made up of a diverse group of education professionals who are known and respected as some of the best thinkers in education practice. It is a real testament to the work that we do every day, because the people who nominated us and the people who chose us are people who have witnessed the staff, students, families and community in action.

It really is a great community, and it's nice to be able to celebrate the positive energy and accomplishments of everyone who has been part of making it happen.

OMC: Was the Alliance School recommended not to have its charter renewed two years ago? What does this year's award, based on the categories accountability, autonomy and innovation, now say about this recommendation? What might be left unsaid about Alliance by these categories?

TO: Two years ago, the charter review committee used a new point system to evaluate charter schools. The system relied heavily on standardized test data, mobility rates and other measures that did not capture the true nature of our work at Alliance. At Alliance, about 30 percent of our students have disabilities, and when percentages are that high, it affects the overall percentage of students scoring proficient dramatically. We also have a very high number of students who are homeless or in foster care. At the time of our review, 25 percent of our students were homeless or in foster care. This affected mobility and attendance rates. We were able to break down the data to show the Board our value-added data, and when looked at from this perspective, it was clear that the work we were doing was effective.

We also had four years of increasing test scores and data in every measure that showed that the things we were doing were working for a traditionally underserved population of students. The Board gave us a two-year extension and directed us to add value-added measures to our contract and to continue to demonstrate these upward trends.

This year, as we go forward with the hopes to renew our contract, we are in a great position. Our 10th graders met or beat the district in every test area. Our graduation rates and attendance rates have been increasing over the past two years. And we have continued to offer an innovative program that has made a difference for a lot of young people in the community.

The media attention that we have received is real proof that we are accomplishing something extraordinary, as well, in the areas of school climate and creating safe and accepting learning environments. We are hopeful that the Board will continue its relationship with us.

OMC: What do you see is the role of Alliance in Milwaukee, in its various communities?

TO: It is my hope that Alliance will continue to be a haven for many of the students who are struggling to find safe and accepting communities, and that it will become a model of what is possible for other school communities. As a charter school, we are charged with the task of being an incubator for best practices that can be shared with others. I hope that we will be able to continue to share what we've learned, so that all schools can become safe and accepting places for students.

OMC: What are some of the challenges currently facing the Alliance School?

TO: The biggest challenge that we are currently facing is the budget challenge. Each year since we opened, we have been forced to continue offering the same level of service to families with less and less resources to do so. This means that all of the teachers and staff members are doing more and more each year, and it's hard to take care of ourselves and our families while keeping up with all of the demands of teaching and school leadership.

At Alliance, we only have nine teachers, and three full-time support staff people. That means that 12 people do everything there is to do in a school. We are the teachers, the principals, the counselors, the safety assistants, the assessment coordinators, the advisors, the accountants and more.

OMC: How are the 12 of you able to address these challenges? What can the students and parents do?

TO: The faculty works very hard to keep up with the challenge of providing a strong academic program with inadequate funding. And everyone works together to raise funds for programs, resources, and activities, so that we can keep our primary budget focused on staffing.

We have also considered the option of becoming a non-instrumentality charter school, because the centralized budgeting practice of a large school district is really hard on a small school's budget. We are currently working with the Board and the district to try to work out some of these issues.

( note: "Non-instrumentality charter schools" are those that operate outside the purview of school districts and are accountable to other entities, typically but not always non-profit organizations.)

OMC: What's next for the Alliance School?

TO: I am hoping that Alliance will become a laboratory school, where teachers, administrators and policy-makers can come and learn about best practices and take some of these practices back into other communities.

I also hope to develop a program where students can earn a certificate in peacemaking and restorative justice by completing a series of classes on these topics and serving as restorative justice facilitators in the community. I am hoping to partner with a university so that students can earn college credit for this work, as well.

OMC: Where did you grow up and go to school?

TO: I grew up all over the world, because my dad was in the Air Force. It was a pretty traumatic life, because my dad was a terribly abusive man. I think that he liked the military life, because the constant moving helped to hide the secret of his abusiveness. I lived in Kentucky, New Jersey, Guam, Greece, Germany, back to Guam and Texas.

