In this episode of Cool Schools, Kevin Festerling, founder of Kingdom Prep Lutheran High School recounts the institution’s first academic year. Festerling says, “Our job isn’t to create Lutherans. Our job is to be Lutheran.”
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Our Podcast Transcribed
Mike McShane: Hello again, and welcome to another episode of EdChoice Chats and particularly, the Cool Schools podcast. On today’s episode, we’re talking to Kevin Festerling, who is the founder of Kingdom Prep Lutheran High School in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
This is an interesting school because in addition to being a cool school, it’s a relatively new school. It just started in the fall of 2018. It’s an all-boys high school that according to its website, is committed to faith, service, experience and excellence, and opened its doors in fall to its first group of ninth graders.
We have a really interesting conversation in store for you, not just talking about what it’s like to start up a new school, but the really interesting vision that Kevin and his team have for that school to really think about fully forming young people and particularly young people that don’t share the faith tradition of the school. So, we have a really interesting conversation about how they think through that, how they’ve organized the school, the challenges they face, lessons that they’ve already learned. A lot to dig into. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do. So without further ado, here’s my conversation with Kevin Festerling of Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s Kingdom Prep Lutheran High School.
Well Kevin, thank you so much for joining us today. I wonder if we could maybe get started at the very beginning. As the song goes, “it is a very good place to start.” So, how did Kingdom Prep gets started?
Kevin Festerling: Yeah, so Kingdom Prep was started when an area Lutheran high school, what was the receiving about 50 percent voucher students, 50 percent tuition-paying students, and it was located right on the edge of Milwaukee. When that school became a hot commodity for the voucher elementary schools who were feeding into it, when those voucher elementary schools, drew, unfortunately 50 percent to now about 100 percent voucher choice students, all of a sudden the families were asking, “What’s our next step? We went to a Lutheran elementary school.” Traditionally non-Lutheran families were largely getting turned away in the hundreds from the application process of due to the cap that these high schools were set at. And so we saw that and saw it as a supply/demand issue and as the church essentially said, we need to open up another high school. And it seems like the parents are appreciating this Lutheran heritage thing and maybe it’s just a good school. Maybe it’s the Lutheran part, but let’s open another one. So, we began as an all-boys ninth grade academy just this year in the fall. And that’s how it got its start.
Mike McShane: Well, that’s great. So, what makes Kingdom Prep unique?
Kevin Festerling: Sure. So, currently, Kingdom Prep would be, I think the only Lutheran, all-boys high school in the country, which is unique for us. In Milwaukee, there’s also Marquette, which 1853 it started with about 15 young men. So, that’s now a very high performing magnet school. But Kingdom Prep is unique for a lot of reasons. It’s just ninth grade boys. It’s a Lutheran school with about 95 percent non-Lutheran students. It’s nearly 100 percent voucher choice school. And I could go on and say a few things about the unique side of what we’re doing. We are a school that is trying to become a different ceiling. So, in my historic days of education, it was college prep, college prep, college prep. Let’s find the communities where we’re typically underperforming and let’s bring college prep into those communities.
I started noticing that some of the traditions and the rites of passage that some of our age old Lutheran Christian schools were kind of going away and were replacing a lot of the acts of maybe formation, faith, of service and of brotherhood in Christ.
We decided some of those things shouldn’t just be pushed aside so that we can become college prep, which was happening inadvertently because we were doubling down in our reading and doubling down in our math, doubling down in all of our academic areas and things got pushed aside where sometimes these extracurricular, what seem to be faith pieces, and so we decided just to go take mad sprint from it back to some of these age old faith formation topics. And we start off with small group Bible study in the morning. We do chapel service after that with the young men, and we just do all kinds of rites of passages that would help the young men recognize that they’re just incredibly gifted. Lots of talent and you know, lots of skills to be put in place right now.
Mike McShane: So, talk to me. There’s so much to unpack there, which is wonderful. So, talk to me about operating a Lutheran school with an overwhelmingly non-Lutheran population.
Kevin Festerling: Yeah, absolutely. So, we try to mimic a lot of the things that we’ve learned from a school called Saint Benedict’s, which is in Newark, New Jersey. Are you familiar with Saint Benedict’s?
