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New Gaenslen School principal Tamara Hines shows off plans for a handicapped-accessible playground she's working on with her predecessor Ada Rivera.

Hines is working to take Gaenslen all the way

In July I met the whirlwind of excitement and energy that is Nancy Martinez, who recently took over as principal at MPS' Kagel pre-K through fifth grade school in Walker's Point.

In August, I visited her friend and colleague Tamara Hines, who hopes to provide some stability at Gaenslen School, a pre-K through eighth grade school in Riverwest, where she started as principal on July 1.

Gaenslen, which is a school unlike most any other in the city, has had a couple principals in recent years, says Hines, who hopes she can keep the ship on course.

Ninety percent of kids at Gaenslen, which had an enrollment of 673 students last year, qualify for free and reduced lunch. That's code for nine out of every 10 kids in the school lives in poverty. But, sadly, that's not rare in the district.

But at Gaenslen nearly one out of every two students is classified as special education and the school has a large population of students with disabilities. That explains the ramp into the warm-water physical therapy pool that the Milwaukee Recreation Dept. uses on evenings and weekends for public swim classes.

Visiting in summer I expected Gaenslen to look a lot like Kagel, which was empty except for Martinez, her building engineer and her secretary who was working on a volunteer basis in the summer.

But no, school is almost never out at Gaenslen. Just when the traditional school year ends in June, the Extended School Year program kicks in and so do summer school and a Milwaukee Rec Dept. summer Community Learning Center program, too.

When I stopped in ... Let me clarify. The first time I stopped in, Hines was being pulled in three directions at once and I told her I'd happily return and we made a new appointment. When I visited the second time, she dealt with a few issues and managed to find a few minutes to show me around.

While other principals might be enjoying their summer with their families, Hines has been working all day every day since her July 1 start.

"This school is kind of like a lighthouse school," says Hines. "There are so many activities going on outside of Gaenslen (program itself). A lot of Milwaukee Rec programs and stuff. This is a community building."

Gaenslen also has a public Alice Bertschy Kadish Weaving Center that attracts a large group of community weavers, fiber artists and basket makers into the building on a regular basis.

And, unlike most schools, Gaenslen has things like a vision center, elevators for handicapped students and classrooms for cognitively disabled students, too.

So, it might come as a surprise that Hines not only did not come from the Gaenslen community but has no background in special education.

"The first time it was posted I did not apply," Hines recalls, "because they were talking that it was a special ed. school so I thought they were looking for a certain kind of person. When it got re-posted I talked to my friend who is a principal and he said to research the school to find out more about it. Once I found out more about it, they don't consider themselves a special ed. school. This is just a regular school.

"They were looking for a person who can teach all kids. So when I did some research and found out the type of person they were looking for I thought, 'that's me.' I love kids; it doesn't matter if they're special ed. kids or regular ed. kids, they're just kids.

"That's the philosophy here, that all kids are created equal and with respect. This is a real world here. We have some people who are in wheelchairs and that's what happens when they go outside the walls and the doors and they see that in real life. So I am excited to be here."

Hines has varied experience in education. She was principal at the Parklawn Assemblies of God K-5 school and was also a principal at a voucher school, a job she says she decided was not the job for her. She then landed at UW-Milwaukee, but later applied to the national non-profit New Leaders for New Schools principal training program, which had been established in Milwaukee in 2007.

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