When I was 13, I finally told on my dad for the abuse, and he went to prison. My mom moved to Texas with us four kids, because that's where her family was living. My high school years were tough. I probably had pretty severe PTSD, without knowing it, so I didn't make things easy for anyone. I was the Gothic kid who carved things into her arm, just to shock people.

I ended up having to live in a group home for several months, and not long after I left the group home, I was pregnant. I was married at 16, had my daughter at 16, and was divorced at 17. Luckily, I had a guidance counselor who kept on me to finish school, and I was able to graduate from high school.

I didn't go to college right away. It wasn't until four years later that I started thinking that I wanted to go to college. I didn't really know much about college, but I had heard somewhere that a university was better than a college, so I looked up university in the phone book and applied to the closest one to my house – Marquette. I studied really hard for the SAT, got a great score, and was accepted at Marquette.

OMC: Did you know you wanted to be an educator upon entering Marquette?

TO: My plan was to become a lawyer. Everyone had always told me that I should be a lawyer because I was smart and I liked to argue. I was well on my way to doing just that when I met someone in one of my classes who was studying to be a teacher. As soon as I heard her say it, I knew it was the right thing for me.

OMC: So teaching became your focus after it initially being law. Why?

TO: I think I knew that I could make the school experience different for young people, and I felt like it was what I had to do. I went home and told everyone that I had decided to change my major.

They were not thrilled with the idea, but they supported me anyway and in 1998 I graduated Magna Cum Laude from Marquette with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and secondary education. I began teaching that fall at Washington High School, and I taught there for seven years before deciding to start Alliance.

OMC: What are your kids up to these days?

TO: I have a blended family, so I have lots of kids, five altogether. Dominique is the oldest. He was one of my students who became my foster son when he was placed in a group home during his freshman year of high school. He kept using his weekend passes to come and spend time with our family, so when I got my foster care license I asked "Do you just want to stay here?" And he said "yes." He has been part of our family ever since. He is now working in Sheboygan and has three daughters who call me "Grandma."

My daughter is now 22 and she is studying at the University of New Mexico. I am not sure if she has settled on a major yet, but she seems to go between political science, fashion design, social studies, and sociology. I think she'll end up becoming a fashionably dressed social studies teacher or politician.

My son, Jeremy, is now 18 and is working at Reich Machining as an entry-level machinist. My partner Jennifer's son, Anansi, just started his freshman year at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He is still deciding on his major. And our youngest, Cedro, who is also my partner's son, is in his junior year at Rufus King High School.

OMC: Please share a personal success at Alliance.

TO: Every year, I know the school culture is really getting to an amazing place when the students start to say "We need a circle" when they have a problem that needs to be solved. This always shows me that the community has an expectation of peaceful problem-solving and that the students know how to use the tools that are available to them.

It is also really great when you see students leading circles themselves and teaching others how to lead circles. It shows me that the young people know their own power and are willing to affect their world in a positive way.

OMC: What are your personal plans? Your goals? Where would you like to take yourself next?

TO: I would love to develop our program of reaching out and helping others and creating this peacemaking certificate program for youth and teachers. This summer, I had the opportunity to bring a student with me to a local elementary school and we taught the entire staff how to do peacemaking circles.

Recently, the principal asked me if we could come back and continue working with the staff, and I really wanted to help, but I couldn't take the time away from my teaching responsibilities at Alliance, because that wouldn't be fair to my students.

I am hoping that in the future we will be able to develop our ability of sharing best practices by creating a funding system which supports that work. That way we won't have to decide between helping others and taking care of ourselves. We will be able to do both. And I will be able to focus my energies on the work of connecting Alliance to the greater community.

Royal Brevvaxling Special to
Royal Brevväxling is a writer, educator and visual artist. As a photo essayist, he also likes to tell stories with pictures. In his writing, Royal focuses on the people who make Milwaukee an inviting, interesting and inspiring place to live.

Royal has taught courses in critical pedagogy, writing, rhetoric and cultural studies at several schools in Wisconsin and Minnesota. He is currently Adjunct Associate Professor of Humanities at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.

Royal lives in Walker’s Point with his family and uses the light of the Polish Moon to illuminate his way home.