Mike McShane: I’m not actually.
Kevin Festerling: So, Saint Benedict’s has about 600 young men from the city of Newark. And Newark originally, it was the Abbey for the Archdiocese of Newark and you know, since the 1800s, that school is just a magnet for families who had means, a very high-paying tuition type of Catholic. In fact, Benedictine.
And during the race riots of Newark, in the later 60s, they found themselves essentially dissolved where white families had left and the monks who ran that school had really looked at each other and said, well, who do we serve? Now, what do we do? And they shut down for a year and most of the monks left, except for a couple. And one of those guys is a pretty prominent leader now there. He’s probably nearing his career soon because he’s just been there for so long. I think he’d laugh if I mentioned his age. I think he’s getting up there.
He would say that at that year they started again, they were going to rename themselves and one of the guys from the community, they had a I guess you’d call it a neighborhood get together and they rethinking who should we be? What should we stay as, still a school? And one of the family members said, “Wait a minute. Let me get this straight. Now that we’re all here,” by we’re all here, meaning a demographic that now largely is not the same. It was African-American at that time, some Hispanic. “Are we not good enough for Saint Benedict’s anymore?” So, they then said, you’re right. They reopened as Saint Benedict’s and the story is fun to watch, how they’re now one of the highest performing high schools in the country, for sure. And so we’ve largely, you know, taken a lot of their playbook and brought it here to Milwaukee.
And so similar to them, our job isn’t to create Lutherans. Our job is to be Lutheran. Our job is to present God’s love. Our job is to be a group of teachers and leaders here who will just present the love of Christ and build brotherhood with young men and walk alongside these guys in what are we would think to some of the most critical years of their life. And so, you know, if they ever find an onboard into the Lutheran faith, great. More importantly is that we can all huddle around scriptures and say like, “If you’re OK with this book as being our source and our direction, let’s go, you know, and let’s not hold back.”
So, we don’t find any obstacles in the way of that at this point. I don’t think we will. In fact, it helps us when we bring people who are Baptist, nondenominational and a couple of Muslim fellows come in and are asking big questions with us. And so we’re patient and we’re helpful. We’re trying to seek the scriptures together to find out, you know, what can we learn from this book to lead our lives?
Mike McShane: So, now when you talk about mission or vision not to create Lutherans, but to be Lutheran, as you all situate yourselves in Milwaukee or within your sort of faith tradition writ large, is that some convincing that you had to do for people? Are folks more broadly in the community accepting of that mission? Do they wish it was more proselytizing? Are you OK with that? How do you navigate those conversations?
Kevin Festerling: Yeah, that’s a great question. I guess we’ll find out, huh?
At this point, where we’re only getting high fives from all communities, our own Lutheran church is saying, “Kevin, thank you for heeding the call. We have families who want more of what we’re offering.” So, it’s a broken business model. You know, every young man
I go to recruit from an eighth grade classroom, I am now in debt $5,000 more based on the voucher.
So, you know, I think we’re getting high fives from the folks who are in our own congregations our own Lutheran world. We’re getting high fives from this neighborhood because I think this neighborhood by and large is ready to see a new demographic co-mingle with this community. You know, we sit in Wauwatosa, which is right on the border line of one of the strongest racial kind of dot plot segregation moments you’d ever see on a map. In fact, it’s incredibly depressing to see how fast you crossed one street sign into Milwaukee it’s a whole new culture of people.
So, it seems like our school, we’re kind of like an airplane looking for a landing pad somewhere. We were looking for buildings all over, mostly Milwaukee, which is where the families are coming from. And I’m driving home where I live in Wauwatosa, right? You know, maybe 10 blocks into Wauwatosa, and here is this empty school for six years in a great community, a great congregation which is Catholic and essentially said, “Hey, we’re looking for a place to have an all-boys school.” The landlord said, “Well my boys all went to Marquette. I think all-boys do great things. It’s a great time for young men to have to spend investing in who they are and identity.”
And he said, “I think you should have a shot at it.” And then we went to the community and like, here’s what we’re up for. You know there’s people who like the school choice thing and who don’t like it, but by and large the elders of the community had to vote us in to become a school because after two years of vacancy, this school, because of the zoning, had lost its occupancy, its conditional use permit as a school.
