In just a few weeks, thousands of students will begin graduating from Milwaukee Public Schools. It begins with a trickle in late May with three graduations — Reagan College Preparatory, Rufus King International and Community high schools — and picks up steam in early June with a cascading number of graduations that end on June 15, when students graduate from Grandview, one of our partnership schools.
A new report released by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction Thursday detailed Wisconsin’s graduation rate. It contained some interesting information for MPS. While our four-year graduation rate remains relatively flat over four years at 61%, the percentage of students graduating in five years and six years is significantly higher, and it’s rising. The five-year graduation rate climbs to 71%, and the rate increases to 74% for students who graduate in six years.
This hopeful news indicates more students are staying in school to graduate instead of dropping out. While as a community we might like students to graduate in the traditional four-year timeframe, what’s important is that more students are committed to completing high school.
Increasing the number of students who graduate from MPS isn’t something that’s just happened. Over the past four years, we’ve been working hard to increase supports to students and to develop curriculum that keeps students engaged in the classroom.
Academically, we took major steps in recent years to help improve student outcomes. We created a Comprehensive Literacy Plan and a Comprehensive Mathematics and Science Plan that replaced the multiple plans that previously existed to teach these subjects. That step made sure there are consistent curricula in these critical, core areas of instruction. Most important, students don’t risk falling behind if they moved from one school to another because all students are learning the same material. This has allowed students who were struggling to stay on track — and in school.
We know core subjects are only part of a well-rounded education that engages students. We’ve increased the number of art, music and physical education teachers in MPS. Building on an effort that began in the 2011-’12 school year, we have added 142 art, music and physical education teaching positions to our schools.
Keeping students in school not only relies on enhancing academic offerings; it requires creating a collective attitude for success. The Department of Career and College Readiness is coordinating efforts that prepare students for success after graduation, and that starts with making sure supports are there to help students graduate, no matter how long it takes.
We’re revised our school counseling services, offering support for students in grades three through 12 and a kindergarten through second-grade career awareness module to help our youngest students focus early on what it takes to graduate and reach their career goals. Academic and Career Plans are being developed for all students in grades six through 12 to help them develop a plan for success.
Our TEAM UP College Access Centers marked an important milestone with 10,000 visits in just three years. It’s not only high school students taking advantage of this program that helps demystify college preparation; elementary and middle students and their families also visit the centers.
Once students enter high school, we’ve expanded programs to keep them on track. We’re increased support for students transitioning from eighth to ninth grade, a critical time when some students who fall behind never catch up. Students who do fall behind have the option of academic counseling, school-based recovery programs to recover failed credits; and online learning with face-to-face support.
We want every one of our students to start in MPS, stay in MPS and succeed in MPS. We are committed to using every effort we can to help every student graduate, whether it takes four years or longer. As long as our students are committed to pursuing a high school diploma, as a community, we need to be committed to helping them obtain it.
Gregory Thornton is the outgoing Milwaukee Public Schools superintendent.