George Lightbourn, president of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, said, “Ten years ago, no one could have predicted today’s reality in which 40,794 Milwaukee students have opted out of MPS; 24,941 to private schools, 7,365 to independent charter schools, 8,488 to suburban schools.”  In short, he thinks folks should “quit complaining about MPS and do something.”

There are a growing number of folks doing a lot to create quality education in Milwaukee.The most impressive progress in town is being made by the Schools That Can Milwaukee (STCM) team led by Abby (Ramirez) Andrietsch. Abby’s background includes a mixture of philanthropy, reform, and finance. STCM organizes its work into three pathways: moving schools into high performance, replicating homegrown high performers, and attracting high performers like Rocketship.  They learned a lot about ‘no excuses’ leadership from Uncommon Schools and like their mentors, STCM is more about execution than innovation.

The goal is 20,000 high-performing seats by 2020–what the group sees as a tipping point for city-wide change. Since STCM’s founding in 2010 the number of seats in high-performing schools has increased from 1,500 to about 3,200, and those schools have plans to grow over the next five years to serve more than 6,000 students.

STCM also works with high-potential schools, coaching them to improve to the level of high-performing.

“We have a group of more than 185 leaders from 33 district, charter and voucher schools serving nearly 14,000 students coming together around quality, collaborating cross-sector, striving for excellence and a greater vision for Milwaukee,” said Andrietsch.  STCM supports schools through leadership coaching, facilitating high-performing school visits, and through best practice and resource sharing.

STCM believes strong leaders are the lynchpin of high-performing schools, said Bill Hughes, STCM’s Director of Leadership Development. They set a vision for their school, attract and develop talented teachers for every classroom, and lead the implementation of best practices.

“Leaders remind people what is important,” Hughes said at ASCD last year. “Leadership is a learned skill.”  In Wisconsin, it must be learned in a masters degree program, so Hughes and STCM created a partnership with Alverno College.

There appears to be a high degree of reform alignment. TFA Milwaukee, STCM, City Year, PAVEMilwaukee Charter School Advocates and other non-profits align and leverage each other. Andrietsch said, “Part of collaboration across TFA, STCM and City Year includes an intentional pipeline to recruit, keep and develop top and high-potential talent in Milwaukee.”

That collaboration has grown even closer during the past year as STCM has built out its leadership pipeline. The pipeline begins with identifying and developing teacher leaders, and giving them a taste of leadership through an Emerging Leaders Program. High-potential individuals are then channeled into the STCM/Alverno program or other principal preparation programs. Finally, STCM works with schools in its network to match prospective leaders with open positions.

STCM collaborates closely with TFA to bring corps members and alumni into the pipeline. The two organizations recently hosted a weekend-long event that brought 50 prospective leaders and teachers from around the country – many of them TFAers – to visit STCM schools and connect with principals looking to make hires.

Wisconsin’s big city on the lake doesn’t get much help on the digital innovation front from the state which gets a D on the Digital Learning Now! report card released earlier this year.

Charters. The blended learning pioneer Rocketship Education made Milwaukee their first announced expansion site as a result of a “harbormaster” like STCM, an active chamber of commerce, and Howard Fuller.

Dr. Howard L. Fuller is a Distinguished Professor of Education and Director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University. He is the former superintendent of the Milwaukee Public Schools (91-95) and Chair of Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) and a local charter school.

“There are a few of us trying to move forward with blended learning models,” said Fuller. “The school whose board I chair is moving to implement a blended model next school year.” They are working with blended platform Education Elements.

Fuller notes “growing opposition to charters” but he chalks it up to state politics more than charter schools. He said there is “vehement opposition” against the 21 year old voucher program. Authors of an independent study concluded, “school choice in Milwaukee has had a modest but clearly positive effect on student outcomes.”

With so many choices, education in Milwaukee is post-neighborhood. But sadly, education in Milwaukee is still “polarized and controversial,” according to Fuller.

The business community, led by the Metropolitan Association Chamber of Commerce (MMAC) is deeply involved in education and the shared vision for quality across sectors and transformation in Milwaukee. The association even adopted STCM’s “20,000 by 2020” vision. Tim Sheehy, President of MMAC, is Rocketship Milwaukee’s chair and raised $2 million to help bring them to town.

“One thing that I think goes unappreciated in the surrounding ‘burbs is that despite living in the city with 10-20% higher property taxes than some suburbs, living in the city provides residents with 12-15 quality, tuition free Montessori options whereas people in the burbs have none,” said edtech entrepreneur Shane Krukowski. “In my opinion, the growing number of MPS Montessori’s would not have cropped up without the advent of charters.”

Project Foundry, Krukowski’s project-based learning and competency tracking software powers the Edvisions network of innovative flex schools.

Further & Higher. Milwaukee has some great universities.  You’ve heard of Marquette (and their great basketball team) but you should know about Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE), An Example of Education for Employability. In addition to engineering, MSOE has business school, a nursing school–and 95% of the grads are employed in the field of their choice. As an affiliate university for Project Lead the Way, MSOE contributes to hands on learning in 300 area high schools.  The Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) is the largest med school in the state.  CEO Dr. John Raymond is bright, creative, collaborative and thinking about Next Generation Professional Training, Blending For-Me & For-Degree.

One thing MSOE and MCW have in common is support from the Kern Family Foundation. Robert Kern turned Generac into the world’s leading source of portable power and now chairs one of the country’s largest foundations. Kern believes character counts, enterprise is vital, and that leadership can be taught. The mission of the Kern Entrepreneurship Education Network is “to graduate engineers equipped with an action-oriented entrepreneurial mindset.” Most recently, Kern and MSOE joined to launch a new Ed MBA program, which will start its first cohort this fall.

Conclusions. “There are some exciting things happening on the ground in Milwaukee,” said Andrietsch, “a long way to go to get to real systemic change in the city, but exciting progress, urgency and focus really coming together.”

Milwaukee gets a relative high score of B- on Brookings Choice & Competition Index. The portfolio approach is clearly improving options for families in Milwaukee, but it’s a shame that it is still so contentious. They could use less partisanship and more Rocketship.

The level of alignment between reform orgs is encouraging–it’s clearly leading to better teaching at a growing number of schools.  However, there is lot of opportunity for innovations in learning.  They need some innovative high school models to complement the coming wave of Rocketship elementary schools.

It’s great to see the Chamber involved (that hasn’t been the case in most of the cities we’ve considered). They could use an incubator like 4.0 Schools. Like Baltimore, Milwaukee needs a Digital Harbor.

Education in Milwaukee is on the rise. Watch Kern, listen to Fuller, support Andrietsch, add a dose of innovation and things will get better fast.

 

The Smart Cities blog series catalogs innovations in learning in America’s great cities.  We’re writing a book about what we’re learning–and you can help. 
Thank you to Mary Ryerse, Dave Guymon, Abby Andrietsch and Isral DeBruin for their contributions to this post.

6 COMMENTS

  1. The fact is the results in Milwaukee are astounding. The private/charter schools give the parents a real choice especially those that live in urban areas. This is a great program that paved the way for similar success in the nation.

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