So, the elders of the community, the mayor included, voted us in to say yes, we like this idea of Kingdom Prep. I think there were fully knowledgeable that this is going to be a demographic that would help mix in fact, who the current residents are in the city. The resident ownership here looks like 95 percent white, and our school is about 96 percent African-American, 2 percent Hispanic/Latino.
Mike McShane: So, now you mentioned that every time you recruit a young man, you go $5,000 in debt, based on the voucher. What do you mean by that? What’s going on there?
Kevin Festerling: Yeah well, the cost per pupil, when we’re up and running for four years will be about $12,000 per child. In our first year, it’s way higher than that due to just scalability and how that works. Economy for scale. So, but by the time four years comes around, I would expect we’ll be spending about $12,000 per child. Maybe more. And the voucher gives you about $8,000. So, essentially—I guess I overestimated—we’re about $19,000 this year. Next year, it’ll be about $15,000. In the third year it’ll be at about, I would say $13,000 and we’ll come down to her probably $11,500-12,000.
And so especially in these first opening years, you know, it’s not a popular move to make. The schools were seeing many years of voucher families applying for these Lutheran schools and Milwaukee has, similar to other cities, just you know, tales and tales of parents not able to find good schools and so it seemed like this is more of a calling to the church to say, “Are you going to do the next thing which just open another school or is that just one of those things you did when you used to have constituents who put money in the offering plate, who essentially paid for schools to be built?”
We took a big leap of faith and the foundations around us, supported us and some of the major foundations in this community are excited about what we’re doing. Like I said, our own congregation’s high fiving us. I think this own community here thinks it’s great. Some of the neighborhood schools, the public schools are even welcoming us in to do conversations with their own faculty, with their students, just to talk about diversity in the city. I suppose that broken business model is what every, I think, high quality school has to wrestle with in the voucher world that we live in, but due to people like the Drexel Fund, Bradley Foundation, Siebert Lutheran Foundation, even some of these agnostic foundations, like the WE Energies, who are saying we do appreciate what you’re doing, Kevin, and they’re chipping in.
Mike McShane: So, now, how could policy be changed? I mean, it seems like one clear solution would be for the voucher to be worth more money, but are there other policy changes that could be made that would make your life easier?
Kevin Festerling: That’s a good question. There are people who are really well educated on this topic… they probably have opinions. As I see it currently, what the Drexel Fund is doing is probably the largest solution, which is that they’ll take passionate school leaders and founders and developers and they’ll essentially do some of the heavy lifting financially and even vet some of the policies and some of the, you know, the ideas from us new and entrepreneurial school leaders and they’ll connect you to people who can help you make it a financially viable thing. So, I think that’s helpful.
As far as politically and different policies, I’m shocked already at how willing our state is in Wisconsin, that we’re willing to actually help fund parents to make the choice for where they want to send their kids. So, I’m on the other side, where I’m just privileged and blessed that we get to do this work.
I mean, and that’s coming from a man who, I think this is the number one thing that I and my friends could be doing with their lives as we’re walking alongside these guys. I grew up in a Lutheran school system where we did not have this kind of money to play with. It was absolutely more meager, more humbling. My parents are both, you know, missionary Lutheran type parents and I saw the salaries they had and I saw cars they drove. I saw the boxes that showed up on the back step for us, six kids to get dressed, you know. Our teachers were working with much less and so I actually find it to be, I’m just pretty impressed already with what our state is up to and you know, I always joke that with as many nice people around who are helping support this financially, if we can’t figure this out, you know, I think we don’t deserve to be even open.
I think that’s the beauty of school choice is that parents, you know, at any point in time they can pull their kids out. And in economics, the best product for the best price is what wins in market and I love that. I feel like it empowers our students. It empowers our parents. It forces me to look in the mirror to say, “Do I really have what it takes to create a school for the young man to leave as soon as he wants and bring his $8,400 elsewhere?” So, I quite appreciate the program as it stands, but I’m sure you know, adding more dollars to that voucher wouldn’t hurt.
Mike McShane: Wouldn’t hurt anybody. Sure.
