May 1, 2013
By Jay Bullock
I avoided reading Jal Mehta’s April 12 New York Times op-ed for the better part of a week. The title, “Teachers: Will We Ever Learn?” sounded to me like it would be blaming teachers for yet another something.
Finally, after enough people I respect tweeted the link, I read it. It turns out, Mehta, an assistant professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, was not blaming teachers for anything at all.
“Teaching requires a professional model,” Mehta wrote, “like we have in medicine, law, engineering, accounting, architecture, and many other fields. In these professions, consistency of quality is created less by holding individual practitioners accountable and more by building a body of knowledge, carefully training people in that knowledge, requiring them to show expertise before they become licensed, and then using their professions’ standards to guide their work.”
This was poignant for me. I have been having a small crisis of identity lately. I have been starting to wonder whether I, in my role as teacher, am actually the professional I thought I was, or the professional I thought I would be when I was growing up as a reasonably smart kid in the latter days of the 20th century.
Why? Because my job is starting to feel like it could (and maybe should) be done, not by a professional, but by a trained monkey. That certainly seems to be the attitude of a lot of the people controlling this job, from Washington, DC on down.
Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s K-12 school reform initiative, demands that states that want additional school funding will qualify for it only when they overhaul their teacher evaluation policies, cranking the “holding individual practitioners accountable” idea ‘up to 11.’ This includes significant reliance on student test scores.
The last month or so has been full of revelations about some of the consequences of such a policy: alleged major cheating scandals in Washington, DC and Atlanta, including indictments of school officials.
Wisconsin has adopted a teacher evaluation model where 50% of the score is based on “student outcomes,” which, to be fair, are not just the school’s state-test scores. Test scores that track academic progress at the district level may also be part of the tabulation. The cranked-up teacher evaluations, nationally and locally, also include more frequent and more intense classroom observations, walks-through, and pop-ins, which have done much less to compel better practice and much more to impel panic.
If you don’t believe me, you can test this with two words, which I promise will elicit a fight-or-flight response from any MPS teacher you know: clipboard police.
Recently I asked my students to do some moderately complex math, and since I don’t have a cabinet full of calculators in my English classroom, I gave them permission to use their cellphone calculators, though that technically violates MPS’s no-phones-in-class policy. And that’s when an assistant principal “popped in.” Upon seeing her and without thinking, I totally snapped at a student in front of me, who was using his phone to do math, following my advice and permission.
I’ve been guiltily reliving that moment for weeks; it was decidedly unprofessional of me.
But it’s not just me. Take my friend Liz, an awesome veteran kindergarten teacher. Over the past year or two she’s gone from telling us stories about how adorable her students are and how much fun she has teaching them, to stories full of worry: How is she going to fit all the new Common Core State Standards in? Will her students will be able to sit still for MAP testing? What does the “math coach” think of her lessons?
I could fill a year’s worth of columns with stories like this, though, of course, the people in charge, like the state’s leaders in Madison, keep giving me other material for this column.
It is not only through the union-busting Act 10, but also through school-busting state budgets, that Wisconsin’s legislators have certainly signaled that educators are not, or do not need to be, considered professionals. They make it clear that they think we don’t deserve job protections or wages that allow new teachers to pay off student loans that paid for years of their professional training.
And based on a blatant misreading of the state’s new school “report cards”—a new way of reporting a school’s data to the public that debuted last fall—lawmakers are arguing that thousands more students need to be taken away from “failing” public schools and put into private schools with public money where the teachers have even fewer job protections and even lower wages.
Let’s think about the kind of signal that sends to teachers who really are starting to think that trained monkeys might be better suited for this role.
And what does this message signal to the relatively smart kids of the early 21st century?
Jal Mehta wasn’t asking “When will teachers learn?” He was asking, “When will the rest of us learn to treat teachers better?”
The answer, I hope, is soon.
Jay Bullock teaches English at Bay View Middle and High School. Tweet links at him @folkbum or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read Mehta’s op ed: http://goo.gl/amE06
April 1, 2013
On Monday, March 4, Milwaukee Public Schools board member Meagan Holman, who represents the Bay View Neighborhood and its schools, announced that two schools, Bay View Middle and High School and Humboldt Park School, would pair up to offer the SpringBoard pre-Advanced Placement program beginning in the 2013-2014 school year.
SpringBoard, the official pre-AP program offered by the AP’s parent company, the College Board, is for grades 6-12, and provides a specialized curriculum in mathematics and language arts.
In early 2012, MPS announced its intention to bring SpringBoard to five schools, including Bay View Middle and High School starting in 2013. This followed pressure from Bay View area parents, who petitioned the district for a rigorous college-prep program for the high school.
The status of SpringBoard for Bay View became an unknown when the district decided to reform the high school and to phase out the school’s middle grades earlier this year. SpringBoard is designed to be a seven-year program, and without the middle grades at Bay View, district leaders seemed ready to drop the plan.
However, Holman amended the reform proposal approved by the Milwaukee Board of School Directors to keep the option of SpringBoard for Bay View open, and MPS now plans to offer the classes at Bay View—for next year’s 7th and 8th grade students—and also at Humboldt Park, which could act as a feeder for the high school in future years.
Holman issued a statement that said, “The addition of the SpringBoard program at Humboldt Park and the middle grades at Bay View High School is a critical piece of the changes that neighbors have been demanding.”
Holman is encouraged by the program, but also by the idea of a community of schools in the Bay View neighborhood. “We need to view the entire Bay View area as a laboratory, a professional learning community of K3-12th grade thinkers and dreamers who will do amazing things for our city,” she said.
