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New mural tells the stories of MPS students at dual language school La Escuela Fratney

Bob Peterson and Rita Tenorio were instrumental in the founding of La Escuela Fratney as a dual-language school in 1988.The celebration of La Escuela Fratney’s colorful new mural, where children are at the center, also became an opportunity to honor the dual language school’s founders and ideals. Hundreds of students, families, staff, and community members celebrated outside the MPS school in the Riverwest neighborhood on Friday, May 31. 

Artist Tia Richardson named the mural “Creciendo Unidos” — growing together — which also is the motto of the school, located at 3255 N. Fratney St. 

The mural was made possible by the family of Sylvia Levine, a former teacher, Riverwest resident, and art lover. Seeking a way to honor her memory, her family approached La Escuela Fratney Principal Sara Cruz. Cruz suggested their generous donation be used to paint a mural on the school’s large south wall.  

“We are extremely grateful for their gift, and we also want to thank the Bader (Philanthropies) Foundation for donating funds for installation of the mural,” Cruz said. 

“It is now, with this mural, that what we value, honor, and teach inside the school building is on display outside the school building for our entire Riverwest and Milwaukee community to enjoy,” she added. 

Some of the values of the school, which is the only dual language English-Spanish school on Milwaukee’s north side, can be seen in the mural, the principal said. For instance, respect is portrayed by an image of a teacher welcoming a child to a classroom. It’s also seen in the symbol for Fratney School, which was suggested by a parent: a huge heart. La Escuela Fratney has children in 3-year-old kindergarten through 5th grade.

“Tia and her team of artists were able to put the students at the center of this big heart, and that is where we believe students should be, at the center of our hearts and the center of all that we do at our school,” Cruz said. 

Seeing the mural, seeing themselves

The diversity of students in the mural will let the school’s students see themselves in it. In the past school year, Cruz noted, the staff welcomed families from Colombia, Nicaragua, Honduras, Venezuela, Mexico, and other countries to La Escuela Fratney. 

“We hope that, through this mural, all those who have left their country of origin, coming to Milwaukee for safety, education, and job opportunities, will know that we welcome them and embrace the unique stories they bring with them,” Cruz said. 

Other school values can be seen in the mural: Students marching for children’s rights, which represents a focus on equity and social justice, and students reading together in English and Spanish, representing “how much we value and honor students’ home languages and multilingualism,” Cruz explained. 

Principal Sara Cruz speaks at the celebration of the new mural at La Escuela Fratney.The mural is 40 feet by 16 feet, painted in acrylic on aluminum panels. Besides the artist and her team of assistants, the mural’s creation involved more than 300 La Escuela Fratney students, families, staff, and community members, beginning with visioning sessions in the fall of 2023.  

“Our students were involved in every step of the design and painting process,” Cruz said. Richardson and her team completed the painting's finishing touches. 

Miguel Sanchez, MPS East Regional Superintendent, observed, “When we work together, great things happen. This mural is a beautiful example of that.”  

The artist said the mural reflects her own values as well as the school’s. "It's about unity and diversity, working across cultures for the common good," Richardson said.  

“When I look at this mural, I’m inspired by the richness of the different stories in the images,” the artist said.  

That includes “stories of immigration and finding a new place to put down roots,” Richardson said, adding, “Fratney is a place where everyone can belong and feel safe and cared for.” 

Richardson’s work can be seen across Milwaukee. The numerous locations include Al Jarreau Park, N. 30th and W. Locust streets; the I-794 piers downtown; Black Cat Alley, off E. Ivanhoe Place; the Milwaukee County Courthouse’s lower level; and the Donald J. O’Connell Memorial Auditorium in MPS Central Services. 

How La Escuela Fratney started  

Bob Peterson and Rita Tenorio, who were instrumental in the founding of La Escuela Fratney as a dual-language school in 1988, spoke about those beginnings at the mural celebration. 

Peterson recounted how Fratney School’s students and staff were merged with the newly rebuilt Gaenslen School, leaving the Fratney building’s fate up in the air.  

The group called Neighbors for a New Fratney asked the Milwaukee Board of School Directors in early 1988 to turn it into a dual language school, and two months later, they learned they would have their new school, Peterson said. 

Tenorio noted that La Escuela Fratney was the only dual language school in Wisconsin when it opened. “It was really a challenge, because there weren’t a lot of schools to pattern ourselves after,” she said.  Many students, families, and staff attended the mural celebration.

At a dual language school, she said, “All students learn a second language, and both languages are valued and looked upon as a strength.” 

Other components on which La Escuela Fratney was founded were using best practices in the curriculum; involving parents and the community in the school; and taking a multicultural approach to education. 

“We’re proud of our vision and, after 36 years, that it’s been consistent and continuing,” Tenorio said. 

Besides its new mural, the school will display a new plaque that recounts how the “new” La Escuela Fratney got its start — through the group led by Peterson and Tenorio — and what its guiding principles are.  

In part, the plaque reads, “We respect ourselves and our world; we are proud to be bilingual, multicultural learners; we can make a difference on Planet Earth; we share stories of the world. To this day, Escuela Fratney maintains a commitment to these ideals and remains an integral part of the Riverwest community.” 

La Escuela Fratney teaches children in 3-year-old kindergarten through 5th grade. 

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