Kevin Festerling: No, not at all. But you know what it does? We have to be outstanding, or these funders won’t come our way, and so actually, the thing that keeps me up at night worrying, you know, if we’re going to have the money for it is also the thing that I think is helping create dynamic schools, that forces us to have to go and search high and low for the right talent, work really hard with young men and not let them get upset with us when they leave at night and say, “Hey, come on man, we’re going to get this figured out,” because frankly, we need each other. Isn’t that called a some kind of mutualism?
Mike McShane: Something like that. Sure. That’s great. Yeah. How do you measure success? How do you know that what y’all are doing is working?
Kevin Festerling: Yeah, that’s a great question. We developed a mission statement, which is kind of funny. There’s nothing academic in this per se. It’s building a brotherhood in Christ for lives of purpose. So, we exist to do those three things. Build a brotherhood, in Christ, for lives of purpose. And so the vision where we’re trying to land, that everyone wants to repeat, the thing you put up on your walls and say, when we land, this is where we want to land. Our vision statement is to be a place for young me to develop their God given talents to do four things: to lead in their homes, to serve in the church, to engage in meaningful work and to transform community.
And every one of these things I’ve said historically has been mismanaged by our church. And we welcome that. So, for example, a place where young men can lead in their homes. Well, wait a minute, you know, what does it mean for a young man to lead in his home?
If we go to the scripture, we talk about this often it says young man, you know, leader your homes the way that Christ led the church and he gave his life for the church.
Mike McShane: Sure.
Kevin Festerling: And so we talk daily about what does it mean to be a leader in your home? It means to respect your wife above all things, to do the hard thing and our families’ homes that we serve currently, we’re just blessed to have some great men come and speak to a gentleman and just give first case account and what it looks like, how sometimes marriage is really hard. Sometimes when it’s not the traditional marriage, what does it look like? How do you stay a good father?
So, how do we know if we’re succeeding? We start watching men make manly decisions. And that’s again wrought with all kinds of complexities in that language, but we embrace it. We try to reintroduce some of the most important parts of brotherhood. The boys lead their own school and it’s something we stole from Saint Benedict’s, where each young man here is in charge of essentially his own pack. So, there’s eight packs. The boys decided on their own mascot, they’re wolves. The Wolf Pack. And in the packs, they have to hold each other accountable. They need to report each day on attendance. They look after each other at a brotherhood council room where when discipline pops up and a young man is struggling, oftentimes they’ll deal with it with each other.
In the brotherhood council, the young men who are part of the pack council will actually come up with some of the discipline or consequences that need to be addressed. You know, it gets authorized by a dean of students here, but by and large, I’ll try to discipline a student for acting maybe not right.
He’ll be running through the halls. I’ll say, “Young man, come here,” and typically I can’t get to him, because three other guys will grab them first and say, “Festerling, we got this,” and then I’ll say, “Come on, I really want to have some words with this guy.” And I won’t even get the chance because the guys are pulling each other in and they’re truly becoming these brothers that care for each other.
We use the four As. We talk about acceptance. I have to accept my brother 100 percent, full of all his mess and all of his goodness. We then affirm our brother and speak into his life and talk about the things he’s good at and encourage him hold. When then hold our brother accountable to what it is that he’s hoping to grow into as a young man. And then we use authority once in a while, we pull each other over and say, ”Hey, that’s not going to work. We don’t do that.”
Without those first three As, acceptance of a brother, affirming a brother, and then holding a brother accountable, it’s hard to hold your brother in authority. So, we’ve noticed that just deep acceptance of brotherhood talking about it often and affirming each other, it’s creating quite a culture where guys are willing to pull each other over.
So, how do we know we’re succeeding academically? We’ve got some pretty high rigor over here with, you know, great teachers, phenomenal. Actually, teachers who are walk into classrooms with typical engagement strategies. How many of our young men are mastering an exit ticket when they leave class? How are our young men doing on their pre-ACT scores? Your typical academic rigor areas where I think I’ve seen a lot of this in schools that I’ve worked in the past. What I’m noticing different here is all boys, just watching them hold each other accountable. It’s really important.
Mike McShane: So, one last question. I like to ask this of all of the leaders that I interview and you can sort of take it, I’ll give you a sort of one of two options here. So, one is just a lesson that you’ve learned throughout your time in this work. The other way to phrase it is if you could go back and give advice to yourself before you got involved in all of this, what advice would you give yourself? So, feel free to take it either way, either a piece of advice that you would give yourself or a lesson that you’ve learned. Usually, the two are connected to one another, but take it either way.
Kevin Festerling: Sure. Yeah, I guess the lesson that I have learned at this point would be to allow the young men to in deed make big mistakes. And so ninth graders, only at this point, about 50 of them. We do continually teach and preach leadership, leadership, be a leader. But until you actually give them space to show some independence and in that independence make some critical mistakes, it’s very hard for them to actually recognize the value of why the learning is going to be important.
So, one of the examples of that is we have a class called Nehemiah Hour. And in Nehemiah Hour we kind of hold as a pillar this guy named Nehemiah, who prays essentially, Lord, give me victory over this problem I want to go solve. I want to go rebuild Jerusalem’s walls. And he takes a risk and leaves his place of comfort to go do the hard thing.
So, we give the kids 45 to 50 minutes every day to just go do the hard thing. As a young man, what is it God’s put on your heart? What problem do you want to solve? And it’s kind of like the project-based learning where it’s kind of redeemed biblically for us to say what’s God putting on your heart? What has he uniquely designed you and created you to do to be in that space and what’s your plan? What is your counsel and feedback you’re going to get to go solve that problem and then actually give them, I mean, truly give them a space to go do whatever they want for 50 minutes, convinced by these guardrails that they’ve shown us this problem, they do have a plan and some of these things are just hilarious what they’re working on. One guy’s got a motorcycle in the garage that he’s ripped apart all the way, and it happens to be mine.
And he said he’s going to fix it, and he’s on like week eight, and he’s ripped apart the carburetor. He’s mishandled many of my tools. And yet, it’s the same thing I did in my garage with my dad. And sure enough, he calls an expert, a motorcycle racer… from the east side of Milwaukee shows up, teaches them how to tweak two parts of the engine. And this young man is driving this thing in the parking lot now.
Another guy’s working with the Milwaukee Bucks to try and build a parking lot basketball court to build racial reconciliation so that the neighborhood will want to come into our court and play with our boys because he started noticing there just aren’t diverse outdoor basketball courts in Wauwatosa. Another guy’s working on building a graphic design company that moves every other Nehemiah Project further, faster.
So, if you give the kids 45 minutes to an hour just to start working on things that truly burden their heart that they need them to be in the space, but the lesson I learned is to truly let them make the mistakes. We started safe guarding a lot, and we wouldn’t let boys do some of the messy work and they were kind of calling our bluff. They’re like, “You tell us to do these things, but you’re not actually giving us real paint. You know, you’re not giving us real motorcycles,” kind of thing. And sure enough, when we let go of it and just let the boys start making mistakes and not worried about the funders, not worried about the janitors and what they’re all going to say. By and large, we’re seeing the boys just truly move into areas that doesn’t mean they’re going to be a motorcycle engine guy. It just means he’s going to start working on stuff that intrigues him now. He’s going to start learning lessons and fail a lot, so it’s a great question. Thanks for asking it.
Mike McShane: Kevin Festerling, thank you so much for joining us on the Cool Schools podcast.
Kevin Festerling: I appreciate it. Thanks a lot.
Mike McShane: I really enjoyed that conversation. I certainly hope that all of you did. It was really hard. I mean, I don’t know if you had the same experience that I did, but Kevin’s optimism and his kind of zeal were infectious, you know?
At the end I was like, “Man, do you need some help? I used to be a high school English teacher. I could teach ninth and 10th graders. I want to be part of what you’re doing.”
So, I will be very interested to see. I obviously wish him nothing but the best. They’ve got lots of high hurdles ahead of them, but they seem well able to deal with that. It’ll be really interesting to try and follow up on them in a couple of years and see if they were really able to put this vision into practice. I’m also really interested to check out for those of you who haven’t checked out Saint Benedict’s in New Jersey and the whole story that was related to that. So, it gave me stuff to follow up on. Perhaps it did the same for you.
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