March 1, 2013
By Jay Bullock
Economy slumping? Let people grow and sell hemp! Fossil fuels running out? Put hemp oil in your cars! Sick of importing clothes made by child labor? Wear hemp fibers produced here in the U. S. of A.! Your girlfriend dumped you? Well, you get the idea.
I cannot help but think of the Cannabis Club’s insistence that hemp could save the world whenever I hear anyone argue that any single thing is the answer to all kinds of questions.
So you can understand why I might have been skeptical when, in President Obama’s State of the Union address, he not only called for universal preschool, but went on to say, “Every dollar we invest in high-quality early childhood education can save more than seven dollars later on, by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.”
Yet I was not skeptical—I am a universal preschool convert from way back—and everything Obama suggested about the advantages of high-quality preschool is true and supported by decades of evidence. Universal preschool is not going to fuel your SUV when the oil sands run dry, but it would significantly change the lives of the next generation of children.
Over the last 35 years, the Carolina Abecedarian project, one of the nation’s longest-running and best-studied preschool programs, has consistently found that even into college, children who had quality preschool had better scholastic achievement and higher IQ scores than children who did not. Similar academic results show up in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which has had universal public preschool for more than two decades.
The Perry Preschool Project in Michigan found that when children from poor, minority communities attended a quality preschool, they, on average, earned higher incomes, committed fewer crimes, and had more stable families decades later as adults than children who did not go to preschool.
These results come not because rote drilling of children on their numbers and letters and shapes is good for them—it isn’t. For example, the Common Core State Standards, which Wisconsin recently adopted, have come under fire from psychologists and early childhood educators for demanding children, as young as five, write compare-contrast essays and do research projects.
Instead they should be playing and learning how to be curious, regulate their own behavior, and get along with other children—developing what Nobel Prize-winning economist Jay Heckman, of the University of Chicago, calls non-cognitive skills. Heckman is one of those who has looked at the Perry Preschool data. He provided the analysis Obama cited, that every dollar spent on quality preschool saves between seven and twelve dollars later on. Heckman is also one of the stars of journalist Paul Tough’s recent book How Children Succeed.
Last fall Tough spoke at Marquette University Law School about his book. He made the connection between the non-cognitive skills—curiosity, self-control, the ability to work and play well with others—and academic success.
“When kids have the underpinnings of the non-cognitive skills on the first day of kindergarten,” Tough told the audience, “it’s going to make it easier to develop their cognitive skills.” That is, when it comes time to learn their letters and numbers and shapes, sharing the crayons and engaging in imaginative play with a bunch of other kids is really good preparation.
Further, navigating life—not just high school and college—is considerably easier with those non-cognitive skills in hand.
In Milwaukee, as I have written in these pages many times, we see this evidence every day in the Milwaukee Public Schools’ Montessori programs. These students, who begin in a quality program at three years old, are consistently among the highest-achievers in the district, outpacing even those students who were in Head Start before kindergarten.
All this compelling evidence is why Obama is right to push preschool right now. Even though preschool is often left to parents, the government has a role. The best interests of our nation are served by opening spots in high-quality public preschool programs that everyone can access. As Paul Tough said at Marquette last fall, “We have this model in our heads that the public role in the lives of kids starts on the first day of kindergarten, but increasingly the science is suggesting that’s a really bad model.”
It’s time to listen to the science. It’s time to support development of non-cognitive skills in all our children. It’s time for quality, universal preschool.
Jay Bullock is an English teacher at Bay View Middle and High School. Follow him on Twitter @folkbum or email him at MPSHallMonitor@gmail.com.
February 1, 2013
By Jay Bullock
Sometime in the spring of 2006—I’ve mostly blocked it out—the previous Milwaukee Public Schools superintendent visited my colleagues and me at Madison University High School, where I was teaching at the time. “You guys suck,” he said.
I’m paraphrasing, but that was the idea.
He went on to lay out for us a “reform” plan: new curriculum coming in—bought from an outside vendor; one year with no ninth grade—so we could “plan” and “rebuild”; and all teachers would have to agree to play along or we’d be out.
We had no say in any of this, mostly. I say mostly because they wanted six teacher volunteers to sit on a committee, write a proposal to turn Madison into a charter school, and lead the transition. As a squeaky wheel, I was specifically asked to be on that committee, something (probably) about keeping your enemies closer.
Despite promises to the contrary, further community, staff, and student input were negligible; the whole process was opaque and secretive.
The whole process was also a disappointment to me personally and a disaster for Madison. The great ideas we teachers had to protect and help our students were stripped from the proposal before it hit the school board. The year without ninth grade and the funds those students would have brought, decimated our staff and killed teacher and student morale. The worst two years of my teaching career were my last two years at Madison under this “reform.”
When, what we teachers asked for was dropped in favor of what the administration wanted all along, it sure made it seem like the end result had been a forgone conclusion. I just felt kind of dirty and used and not a little nauseated. It put me in mind of what they always say about policy and sausage—those are two things you never want to see made.
Last fall and winter, perhaps despite my better judgment, I took another tour of the sausage factory. Much to my surprise—and to my unfathomable delight—this time I leave the tour group in a much better mood.
The day before Halloween, I got an email from Cynthia Ellwood, the regional executive specialist who oversees MPS schools on the city’s east side and in Bay View, inviting me to serve on a “steering committee” for something called “Believe in Bay View.” As a moderately public figure, who had been very vocal following the late-October “brawl” (as most of the media called it) at Bay View Middle and High School where I teach now, I figured I was getting the squeaky-wheel treatment again. I would join another for-show committee of just a few people who were there to provide a participatory veneer over a forgone conclusion.
Indeed, my fellow teachers at Bay View—no strangers to sausage-making and forgone conclusions in the wake of the merger of the high school with Fritsche Middle School—blithely made predictions of what would happen, reporting rumors to, stated as fact, with the implication that I shouldn’t bother.
But I bothered. I went to the first steering committee meeting in early November. What I found was far from a small group of rubber-stampers. Instead, the committee was 50 (!) people who represented any stakeholder constituency you could name: students, parents, teachers, district folks, the alderman, a staffer for the mayor, neighbors, local business owners, alumni, general malcontents, and a partridge in a pear tree.
The next few weeks were a blur of more open and public meetings. Thinking about how to make the school a better place, the district put everything on the table from a radically smaller school, to school uniforms, to International Baccalaureate, and they asked the public, “What do you think?”
People answered, including those at special sessions for school staff and current students, and MPS took their feedback seriously.
The steering committee listened to what people said and tried to craft a proposal that was serious and true to the collective advice those constituencies gave us. Every bit of that recommendation—phasing out the middle school, bringing in a new way to handle student discipline, changing the focus of the school to “creativity and innovation,” and asking current students and staff to “recommit” to this new vision—was included in the proposal that passed a school board committee in January, two months to the day after that first steering committee meeting. (Read more on the proposal to the board here.)
And unlike, say, hearings about the merger of Fritsche and Bay View, discussion and testimony at that committee meeting in January was upbeat, genial, and inspiring. There was no angry mob there blaming the board or furious with the administration for jerking them around, lying to them, or seriously failing to keep their promises. I attribute this to the way “Believe in Bay View” was conducted in the open, in the light, with no forgone conclusions or phony inclusion of stakeholders.
Credit for this 180-degree difference in process goes to board member Meagan Holman, who represents Bay View and has made improving the neighborhood’s high school a key part of her mission, and to Cynthia Ellwood. Ellwood shepherded the “Believe in Bay View” project and bent over backwards to make sure that every part of it was above-board and truly representative of the community’s will.
The work isn’t over—the sausage may be made, to keep stuffing the metaphor, but now we have to cook it.
Actually making Bay View High School a place that lives up to the process that birthed it is the hard part, and that’s just begun.
Feb. 1 update: MPS board approves plan to transform Bay View high school.
Jay Bullock is a squeaky wheel and an English teacher at Bay View Middle and High School. Follow him on twitter @folkbum or email him at MPSHallMonitor@gmail.com.
January 10, 2013
by Jay Bullock
At its Committee on Student Achievement and School Improvement (SASI) meeting Tuesday, January 8, the Milwaukee Board of School Directors moved another step closer to a redesign of Bay View Middle and High School, recommending significant changes to both the school’s structure and its curriculum.
The Milwaukee Public Schools spent the last couple of months in a process called “Believe in Bay View,” which aimed to bring together community members, school staff, current and prospective parents, students, and district personnel to find consensus on a path for improving the struggling school. After weeks of community input, a steering committee proposed that the school become a “school of innovation and creativity.”
At the SASI meeting, district officials explained that the school would transform its STEM offerings—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—to STEAM, adding arts; and add a vaguely defined program that would encourage students to identify a question or a need and pull from multiple subjects and skills to achieve a goal.
Current students and staff would have to “re-commit” to the school’s new curriculum and practices, including the school-wide implementation of a restorative justice program to deal with discipline and school climate.
The initial proposal included both a phase out of the middle grades—no new sixth graders admitted next fall, and so on—as well as one year with no new ninth graders admitted. The middle school phase-out remained in the final proposal, but board member Meagan Holman, who represents the Bay View community, successfully offered an amendment to keep a reduced enrollment of ninth grade.
SpringBoard was not in the proposal. SpringBoard is the College Board’s official pre-Advanced Placement curriculum, which in 2012 was promised to Bay View, and to four other schools. Superintendent Gregory Thornton explained at the meeting that SpringBoard, on top of a new curriculum, might be too much change. “With the present direction we’re going in,” he said, “we may not have the capacity to do all the things we want to do. I would rather do less, better.”
Holman’s amendment kept open the door for SpringBoard, though, calling for the district to explore bringing SpringBoard to neighborhood middle schools to then feed into the high school, which would offer the program as well.
Around two dozen parents, community members, school staff, and others offered oral or written testimony generally in support of the changes.
The full board needs to vote to approve the proposed changes for them to become official; it will meet Thursday, January 31.
Jay Bullock’s testimony in response to MPS school board’s Student Achievement and School Improvement Committee recommendations to improve BVH&MS
January 7, 2013
MPS officials have initiated a process to improve Bay View Middle & High School called “Believe in Bay View.” MPS announced their recommendations last week.
One of the initial steps of the process was holding public meetings where BHM&HS stakeholders could “vote” on a list of improvements devised by MPS. (The vote involved placing a colored sticker on a poster board headed by one of the suggested improvements (or changes) for the school.)
The recommendation was shaped largely by the input of those attending the Believe in Bay View meetings as well as the steering committee, which included students, parents, staff, administrators, neighbors and community leaders.
The following text is Jay Bullock’s testimony in response to MPS’ recommendations. Bullock teaches English at Bay View High School and writes the Hall Monitor column for Bay View Compass.
Written testimony submitted to the Milwaukee Board of School Directors Student Achievement and School Improvement Committee, January 8, 2013
To: Chair Miller, Vice-Chair Falk, Director Holman, Director Voeltner, Director Woodward
cc: Dr. Thornton, Dr. Ellwood, Mr. Leinfelder
After fifteen years as a teacher in, observer of, and commentator on this district, I want to say first that I am very pleased and impressed with the process that brought us to this point. The time, attention, and care this Board and this administration, particularly Director Holman and Dr. Ellwood, have spent over the past eighteen months on Bay View Middle and High School demonstrates a level of commitment far greater than what I, my colleagues, and this community could ever have hoped for. It is clear that “Believe in Bay View” is not an empty slogan, but rather a pledge of support at the highest levels of this district.
I support the proposal before the Board, with two strong exceptions, which I will detail shortly. My support, and my reservations, are rooted in my own belief in Bay View, and deeply informed by my own experience in this process and in this district.
I have been involved in this process for almost two years, starting with Parents for Bay View Schools in 2011 and its attempts to build community support for a stronger Bay View High School. In September 2011, the group invited Superintendent Thornton to meet with the community on a Saturday morning and both sides, administration and community, made a commitment that day to work hard for a change at Bay View. We were heartened and excited by Dr. Thornton’s support for SpringBoard at Bay View, the kind of name-brand, high-quality, college-prep program that neighbors, students, and staff were asking for.
I also served this past fall on the Believe in Bay View steering committee. Again, as a long-time observer and critic of this district, I am impressed at the level of transparency and commitment to the full school community that the Believe in Bay View process demonstrated. The work done by Dr. Ellwood, her staff, and the volunteers who helped lead community listening sessions to ensure that every voice was heard and every option was explored is unprecedented in my experience. What has happened here, as with what happened with the recent merger of 81st and 68th Street Schools, shows that this administration and this Board care about process and community as much as they do results, and that is a welcome change.
I say a welcome change because this is, as they say, not my first rodeo: Seven years ago, I went through much the same course of events as Madison University High School was a target for “reform” by the administration. I sat on the committee that wrote the charter-school proposal, I flew to Kansas City, Kansas, to learn all about (and become an advocate for) First Things First, and I worked closely with MPS administration to shepherd that process. But then, unlike now, the planning process was closed to all but a handful of people, with little involvement of students, parents, or community; the recommendations of teachers like me, ultimately, were ignored by members of the administration who thought they knew better; and in the end, the reform effort at Madison was a disaster. The two worst years of my teaching career were my last two years at Madison, and, after a decade of commitment to that building, I transferred out. (Many of my Madison colleagues did too; there are five of us now at Bay View!)
The Believe in Bay View process to date has been 180 degrees different from that at Madison, and I do not wish to see this Board or this administration harm the end of the process by repeating some of the same mistakes.
First, I am disappointed by the absence of SpringBoard from this proposal. While I recognize that SpringBoard is a 6-12 curriculum almost everywhere it is implemented, it does not have to be. Further, the steering committee made some strong recommendations for how to use SpringBoard to connect Bay View High School to its neighborhood feeder schools, to create a connection for neighborhood students between their neighborhood middle-grades experience and their and their neighborhood high school. A multi-school student learning community could develop, as students from different schools engage in joint activities and similar experiences. Further, a plan that implemented SpringBoard in several neighborhood schools presents a unique opportunity for a multi-school professional learning community, as teachers from Bay View High School would work and train closely with their counterparts in nearby middle schools. The potential in that idea is exciting, and, I think, supports this administration’s belief that MPS must be One Team: Today, I don’t work closely with colleagues from any other school; tomorrow, with SpringBoard, I would.
But more importantly, I worry that abandoning plans for SpringBoard would be seen as breaking the promise this administration and this Board made last year. When the community within and around Bay View rose up as one and said, this is what we want, this administration and this Board said, we hear you, and we agree. Without SpringBoard, all the work that Parents for Bay View Schools did seems wasted, and it becomes yet another data point in a series we all know well showing MPS failing to follow through on its commitments.
Second, I am deeply troubled by the part of the proposal that blocks entry of any new ninth graders to Bay View next fall. While doing that—stopping new enrollment for one year to allow time for “planning” and “rebuilding”—was far from the only mistake MPS made in its reform of Madison University High School, it was probably the most damaging. With the removal of ninth grade from Madison, Madison lost its IB program, its award-winning electronics program, its nursing assistant certification program, its choral music program, one of its two foreign languages, some of its coaches and athletic programs, and many great, young teachers who were most willing to commit to reform. When older students saw the devastation—their favorite teachers or programs gone—they left, too, and we lost more staff on Third Friday. The professional and student learning communities were decimated and, in my opinion, simply could not recover well enough to be the strong forces necessary to support the implementation of First Things First the next year, when enrollment returned to normal and half the adults and students in that building were brand new.
The idea did not die there; the stop-enrollment-to-rebuild plan has been tried again and again in MPS since, and I cannot think of a single school that today is better for having done it. Where the idea originates, and why it keeps being proposed, is a mystery to me.
Indeed, I am not entirely sure where the idea came from in this proposal. While the Believe in Bay View steering committee, not to mention the students, parents, neighbors, and staff, were in near-unanimous agreement about ending or phasing out the middle school grades at Bay View, no such consensus developed around the idea of stopping ninth grade enrollment. As you can see from the data provided to you, “Reduced Student Population” was not a popular choice among those who participated in the process, especially among the community members this process was specifically designed to reach. Phasing out the middle school will cause a slight decline in enrollment, but the bulk of the 500-student cut proposed here comes from the ninth grade.
Further, when the steering committee was presented with the idea of no new ninth grade, we spent very little time discussing it and those who spoke (including me) spoke generally against it. We had the chance to vote with our “dots”—that whole gallery walk thing where we put stickers next to ideas we like on chart paper—and as I recall there was not great support from the dots, either. (I imagine the chart papers are rolled up somewhere and can be checked, but this is my memory.) The steering committee simply was not excited about the idea.
The administration’s justifications for a year without ninth grade seem wholly unrelated. The year would be spent planning and training teachers for the new program, as well as aggressively marketing the new program to the community. These are not things that preclude having a ninth grade. In fact, it seems counterproductive to me to cut enrollment and staff in a year designated for planning and training. The following year, when enrollment would presumably start to return to normal levels, the school will need to hire new staff who, though they’d have to “commit” to the program, would not have had a stake in developing it or a single minute of training in how to implement it.
If the administration’s goal for no new ninth grade is to create a calmer building climate, the same goal could be achieved through careful counseling of our current students prior to their “recommitment,” and enforcement now of those soft entrance requirements, which can be developed quickly before Three Choice begins next month.
Finally, eliminating ninth grade for a year, again, feels like MPS is breaking its promises. When Bay View High School merged with Fritsche Middle School, the promise was that students and the community would have a single 6-12 school. Our eighth graders, who were the first sixth grade class after that merger, were sold on the idea of Bay View as a middle and high school. They and their parents and their teachers were promised that this merger—controversial then, to be sure—would produce a school that didn’t just have seven grades within in, but that because it had seven grades within it could provide a complete and comprehensive schooling experience. Both schools before the merger saw steep drops in enrollment and threats to their programs and were told that merging the two would be the only way to save music, Project Lead the Way, arts, foreign language, and more. Now all of those are threatened by the current proposal. (Staff were told last week, for example, that our National Academy Foundation certification and grant funding is predicated on our being able to offer four years of academy classes—without ninth grade, it would be lost.)
Phasing out the middle school is one thing—it’s an acknowledgment that, as tried, the merger didn’t quite work as planned (a missed opportunity, I think, but that ship has sailed). But to tell our current eighth graders that they cannot stay, and to tell our current staff that their jobs and their futures are uncertain because we have to “plan” for a year, is cruel and unnecessary.
Although I very strongly support almost all of the proposal as written, I encourage you to reconsider SpringBoard and ninth grade before you vote. Thank you for your time.
English Teacher, Bay View Middle and High School
January 2, 2013
Milwaukee Public Schools must write a strategic plan every five years, as required by school board policy.
The 2007 plan was called “Working Together, Achieving More,” and it was the result of months of collaboration between MPS, its teachers union, the Greater Milwaukee Committee (which largely funded the process), and Milwaukee’s African American Education Council.
The published document states that more than 1,000 people offered input to the plan and that the school board unanimously adopted it in July 2007. It was, at that time, and since, the single most collaborative and transparent plan that MPS had ever produced.
And it was a masterpiece, bursting with optimism, leaving no lofty dream on the editing floor. “This document is the beginning of an unprecedented journey,” it promised. It was the “blueprint” for turning MPS “into one of the finest school districts in the nation.”
It wouldn’t be easy, we were told, because “we cannot achieve results without doing things differently.”
Indeed, the document acknowledged complaints that previous reform efforts failed to be implemented across the whole district and that they weren’t sustained very long.
If you are looking around now and thinking, Wait, it’s five years later—it’s supposed to be different now?, then you, too, probably work for MPS.
And if you do work for MPS, you just might also be thinking, Wait, we have a strategic plan?
My (very, very) informal survey of MPS staff and teachers I know or work with suggests that few of them know of the plan, or that it had the fancy title “Working Together, Achieving More,” or that the plan demanded that everyone be knowledgeable about it. “This is an action plan for every school, every principal, every teacher, and every staff member.” (Italicized emphasis is in the original document.)
It is true that the text of every item the board votes on has a clause to justify the existence of the strategic plan, but for everyday staff members, let alone students or parents, there’s no sense that there is an overall plan. Unprecedented collaboration and transparency has gone for naught.
That might be because “Working Together, Achieving More” has failed to produce increased achievement. Of eight goals the plan set for MPS, and of dozens of “Measurable Objectives and Key Outcome Measures” to track progress, MPS has failed to live up to almost all of them.
Some failures are obvious, like the plan’s number one goal, that MPS students would meet and exceed Wisconsin’s academic standards. They don’t, especially on the new, stricter standards adopted this past fall.
To see more of the failures, you need to dig deeper, into those “measurable objectives:
•Cut achievement gaps between minority and white students in half? Not yet.
•Collaborate with New Leaders for New Schools to cultivate a solid crop of school principals? Nope—that group fled from MPS’s dysfunction.
•Boost new teacher retention? Try several straight years of layoffs of mostly new teachers.
•Lobby for and get a new, fairer state funding formula? I refer you my December 2012 column. (bayviewcompass.com/archives/12827)
I will give MPS credit for one thing that “Working Together, Achieving More” got right, besides its collaborative and transparent creation. Goal number eight was to build “partnerships to support student achievement.” This was done well by the district. Most notably, MPS has a partnership with the General Electric Foundation, which gives the district $20 million to improve the teaching of math and science.
The rest of the news is not all bad, either. Graduation rates are up, although not to the 75% four-year-rate demanded by the plan; test scores are inching higher, especially in math; and MPS has worked hard to standardize disparate curricula and expand successful programs like Montessori. But the district is still bleeding students to charter and choice schools, still desperately underfunded, still teaching students who struggle with basic skills and family issues.
