'On cloud nine': Two Milwaukee schools get surprise million-dollar gifts from billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott

When Chris Her-Xiong got a call in October saying someone wanted to donate $3 million to the Milwaukee charter school she runs, she didn't believe them.

Thinking it was a scam, she hung up.

But then she received a follow-up email. She forwarded it to one of the school's board members, who works in financial services, to check if it was legitimate.

It turns out it was.

A month later, the Hmong American Peace Academy, the K-12 school that Her-Xiong founded and runs, had the $3 million gift in the bank, becoming one of more than 1,500 organizations that billionaire philanthropist MacKenzie Scott has donated to in the last few years, following her divorce in 2019 from Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

“It was so unreal. I think I’m still on cloud nine,” Her-Xiong said in a recent interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

It is the single largest donation that the school has received since opening as an elementary in 2004, with a mission of educating Hmong-American children while also preserving their culture, traditions and language.

In addition, Carmen Schools of Science and Technology, a charter school network with five schools around Milwaukee serving more than 2,100 students, also received a donation from Scott this fall, totaling $3.5 million — the largest sum the network has ever received, according to school board members.

"We're really just honored by the generosity of the gift and also believe it really recognizes the impact our teachers and staff have had on the lives of students and families over the last 15 years," said Kathy Hamel, a member of Carmen Schools' board of directors.

The money is unrestricted, meaning the schools can use the funds how they see fit. Officials at both schools are still deciding how they want to use the money but generally want to provide academic supports for students, building upgrades and staff supports.

The donations were part of Scott's latest round of giving, in which she gave hundreds of millions of dollars to charter schools and public school districts across the country, among other organizations. Scott, who has pledged to give away at least half of her fortune over her lifetime, has now donated $14.4 billion since her divorce, according to a tally of totals she has disclosed in semi-annual Medium posts. She is one of the United States' biggest lifetime givers, behind only Warren Buffett, Bill Gates and Melinda French Gates and George Soros, according to Forbes.

Among the school districts she gave to were Chicago Public Schools ($25 million), Cleveland Metropolitan School District ($20 million) and Detroit Public Schools Community District ($20 million). Milwaukee Public Schools did not receive a donation.

Besides schools, Scott also contributed to groups that focus on LGBTQ rights, racial equity, refugee and migrant rights, job training and readiness, and more.

It is not clear how the Milwaukee charter schools came to Scott's attention, or to that of her team. In her latest Medium post, Scott said she looked to support organizations working with underserved communities.

The Hmong American Peace Academy serves almost exclusively Hmong students, the vast majority of them low-income. It is one of the city's highest-performing public schools, regularly exceeding expectations on its state report cards.

Four of Carmen's schools — an elementary school, a middle school and two high schools on the south side — draw mostly Hispanic students from the surrounding neighborhoods. The remaining campus — a combined middle-high school on the northwest side — serves mostly Black students. Most come from low-income families.

One of the three high schools, Carmen South High School, has drawn national attention, with U.S. News and World Report ranking it as the best public school in Wisconsin in 2017. But the charter school network has struggled to replicate that success with its other schools. Carmen Southeast High School, the other high school on the south side, failed to meet expectations on its latest state report card.

The donations come as schools continue to emerge from the pandemic and confront challenges stemming from school closures and other pandemic-related disruptions, including student learning loss and a rise in mental health problems.

"COVID-19 really did a terrible thing to our young scholars," Her-Xiong said, adding that students are behind academically and have more needs than before. "They can't learn if their social and emotional needs are not met."

More:Survey: Most Wisconsin teens knew someone COVID killed or hospitalized, felt high anxiety

Officials at the school have not finalized how they will use the $3 million, she said, but priorities include enhancing educational opportunities, including arts and other programming; investing in school buildings and other infrastructure; and hiring employees to meet students' needs.

"We are committed first and foremost to ensure that the dollars impact what matters the most, and that is the classroom," she said.

The Hmong American Peace Academy just opened a new $30-million school building last year, which allowed it to close one of its two satellite locations and move those students to the main campus, on 84th Street just south of Hampton. Her-Xiong has said she hopes to continue expanding to bring the rest of the students, at the remaining satellite location on Denver Avenue, to the main campus.

Officials with Carmen Schools were also still deciding how to use the donated funds.

"We are bringing forward some proposals to the board, I believe in the coming months so we can sketch that out in more detail," Hamel said.

But officials plan to put the money toward three buckets, she said: academic growth, facility improvements and staff retention.

Earlier this year, employees at Carmen Schools tried to unionize over concerns about pay, working conditions and staff turnover. Ultimately, that effort failed.

Hamel said that Carmen officials already are involved in staff engagement efforts and that staff will have input in how the donated funds are used. Hamel did not have any information on whether or how the network planned to spread the money across its five schools.

Sarah Volpenhein can be reached at svolpenhei@gannett.com.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Milwaukee schools receive millions from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott