One year in, Holman looks forward
April 30, 2012
“Nothing in Milwaukee is simple and straight,” Meagan Holman lamented over coffee recently. “That’s part of what makes it so hard.”
“It” being to try to build successful Milwaukee public schools as a member of the MPS Board of School Directors.
Elected in 2011, Holman joined the board at a miserable time. Wisconsin had just slashed state funding to K-12 education and driven a teacher-shaped wedge between taxpayers and school boards. Even before that, MPS’s finances were hardly stable, with deficits to the horizon and layoffs inevitable.
MPS’s institutional momentum, too, makes major change nigh impossible—something that always seems to confound outsiders—Holman is a Boston native. Just ask Superintendent Gregory Thornton, of Philadelphia, about trying to change the way MPS does food service.
And there are the other fingers in the educational pie that is Milwaukee: charter schools from three different agencies, voucher schools that use public money and resources, suburban districts that snag Milwaukee’s children through open enrollment. No other public school district in the country sees such competition.
Holman said her first year, in a lot of ways, was getting to know Milwaukee’s schools and unique situation. “I’ve been focused on learning—getting to know who to go to get problems dealt with,” she said. “Getting to know the principals, in and out of my district, and the district as a whole.”
She needs to, because she has a vision for MPS. Like Thornton, who came to MPS with, in Holman’s words, “a bold agenda,” she wants to see MPS be better, soon. “We really, really want to see fast gains in the district,” she said.
There have been gains, she said. Eight-grade math scores, for example, were up six percentage points, and tenth grade reading scores were up eight, according to state figures. Suspension rates are down, too, according to MPS, and attendance rates are up over 90% for the first time in years.
Holman goes back to the state budget: “Without those cuts, even if funding had stayed level, imagine how much more we could have done. We could have started aggressively doing new things for the district.” For Holman, that means Montessori.
As a Fernwood parent, she knows what Montessori offers, and said that research suggests a Montessori education through at least third grade “is the ideal preparation for STEM,” classes in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. “We have to have learners that are prepared,” she said, to fill the kinds of STEM programs popping up all over MPS, from freshwater studies to Project Lead the Way.
So a goal of hers is “rapidly accelerating the number of Montessori seats MPS has.” The district’s Facilities Plan, adopted earlier this year, includes a modest expansion of Montessori, including adding high school grades to the successful Golda Meir program, for example
She’s not just thinking big picture, though; she knows what is happening in the schools in her district. “There’s an embarrassment of riches of schools down here. You can’t really go wrong K-8. An important part of my job is saying that.”
Bay View Middle and High School (BVMHS) remains a challenge. But even there, she is proactive and optimistic, crediting the neighborhood itself for a renewed interest in seeing the school succeed. After a negative piece about BVMHS in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, she took to Facebook to organize a community meeting to address neighborhood concerns and direct-interest parties into positive action.
That’s already worked once for Holman, with the group Parents for Bay View Schools last fall and the work they did to get SpringBoard, the official pre-Advanced Placement curriculum from the College Board, to Bay View this fall.
“SpringBoard wouldn’t have come in, if not for the efforts of the Bay View community. It’s not just that BVMHS is getting it, but that the boost is for that many schools,” she said, referring to the four other MPS schools that may have SpringBoard next fall, too.
“That’s exciting, that’s transformational work. The community can say, ‘We did this, for our school and for the ripple effect.’”
Holman likes that she has a good relationship with her colleagues on the board, “because I can’t do it all by myself,” she acknowledges.
As a long-time observer, I will admit that this year’s board is far less contentious than it often is. She and the board have taken some hard votes-—to freeze or cut employee pay and to radically change the MPS pension and health insurance plans.
More tough decisions are coming. Thornton’s 2012-2013 budget cuts $20 million and 400 positions, including 234 teacher positions. Knowing Holman, I have confidence she will approach the budget with care and caution, aiming to do what’s best for this complicated city, even though it’s hard.
Director Holman’s community meeting on Bay View Middle and High School is scheduled for Thursday, May 3 at 6:30 pm in the school’s
auditorium, 2751 S. Lenox St.
Jay Bullock is an English teacher at Bay View High School who blogs at folkbum.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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