Five years isn’t enough to change a district the size of Milwaukee, and certainly not enough to meet the mile-high goals MPS set five years ago. But as it moves forward on the path to a new strategic plan—MPS kicked it off with an event on December 1, attended by 150 or so other community members and myself—MPS must remember this. The failure of the 2007 plan lies not in its impossible ambition or its soaring rhetoric, but because, on the ground, many of its called-for reforms didn’t make it to the whole district, plans were abandoned rather than sustained, students and staff feel jerked around and powerless, and there is not a lot that is really being done differently.
Five years ago the district made a public promise to be different, and it didn’t live up to it. This time, the district has a chance to do it right.
Jay Bullock teaches English at Bay View Middle and High School, blogs at schoolmattersmke.com, and tweets as @folkbum. You can email him at email@example.com.
December 10, 2012
By Jay Bullock
Thank goodness the election is over, so now we can move on to something completely different: the election.
I know, it hardly seems fair that we have no time to breathe or pretend that other things matter for a while, but when it comes to the future of public schools, it’s time to start talking about the spring 2013 election.
I say this because of the “post-Act 10 world” we’re living in. Act 10 was the bill passed by the state Legislature in 2011, which, among other things, made it harder for public employees like teachers to have a voice in working conditions or compensation. Act 10 was followed shortly after by a harsh 2011-2013 state budget which not only cut funding for schools but severely limited districts’ ability to supplement missing state funding.
As for the April election, four-ninths of the Milwaukee Board of School Directors is up for grabs. None of the Bay View-specific seats are on the ballot—neither District 8 member Meagan Holman nor Citywide member Terry Falk will face election again until 2015. But two seats in the districts adjacent to Bay View are on the ballot, those of District 7 member David Voeltner and District 5 member Larry Miller (the board’s vice president).
Voeltner and Miller represent the city’s southwest and east sides, respectively. Both have provided reliably pro-student voices and votes on the board, fighting, for example, superintendent Gregory Thornton’s inclination to increase the number of charter schools in the district.
Also up are two north side seats, those of Annie Woodward and Peter Blewett. Blewett is not running for re-election.
The way that MPS responds to post-Act 10 realities to support—or not support—its students will be determined by the make-up of the board, which means interested parties on all sides will be ready for battle this spring. Pay attention, in particular, to the fight for Blewett’s open seat, and don’t be surprised if Voeltner faces a strong challenge.
Also important is the race for state superintendent. The current officeholder, Tony Evers, has put forward a plan to rewrite the state’s school-funding formula in a way that is much more fair to urban and poor districts that don’t have the resources now to meet the needs of their students. His plan would send needed state funding to these districts.
Evers’ plan, called “Fair Funding for Our Future,” tackles the funding problem in several ways, starting with setting a minimum level of per-pupil funding and restoring the pledge for the state to pay two-thirds of school districts’ costs. Further, by adding a “poverty factor” to the state funding formula, Evers’ plan does not continue to over-burden property-poor communities who cannot fund schools adequately via local property taxes. He attempted to get his plan put in place in the last budget.
His plan is not popular with the people who currently write the state budget. In fact, it is 180 degrees from the school-funding plan announced by Governor Scott Walker at the Reagan Presidential Library in California last month, where Walker stated he wanted to tie funding to performance. Walker’s plan is a sure way to further punish underfunded districts—rather than provide a fair level of funding to all students.
In that same California speech, Walker outlined plans to radically expand both vouchers for private schools and charter schools across the state.
As I write, no one has emerged to challenge Evers, but given recent politics in Wisconsin, there seems little doubt that someone much closer to Walker’s position—low taxes, punitive funding, sucking public money away into private schools—will challenge Evers. Re-electing Evers, who has Wisconsin’s schools foremost in his mind, is critical.
Finally, a Wisconsin Supreme Court race will also be on the April ballot. Let’s be frank: A whole lot of the past two years’ of Wisconsin politics has ultimately ended up in court. A whole lot more probably will, and it is entirely possible that the court will soon see school funding cases.
Or see them again. In 2000’s Vincent v. Voight ruling, the Wisconsin Supreme Court declined to declare the state’s twisted school funding system unconstitutional, but it left the door open to a challenge if future plaintiffs could clearly show that funding reached “inadequate” levels.
Put these pieces together and get what? The possibility that a strong, student-centered MPS board, backed by a fair-funding advocate in the state superintendent’s office, might be able to convince a student-sympathetic Supreme Court that the starvation budgets of the last two years—and the foreseeable future under Walker and his allies—are absolutely inadequate.
I am convinced we have to be thinking about the election.
Note: Just before this issue went to press, State Representative Don Pridemore (R-Hartford) filed paperwork to explore a campaign for the State Superintendent of Public Instruction seat, currently occupied by Tony Evers.
Jay Bullock teaches English at Bay View Middle and High School, blogs at schoolmattersmke.com, tweets as @folkbum, and can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org
November 2, 2012
By Jay Bullock
When I wrote draft one of this column, I started with, “I have watched this community chase its tail about Bay View High School for five years now.”
But I think the problem probably lies not with the community, but with me. I may have left something undone or unsaid along the way.
I feel like maybe I haven’t been clear about our school’s history. Throughout the last decade, the high school and its neighbor, Fritsche Middle School (formerly a star MPS school) were losing enrollment. One of the reasons was district forces—MPS toyed around with Bay View’s enrollment cap from year to year, while it kept expanding nearby elementary schools to eighth grade. Another was demographics—this neighborhood just doesn’t have enough teenagers (less than 1000, according to MPS data from around the time of the merger) to fill a school the size of Bay View, even if we could magically stop them all from going to King or Thomas More or Reagan or fill-in-the-blank.
