On Sept. 1, new principal Nancy Martinez will stand outside Kagel Elementary in Walker’s Point to welcome her kids to school.
“I am going to roll out the blue carpet for the students,” says Martinez with the kind of enthusiasm that seems to surround her like an aura. “Blue is our (school) color but it is also the color of advanced proficiency. So we can say we want all the kids to go to blue.
“They will see the teachers … we’ll make it really, really festive and show that we’re glad that they’re here.”
Martinez is one of more than 50 new principals taking over at Milwaukee Public Schools this school year. That’s a new principal in nearly one of every three district schools.
When MPS superintendent Dr. Gregory Thornton talks of this being an exciting new era, and a new opportunity for MPS – as he has on a number of occasions – he’s clearly got talented, exuberant folks like Martinez in mind.
But don’t think for a second that the first day of school will be Martinez’s first day on the job. You could say she started the day she applied for the position.
When I meet her in her office on a rare temperate day in July, she’s hard at work. She’s working full days all summer long to get her staff, her school and herself off to a good start.
Building engineer Bob Howell lets me in and Martinez comes, literally, running out of the office to meet us. When I marvel at the energy, Powell quips, “she’s always running.”
Martinez says, “I can’t imagine a better school to be in, better kids to serve, a better community to be a part of. I’m ready to work. I’m excited about meeting my kids. And I swear to you that I’m not lying. You can see it.
“I’m a pretty hyperactive person. I’m always running. And I have a great, great team with me.”
Kagel, built in 1891, is located at 12th and Mineral in the heart of Walker’s Point. It sits on high ground and you can’t miss it when driving on I-94 and, especially, on the high-rise bridge.
The heavily Spanish-speaking school has an enrollment of around 365 students, more than 98 percent of whom are eligible for free or reduced lunch. And although Kagel is truly a neighborhood school – Martinez says only two buses serve the K-5 school – it has a nearly 20 percent mobility rate, which means one in five students won’t stay put for long.
Kagel’s fourth graders beat the district average in reading, language, social studies and science proficiency – some subjects by up to 13 percentage points – but lag in mathematics.
Although it has lost P5 and SAGE funding, Kagel only currently has two vacancies: one is a retirement and the other a layoff. Class sizes will rise, but only by five or six per room, says Martinez.
Martinez is taking over for Dr. Hector Perez-LaBoy, who had been at the school for more than a decade, and retired in June, she says. She knows she has big shoes to fill.
“Dr. LaBoy is a beloved member of this community,” Martinez says.
And she would know. Because even though she arrives at Kagel from the West Side Milwaukee School of Languages, where she served as assistant principal, her roots are in Walker’s Point.
The neighborhood is where Martinez settled when she arrived from Puerto Rico in 1990. And after studying at Marquette, she spent three years at Bruce Guadalupe School – an MPS partner school ­– helping to launch its preschool in 1996 and writing grants.
She was also the CLC (community learning center) academic coordinator at the Latino Community Center for 10 years.
So, even though Martinez applied and interviewed for principalships at ALAS High School, Project STAY, Wisconsin Conservatory of Lifelong Learning and Humboldt Park (she made it to the final round for three schools, which should tell you something about her skills), she had a first choice and it was Kagel.
“(Dr. Thornton) did ask me, ‘Where you feel the most comfortable?’,” she recalls. “(I said) ‘at the end of the day I want to lead kids and educate children, so wherever you think I could be service, I will go. But if you ask me, if I can have make cake and eat it too I would choose Kagel.’ He understood.”
“I am pleased that our process allowed staff and parents to have a voice,” said Thornton in a statement earlier this month. “We worked hard to make good matches between school communities and principal candidates.
“Where an applicant showed a passion for a particular school and had a strong vision of where that school should be in years ahead, we chose that person. Our students will be in good hands.”
When she got the job, Martinez was elated.
“First I yelled and screamed, because I know I had my first choice and how many people can say they got their first choice the first time they apply for a principalship? I was (working) at MSL at the time, so it was two minutes of (screams) and then back to work.”
She then worked all day at MSL and would spend the evenings getting started at Kagel.
“I didn’t want to give a generic presentation when it was my time to do that,” she says. “I wanted to make sure it reflected their thoughts.”
When the job became hers, she had already created a solid foundation of school community input. And that continues as she prepares for the upcoming year.
She immediately called LaBoy and again met with him and the Kagel staff.
“On the last day of school they stayed a little bit (late) to meet me and I was giving them an update on the things I’d done, because I went to work right away,” Martinez says. “They had started e-mailing me with certain concerns and I was able to give them an update on that day. ‘I’m at work already and these are some of the things I was able to do’.”
Martinez is meeting one on one with staff this summer to lay out her expectations and to hear their concerns. Then, she’s getting on top of those right away, she says.
“The ones that I can take care of right away we do it in that moment, otherwise I try to answer as fast as possible, but within the next 24 hours if I can. What I want them to see about me is that there’s an immediate follow-through. If I say that I’m going to do something for you, I’m going to follow up. When I come and say something then they know that I have the substance to follow through.”
Martinez is sending a letter out to parents and hosted about 50 of them at the school last week, too.
She is working hard to be inclusive. In fact, she is simply working hard. And her school secretary, Nilsa Rivera, who isn’t expected to report to work until the end of August has been coming in to help, too, on a volunteer basis.
While Martinez is spending most of the summer in her office, she says come September she doesn’t expect to see the room much. And it’s easy to see why. She’s got ambitious plans.
Martinez is jump-starting the chess club Dr. LaBoy started and hosting a competition against another school on Sept. 16. She believes the club can help the school improve its sagging math proficiency.
The parking lot and playground are being upgraded this summer and she’s working with the GE Foundation on school improvements. Kagel was one of 15 to earn the services of volunteers who will come in and do landscaping, paint murals, renovate the small basement cafeteria and work on other projects, too.
Martinez is bolstering the school’s PBIS behavior program, which in its first year at the school lowered suspensions from 12 the previous year to just three. And she’s putting together a committee to bring the International Baccalaureate program to Kagel, too.
“I think that would help us not to struggle so much with our enrollment every year,” Martinez says. “That’s the reality of our community, but I think that if they had a program that is pre-college, I think even if they moved, they could make the effort to still leave them here.”
An IB program could be a magnet to draw kids from around the city, too. But Martinez is quick to say that Kagel is and will always be, first and foremost, a neighborhood school.
“My first priority would be this community and it will always be this community. This community has given me so I got here. I want for the children of this community the best education possible. After this community is served, if there are additional seats, then …”
Martinez is instituting a school uniform to keep the focus, she says, “on education and not the latest fashions,” and will buy ties for the fifth graders to wear, to help mark them out as – and make them feel like – leaders.
She also hopes to grow the school’s enrollment up to closer to its capacity of 400. The extra funding would allow her to ensure that Kagel kids will have access to art and music during the budget crunch.
“That would make all the difference in the world for some funding and for some things we still want to do,” she says.
If it sounds like a lot to get done, don’t worry and don’t let her petite size fool you, Martinez is a giant in terms of energy, enthusiasm, drive and collaboration.
Because she’s working hard to make sure she knows her staff and its strengths and its concerns, and because she knows she has to put her students above all else, Martinez is getting off to a good start.
That she knows the greater Kagel community well, too, also positions her for success.
“I think that this community is very much looking to have all our kids proficient,” she says. “We all come from the same school of thought: everybody can achieve at high levels with the right supports and the right services. Working together … our missions align, our visions align.”