Erin Richards , Milwaukee Journal Sentinel November 2, 2016
Saying that Milwaukee Public Schools has not effectively engaged children of color, Superintendent Darienne Driver is proposing a slate of major reforms, including mandating student uniforms, launching the school year in August and imposing principal coaching and potential staff changes at the lowest-performing schools.
If anyone was waiting for a mic drop from the superintendent, who is two years into her tenure and still shy of 40 years old, this might be it.
“I think we’re in the right mind-set for improvement and it’s time to kick it into action,” Driver told the Milwaukee School Board Tuesday night after she revealed the ideas, which also include creating an office of black and Latino male achievement. More details will be released to MPS staff and parents this week, with a district-wide survey going out Friday.
“We want to get as much feedback about this as possible,” Driver said.
Another twist: Some of the proposals cross the borders of MPS. Driver has called for turnaround plans to be put in place at all the city’s lowest-performing schools, including independent charter and private voucher schools over which MPS has no jurisdiction. Driver and Board President Mark Sain have also proposed that MPS become the sole authorizer of charter schools in the city.
“We know people may classify it as some type of takeover, but really, it’s about conversation,” Sain said Wednesday.
The sweeping proposals are a more dramatic set of ideas than MPS has offered in years, and many would say they are overdue. Only about 20% of district students are reading proficiently, according to the state exams. Graduation rates have dropped across all racial groups. Enrollment in conventional schools is declining.
Driver said MPS isn’t where it needs to be, but she’s also making it clear she wants the plan for tackling those challenges to be on the district’s terms. She rebuffed a plan by Republican lawmakers to wrest control of the district’s lowest-performing schools and put them under the control of the Milwaukee County executive. Now it appears MPS is going on the offensive with a more comprehensive strategy. In the wake of Gov. Scott Walker’s Act 10 reforms, superintendents and school boards have more authority to change school calendars and other work conditions without union approval.
Driver said introducing the proposals now will allow one or two per month to come to the School Board for consideration and public testimony through the end of the year and into early 2017, when they can flow into the district’s budget process and the state’s biennial budget process.
Some of the proposals include:
Changes for the lowest-performing schools: New report cards will soon identify the latest lowest-performing schools in MPS. There are 53 that meet that definition now. Driver has proposed creating a network to support between 10 to 12 of the lowest-performing schools each year for the next three years, with up to 35 by 2018-’19. The “signature schools” would have a new hiring window in the spring, and then develop individual culture and instructional plans. Teachers would attend at least four days of extra training. Principals would get side-by-side coaching and meet with the superintendent monthly to talk about data.
“We’re proposing some different hiring practices for low-performing schools,” Driver said.
A unified calendar: All district schools would follow the calendar for International Baccalaureate schools, which start in mid-August and finish before the end of May. A June session would extend the year for five weeks for students who need to recover credits or earn additional credits.
Driver said one calendar could also save hundreds of thousands of dollars on busing and duplicative staff training.
State law requires public schools to start after Labor Day, but State Superintendent Tony Evers has pledged to ask the Legislature to change that for MPS. Even if it doesn’t, Driver said MPS could request a district waiver from the Department of Public Instruction.
School uniforms: Driver said more parents are asking for uniforms, especially after some district schools implemented them this year. Uniforms are frequently a draw for parents who send their children to independent charter and voucher schools, though research is mixed on whether they have any effect on achievement. Driver said uniforms could also help identify MPS students in the community. Or more specifically, identify children who are not MPS students.
Schools could decide to opt out of the districtwide policy.
“One Milwaukee:” MPS is tiptoeing toward thinking more collectively about student achievement at all schools, including independent charter and voucher programs. Driver is looking to districts like Cleveland and Denver that have established mechanisms for holding all schools accountable, which include expanding high-performing schools and limiting low-performing ones.
That’s where the call for turnaround plans in the lowest-performing charter and voucher programs comes from. Driver said all schools should be judged by the same measuring stick.
Chartering authority: Sain, the School Board president, said MPS becoming the sole chartering authority in the city would reduce the frequency with which some people “shop” their proposals among the city’s three active chartering entities: MPS, the Common Council and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Currently, MPS authorizes about 20 charter schools, the city oversees nine and UWM oversees 12.
Sain said that as a sole authorizer, MPS could achieve “economies of scale” by providing support to all.
“The issue is, instead of opening up more schools, we need to have more conversations about how to fix what’s there,” Sain said.
The idea would require a change in state law at a time that the GOP-led Legislature has added authorizers in recent years, including giving such power to the MPS superintendent.
Sean Roberts, the head of Milwaukee Charter School Advocates, said Wednesday it’s worth talking about a citywide strategy for authorizing schools, but he opposes diminishing current options.
“Legislating the limitation of options that are working for students and families in the city would only serve to stifle innovation and quality,” Roberts said, adding that independent charter schools have shown stronger growth and achievement than district-operated schools.
Early literacy development: Milwaukee has about 50,000 children under age 5, and half live in poverty. Exposing all to quality early-literacy programs, potentially at stand-alone sites, would help make sure they’re all prepared for school, no matter what school their parents eventually send them to.