Opening of The Lincoln Academy is a milestone moment for Beloit.
The idea of a new public school for Beloit families to consider as they weigh what is best for their children always seemed far-fetched.
Beloit already has a public school system serving youngsters from elementary through high school. It has been around longer than anyone living can remember, enrolling thousands of kids every year.
Increasingly, though, American parents have grown frustrated with the state of public education. Let’s make this very clear. It is not just a Beloit phenomenon.
Urban public schools have been struggling with ongoing, intractable issues adversely impacting student performance. No matter how much money is spent, academic achievement has lagged. Behavioral issues have worsened. High rates of educator turnover have been documented. Year after year, tests show little progress.
The schools, teachers and administrators tend to get the blame in this community and elsewhere. That’s not entirely fair. The underlying problems correlate to societal issues, more often than not. The schools take in the community’s kids who show up on the steps. They do not get to pick and choose.
Having said that, there’s more. Like any institution, over time, schools can slide into a pattern in how they do things. Institutional rigidity, in every field, can be the enemy of innovation and change. It’s human nature.
So it’s not particularly surprising that, for many parents, another way of schooling their kids holds a certain appeal. Private schools have been around for years and offered one alternative, often limited both by capacity and cost. With that in mind, state government first offered public school choice, allowing parents to shift their kids into nearby districts. Beloit Turner, in particular, has absorbed significant numbers of outlying students in recent years.
Then state authorities expanded publicly-funded vouchers, providing families with another alternative and financial means for their kids.
And now there’s The Lincoln Academy. Last week marked an historic milestone in Beloit as the K-4 through high school public charter school welcomed its first students. The Lincoln Academy is chartered through the UW System and is, therefore, independent of the School District of Beloit even though it’s a public unit. There’s no tuition charge for incoming students and enrollment is open to any Wisconsin pupil. The Lincoln Academy will receive taxpayer funding, though it also benefits from private contributions and grants.
No two ways about it, The Lincoln Academy would not exist without the philanthropy of Beloit entrepreneur Diane Hendricks. Her generosity and commitment to trying new ways to tackle cultural and educational issues in the community make all this possible.
This needs to be said. Diane Hendricks -- and earlier with her late husband Ken Hendricks -- demonstrates a truly extraordinary determination to build Beloit better. As a billionaire, she has become accustomed to having a target painted on her back and taking plenty of incoming fire from those who object to her wealth, or her politics, or something else.. Yet she persists, bringing project after project to fruition in this, her adopted community.
She certainly doesn’t have to do that. She could just keep the money rather than invest in community projects. Or she could take it elsewhere. Instead, Beloit has been the beneficiary of Hendricks’ belief that positive change is worth the effort and expense.
Most recently, she was a key financial backer of the ABC Supply Stadium project downtown. Before that it was the opening of the Wright & Wagner apartment complex. The Iron Works site is a strong example, along with hospitality and entertainment venues downtown. Of course, the sprawling ABC Supply campus on the riverfront is the anchor of it all.
There’s more, but here’s the point: The Lincoln Academy should rank number one among the projects made possible by Diane Hendricks’ leadership. It is a gift to future generations. It is a statement that says every kid can succeed. It is a challenge to families to strive harder to provide opportunities for the future of the community and its people.
The knee-jerk reaction in some circles is to see The Lincoln Academy as the nemesis of the existing public school system. It is not, in our view. At the most fundamental level, The Lincoln Academy is an option, a choice, and choice is good. By its charter nature The Lincoln Academy will be able to experiment with different educational approaches. The objective is to make a difference for children and families to achieve a better educational outcome. How can that be bad? Will it work? That remains to be seen, when comparable measurements take place. Since insufficient progress has been made in Beloit schools to this point, we certainly believe it’s worth a try.
Moreover, competition is a good thing. The School District of Beloit is still the biggest and most important educational institution in the community. No one is rooting for failure. If competition spurs improvements for SDB, the entire community will cheer. Beloit needs the SDB to thrive, and all citizens should be supportive.
Meanwhile, welcome to The Lincoln Academy and its innovative approaches. Thanks to Diane Hendricks for her unwavering belief in Beloit’s kids. Best wishes for the teachers and administrators at the new school. Pursuit of progress is a good thing.