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Non-traditional High School aims high to support at-risk youth

The brick building on South 35th Street in Milwaukee, Wisconsin sits tall beside a noisy road with constant traffic. One would imagine a large school filled with hundreds of people and at least three floors of classrooms. But inside the highschool there’s only one hallway with seven classrooms.

It’s adorned with student artwork and papel picado – a Mexican decorative garland – that hangs from the ceiling. The rest of the building serves as a food pantry and a church.

Roughly 100 students share this smaller space within the brick walls with a close-knit administration of 12 staff members who are committed to advancing students socially and academically. 

This is El Puente High School.

El Puente was founded in 1997 with the mission to serve children who are at risk of not graduating high school. 

Students who are classified in the ‘at-risk’ category mostly come from factors that affect the students’ lives like financial issues, behavioral issues, domestic violence or other family-derived situations.

With Milwaukee having one of the largest achievement gaps between POC students and white students, only 62% of students graduate highschool and only 8% of students will earn both their high school and college degrees.

El Puente High School started out in a basement, where students could not know whether it was snowing or raining outside. It was only nine years ago when El Puente moved to its new location now offering students a bigger and better space for learning.

At El Puente, student’s engagement and sense of belonging is a priority. Enrollment numbers are capped each year to provide personalized service to students and faculty. 

According to the MPS Youth Risk Behavior Survey from high schoolers in 2021, 23% of the students who took the survey said they didn’t have a teacher or adult.

The staff at El Puente take on many roles other than being a teacher: they become mentors, a support system, and even a friend. They strive to build flexible learning environments as well as genuine relationships with students. 

This care shows in small and big ways, from teachers and staff going by their first names to create a safe space to having parents’ phone numbers on speed dial.

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