Option A was to shut both schools down. Option B, the one we chose, was to combine them. We can quibble—and I did!—about the process of combining the two, but not about the reality that those were the two options. This was not some evil plot.
Ergo, Bay View Middle and High School. It’s here and it stands ready to teach your children.
Maybe I haven’t done enough to emphasize the good things about the school: band and orchestra, engineering courses for college credit, AP courses, a full selection of athletics and after-school activities. Students who actually want to be at Bay View every day and who, with their dedicated teachers, are part of a significantly positive education experience.
BVMHS’s most recent test scores rank it at average for MPS. A low bar, admittedly, but scores are higher than they’ve been in a decade. The school was recently removed from the district’s “list of schools that need severe interventions.” Students in the school’s engineering and construction academy, anchored by Project Lead the Way, flat-out beat the district average. And starting next year, the district has promised to offer SpringBoard, the College Board’s official, rigorous pre-AP curriculum for math and language arts. The community demanded SpringBoard, and now they have it.
Yeah, but there was a “riot,” or a “brawl,” or whatever you want to call it, one morning before school started, and that seems to obviate the above.
I haven’t pushed local leadership as hard as I should have when I heard their post-riot public comments. They, our elected officials and opinion leaders, came down on BVMHS cold, stinging, threatening, like late-autumn sleet. “It is not a safe school,” Bay View Alderman Tony Zielinski said, claiming the October 18 fight “merely dramatizes what happens on a daily basis.” “Right now, it’s a school of last resort,” the neighborhood’s school board member said in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. It’s “a symbol of the problems facing large high schools in Milwaukee,” offered Alan Borsuk, Milwaukee’s most experienced education observer. These statements are broadcast on TV and reported in the state’s largest daily paper, these slams against my students and me.
At the same time, I should note, these folks did say that they “want Bay View to be a destination school,” and that “some of finest teachers in the system are at Bay View.” Which is nice, but doesn’t really take the sting out.
But maybe most of all, I haven’t been clear enough in laying out for you—neighbor or parent or otherwise-interested third party, exactly what Bay View needs in order to become the school we all think it should be. I didn’t, after all, raise my hand and toss in my two cents at the October 3 community meeting about our school, when an earnest neighbor asked, “What do you need from us?”
The answer that was in my head and in the first draft of this column was simple. “Give us your kids.”
BVMHS is a school of 1,400 students, more than a thousand of whom don’t live in the neighborhood but nonetheless chose Bay View (It is a destination school already, see?) and show up every day and learn. The rest, well, they get placed here to fill up the school. And while most of them turn out to be great too, some don’t. There aren’t that many who are truly a problem, but enough that sometimes our school makes the news. (Later in the day my students agreed that the fight was stupid and that it was not representative of them or their school.)
All that it would take is a couple of hundred parents living nearby to say, “We’re taking Bay View back for this neighborhood,” and to demonstrate that by sending their students to Bay View. Fill up those spaces before the district can, and, suddenly, this is the school you’re looking for.
But this last incident, this stupid fight that topped the news cycle, is going to be just one more in the long line of excuses offered by Bay View parents as reasons why they will not send their children to our school, which follows their previous reasons: low tests scores, the lack of a college-prep program—and the rest of the reasons or excuses that preceded those. All of the parent groups in Bay View say they want BVMHS to be their school of choice, but none has chosen it.
So here I am, trying to make up for what I didn’t say before, which is this: I have been teaching in MPS for 15 years and have never had a group of students as good as those I have now at Bay View High School, and I have never had a harder time getting anybody to believe me.
Jay Bullock teaches English at Bay View Middle & High School. He blogs at schoolmattersmke.com and jokes a lot on Twitter as @folkbum.
October 1, 2012
By Jay Bullock
The method behind the magic
Though they are only in the first stages of their year-long training, the students are well into the process of learning Maria Montessori’s specialized techniques, becoming familiar with Montessori’s unique learning tools, as well as developing their own personalized teaching manuals for every lesson.
Milwaukee is seeing a bit of a Montessori boom in recent years, with several new or expanded Montessori schools in the Milwaukee Public School district. Though only about 3% of MPS’s students are enrolled in Montessori schools, their statistics—from test scores to attendance and discipline—far outpace the rest of the district as a whole, making expansion attractive to the data- and results-driven MPS administration. The district is hosting a region-wide Montessori Community Summit for parents, teachers, and community members on October 6, the first of its kind in southeast Wisconsin, to expand support for Montessori education.
So the institute’s students are learning Montessori’s methods at just the right time.
But what are those methods? What sets Montessori education apart from a traditional classroom?
What is Montessori?
Maria Montessori (1870-1952) was a physician in Italy at the turn of the last century, in fact, Italy’s first female physician. She was a psychiatrist who, early in her career, worked with juvenile delinquents and children with mental retardation.
According to a biography of Montessori on the American Montessori Society’s website, she developed an interest in education, attending classes on pedagogy and immersing herself in educational theory. Her studies and observations led her to call into question the prevailing methods used to teach children with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
breakthrough was her ascertainment that the children she studied learned and interacted with their environment naturally, without any imposed adult structure. Based on those insights, she developed materials and teaching methods that work with, rather than against, the students’ instincts to learn.
She became a lecturer at a pedagogical school in Rome, training teachers how to work with disabled children and developing many of the methods and materials still in use today.When given the opportunity to oversee the education of a group of non-disabled children in Rome in 1906, Montessori applied what she had learned about children’s development and set up her classrooms accordingly, which resulted in tremendous success. Her methods suited the students’ tendencies to interact with their world and learn from their experience—their natural tendencies.
