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Educator inspires students with vision of cap and gown

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by Dani McClain
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

At 27, Deanna Singh is determined to change the dismal statistic that only 5% of African-American adults in Milwaukee have a four-year college degree.

So determined that she has launched her own charter school, where her inaugural sixth-grade students already identify their class by the year they will graduate from college.

She aims to build a culture that refuses to accept what she witnessed years ago as a volunteer in Washington, D.C., schools – 11th- and 12th-graders who could barely read or write.

Both students and staff at her Milwaukee Renaissance Academy, 2212 N. 12th St., follow the succinct dictum of a mural in the school’s stairwell: “No excuses!”

High expectations propelled Singh from her father’s north side gas station – where she spent much of the first five years of her life – through Elmbrook Schools and on to the top-notch East Coast universities where she received her college and law degrees.

That same passion has landed her a block away from her father’s Shell station, in a former YMCA building that houses the school, which Singh started planning after completing a fellowship in 2005 with the Boston-based Building Excellent Schools.

On an evening in February, Singh was six months into her new gig as school administrator and surrounded by sixth-graders in the school’s gym. As part of an interactive program called the living history museum, students were dressed as prominent African-Americans throughout history: Maya Angelou, Arthur Ashe, members of the Black Panther Party, and Tommie Smith and John Carlos, both of 1968 Olympics fame. They stayed in character, speaking as the figures might have, as family members walked around and snapped photographs.

“Too many times, black history programs are something you do to the kids,” Singh said between chatting with parents and helping students through costume crises. “We wanted to do something they could actually live.”

In her role as the museum’s curator, 12-year-old Cheyenne Chin-Mook wore Singh’s blazer to dress up her school uniform – the maroon polo shirt, black pants and black shoes all students must wear.

Jeannie Berry-Matos, Cheyenne’s grandmother, said the school is giving the girl firm academic footing and credits Singh’s vision.

“She’s clearly thinking about higher education,” Berry-Matos said of Singh. “We have to provide our children an opportunity to be transformed.”

Milwaukee Renaissance Academy’s student body is 98% African-American and 2% Asian, and Singh’s own background in thoroughly multicultural.

She learned Spanish from the Dominican and Puerto Rican families she worked with as a tutor and mentor in the Bronx neighborhoods surrounding Fordham University, where she earned a degree in urban studies.

Her senior thesis was titled “African-American Men: Raising Men, Not Prisoners,” and she wrote it while juggling jobs at a community court and Red Bull (yes, the beverage company) with the presidency of the Black Student Union.

Singh’s father immigrated to Milwaukee from India in 1978 and met her mother, who is African-American, soon after.

Bachan Singh first worked a gas station on N. 17th St. and W. North Ave., and eventually saved enough money to buy the Shell station he still runs near his daughter’s school.

“I was doing her baby-sitting and running the gas station,” he said. “When she was 6, 7, 8 years old, she would see people there in pretty bad shape. Nobody was being responsible for some of these kids. She felt like a lucky kid.”

The elder Singh said he and his wife instilled in Deanna and her two younger sisters the belief that no calling was as high as public service. A career as an attorney seemed to Deanna a good way to serve, so she got a law degree from Georgetown University and spent her years in D.C. teaching a street law and civics class to area high school students.

A job offer from the Milwaukee office of Legal Action of Wisconsin brought her home, but after about a year as a public defender, she began to have doubts.

One case, involving a police officer suspected of using inappropriate force against a child, raised the question that eventually changed Singh’s life.

“My role as a public defender is to get to the bottom of it,” she remembers. “But in my heart I’m thinking, ‘Why do I have a 12-year-old in a detention center with a sling on his arm? Why am I not sitting across this table in a mentoring role?’ ”

After finding a way to fast-track the transition to charter school administrator, she made the leap. A fellowship at the nonprofit Building Excellent Schools taught her the nuts and bolts: how to write a charter application, how to build a board, how to implement curriculum that had worked at charter schools around the country.

In the shift from theory to practice, Singh hit some snags.

Finding the right building took longer than expected, she said. She finally got it just two months before school was scheduled to start, and Singh and her team spent July and August of last year on deep-clean duty.

Just over 100 students had applied and been accepted, but only 50 showed up on the first day of school. That meant state dollars that follow Milwaukee students hadn’t made it into the budget as Singh had anticipated.

Her commitment to having a school that will put students on the college path means a longer school day, and classes such as gym and art are essential, Singh said. So rather than cut into the academic program, she went into fund-raising overdrive.

Bamidele Ali, the school’s board chairman, said his confidence in Singh’s ability to direct the business side trumped any concerns about her lack of formal training as an educator.

“There are certain skill sets that come along with the training of becoming a lawyer that I knew would be needed,” said Ali, a local entrepreneur.

Singh’s lead administrative partner is Annemarie Ketterhagen, a Teach for America alumna with extensive classroom experience in New York City schools.

The two connected through Milwaukee College Preparatory School, where Singh worked as an apprentice to Principal Robb Rauh. Ketterhagen’s mother is a special education teacher at Rauh’s north side K-8 charter school, where last school year, 81% of fourth-graders were proficient or advanced on the state reading test and 71% hit the mark on the math test. Today, Rauh’s and Singh’s schools are among 11 with charters granted by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Using the kind of forward-looking language one hears around Milwaukee Renaissance Academy, Rauh refers to students in his 4-year-old kindergarten as “the Class of 2021.”

He said Singh has the drive to get her students to the gates of some of the most competitive colleges in the country, but that her task can be more difficult than his given her determination to build a middle and high school that accepts only incoming sixth-graders.

“When you start with sixth-graders, the challenges are a lot bigger and a lot more difficult to overcome,” he said.

Linda Brown, the founder of Building Excellent Schools, agrees. She calls Singh “a rock star” and an ideal person to take on those challenges, which she said are rooted in behaviors that for some low-income children have become ingrained by the time they’re preteens.

Brown said her organization teaches people how to create schools that give students discipline and a reverence for education, regardless of what they might encounter in their off-campus hours.

“Whatever you have on the street, you leave all of that on the outside,” Brown said, explaining the philosophy she passed along to Singh. “You cross the threshold and are a Milwaukee Renaissance scholar. We can’t fix your mother’s life and we can’t get your father out of jail, but we can teach you how to hold the key to your future.”

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