By Ashleigh Costello

MILWAUKEE – Dante Hamilton will be one of 37 seniors graduating in June from HOPE Christian High School, a private school that primarily serves low-income students through Milwaukee’s Parental Choice Program.

collegeboundIn most schools, a percentage of the graduates would be heading off to college, while many would have a different destination.

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But Hamilton and all 36 of his classmates have been accepted to college. It’s the second year in a row that one hundred percent of HOPE Christian seniors gained college admission.

Many of the graduates will be the first in their families to graduate from high school and attend college.

Dante’s mother, Debra Hamilton, told EAGnews not going to college was not an option for her son.

“College is very important. It’s one way to advance, if you want a decent job, anything, you have to go to college,” she said.

Debra is one of many parents in Milwaukee taking advantage of the Parental Choice Program, which provides qualifying families with a state voucher worth $6,442 to attend the private school of their choice.

Hamilton said her family chose HOPE because of the supportive atmosphere and the school’s focus on student achievement.

“I was talking to another parent that I worked with at that time regarding high schools and I was telling her my concerns with (public schools) and Dante was always in a school that had smaller classes and not a large number of students enrolled,” explained Hamilton.

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“He’s the type of student that needed more of a one-on-one, yet he needed a challenge.  He also needed teachers and staff that were in tuned to different personality types of teenagers.

“When my friend from work told me about HOPE, I went there and toured the school and the atmosphere was just so friendly and, for lack of a better term, I had a warm and fuzzy feeling inside as soon as I walked through the door.  Just taking the tour and meeting some of the teachers and some of the coaches, there was no question in my mind and Dante felt the same way.”

Dante, who started at HOPE as a freshman, has excelled academically, and will most likely attend Milwaukee Area Technical College in the fall.

“Dante got acceptance letters from several colleges and it was kind of hard to decide which one to go to,” according to his mother.

“All the seniors and their parents have a timeline of when things are due, when we have to have FASFA and college visits and tours.  And actually, Dante says, ‘Mom, do we have to look at any more schools?’ It’s kind of funny.”

“We set high expectations for our students”

HOPE High School first opened its doors in 2004 in Milwaukee’s Harambee neighborhood.

Most of its students come from the type of socioeconomic circumstances that often doom kids to substandard lives.

Of the school’s 200 students, 100 percent are African-American and over 95 percent are eligible for free or reduced lunch.

HOPE, which stands for Hold Onto Promises Everywhere, is part of a larger network that includes three grade schools located throughout the Milwaukee area.

Nearly all HOPE students participate in the Parental Choice Program.

“Operating a high school on $6,442 (the amount of a voucher) is challenging,” Wendy Greenfield, HOPE’s vice president of development and communications, told EAGnews. “We operate on very lean budgets.”

By comparison, Milwaukee Public Schools receive about twice the amount of state money per student.

Remarkably, HOPE is on its way to closing the racial achievement gap that has historically plagued inner-city kids. In 2013, HOPE seniors outperformed their African-American peers at the local and state level.

“We set high expectations for our students, and we generally find that students live up to what is expected of them,” said Greenfield.

HOPE also places a high importance on obtaining a college education.

“Starting in kindergarten, HOPE students can tell you the year they will enter college. We don’t ask students if they are going to college; we ask them where they are going to college,” said Greenfield.

For the last two years, HOPE has had a 100 percent college acceptance rate. In the two years before that, HOPE’s college acceptance rate was 87 percent and 92 percent, respectively.

Alumni are attending schools like Marquette University, UW-Whitewater, Liberty University, Concordia University of Chicago, and Wisconsin Lutheran College.

HOPE’s success has been a point of pride in the community, where only about half of adults ages 25 and up have graduated from high school, according to Greenfield.

“Our neighbors are extremely supportive and take great pride in seeing our young men wearing their ties and blazers as they walk through the neighborhood,” said Greenfield.  “The neighborhood has been extremely supportive of our schools and our students.”

Without the Parental Choice Program, it is doubtful where many of these students would be today, and if they would have the same opportunity for success.

Debra Hamilton said she is thankful she had the opportunity to send her son to a private school.

“With the economy and not having employment for a while, he never would have made it. We never could have afforded to go to HOPE and who knows where he would be right now,” said Hamilton.