These tendencies, according to Montessori theorists including Mario Montessori, Maria’s son, include such elements as exploration of novel objects and ideas, manipulation of their environment, repetition of activities, and a need for order and cleanliness.
A child’s first Montessori classroom, usually with a group of students from ages three to six, has some very specific characteristics, according to Allyn S. Travis, Executive Director and Co-Director of Training at MIM.
“Montessori provides a uniquely prepared environment,” Travis said. First of all, there has to be a specially trained teacher. But the most visible difference is the use of “didactic materials that appeal to learners of all types,” Travis said.
This is why on any given day you might find MIM teachers-in-training sitting on the floor with a yards-long timeline of earth’s geological periods, or using colored pieces of cardboard to explore weather in the world’s different climate zones, or learning basic musical elements on “the bells.”
All Montessori classrooms include a set of these bells, as well as dozens of other items for children to manipulate and explore, such as a moveable alphabet to learn phonemes and objects to learn counting. Many of the materials and exercises are designed to build skills that will be useful later. Manipulating cylinders, for example, in early lessons about size and shape, prime a child to hold a pencil later, when it comes time to write.
Maria Montessori recognized the connection between experience and learning a century ago. Contemporary theorists, such as pediatric neuropsychologist Steven Hughes, PhD, see experiential learning as using the brain’s method of developing neural pathways to the child’s advantage. “This is an example of how the networks in your brain function,” Hughes wrote in 2009 in a journal for Montessori parents. “The novel task of holding a pencil is supported by previous activities.” Hughes, Chair of the Association Montessori Internationale Global Research Committee, specializes in assessment and treatment planning for people who have problems with attention, concentration, organization, planning, and related executive functions.
Hughes calls Montessori’s experiential learning concept and practices “the best brain-based model of education,” even though Maria Montessori conceived her insights before the invention MRI technology to observe brain function.
Further, Montessori classrooms stress social skills. Responsibility is one of these. Students learn how to safely and neatly use materials and how to put them back so that they are ready for the next child who wants to use them. Students also have jobs in the classroom, such as sweeping the floors or watering the plants. Likewise, MIM’s teachers-in-training must clean up and care for the plants before they leave for the day.
Travis said that in addition to the material that children work with in a Montessori classroom, it is important to implement Maria Montessori’s guiding principles with fidelity.
She named three principles: Limitation—there is usually just one of each of the materials in a classroom, so that only one child at a time can use it. Isolation—by working alone, each child can focus on each concept to be learned. And freedom—freedom to move about the classroom, freedom to work with others, and freedom to choose the learning activity that interests them.
In the elementary Montessori classroom, with students six- to nine-years-old, teachers allow for a child’s developing social awareness. The students work in small groups to develop collaborative and cooperative skills. “They’re ready to put the individual into a social context,” Travis said.
Beyond that, the Montessori lessons are designed to promote social responsibility. “Montessori students understand their place in their world, and realize there’s a reason why they’re here,” he said. “The central theme of our stories from early on, in texts and materials, is that everything that has come and been on the earth is here for a reason. Everything has a purpose.”
Montessori’s methods contrast sharply to those experienced by the vast majority of students in their non-Montessori classrooms, where all students learn the same thing at the same time, often in the same way.
Also, the hands-on, experiential training for Montessori teachers is very different from the classroom lecture and reading experience teachers receive in most preparation programs.
Montessori in U.S. and MPS
When Montessori first brought her ideas to the United States in the early 1900s, she was set upon by the leading education theorists of the day, including Thomas Dewey and William Heard Kilpatrick. The constructivist nature of Montessori—the idea that students build their own meaning out of the experience of the world—was diametrically opposed to the establishment’s views, particularly Dewey’s. He believed that socialization (not isolation) and imaginative play (not intellectual stimulation) were the keys to proper childhood development.
Because of these criticisms, Montessori education was largely abandoned in the U.S. until a revival in the 1960s. Fifty years later it is still not well known or understood by many parents and non-Montessori teachers.
Moreover, the Montessori method runs completely counter to MPS’s Comprehensive Literacy Plan and Comprehensive Math and Science Plan, the district’s strict guidelines for what gets taught when and how in MPS schools. The comprehensive plans were designed to standardize practice across a district that had as many as two-dozen different reading programs. However, after a rocky period when the plans were first instituted—including in Montessori schools, MPS has allowed Montessori schools to remain faithful to Maria Montessori’s methods.
Students usually stay in Montessori until age 12, or “eighth grade.” Milwaukee has just one school with a Montessori program for high-school-age students—MacDowell Montessori, which serves students from age three until graduation. However, Maria Montessori did not set many guidelines for educating children older than 12. Consequently, most Montessori students in Milwaukee and across the globe move into traditional schools after age 12. By the time a child leaves the upper elementary classroom, Travis says, students are usually very well prepared to transition to high school and on to college.
“Montessori kids have a love of learning,” she said. “They have an ability to work with others, and they know how to pursue their interests. They don’t necessarily know more than other students, but they can think clearly, and for themselves.”
“The big surprise,” Travis added, “is that they find other students don’t like school or learning.”
J. McKeever, MIM’s Co-director of Elementary Training, said that Montessori students have a particularly well-developed sense of themselves and how to make decisions. She contrasted that with her experience in a traditional setting. “I was a high school English teacher in Missouri, in a modern building with lots of choices for students,” she said. “But I found that students couldn’t handle choice. By the end of Montessori, they know how to make choices.”
Expanding Montessori is not easy; there are set-up costs that MPS, for example, has pegged at more than $400,000 per school over the first six years. Travis says that those initial costs mask savings that may come later, since the materials—produced by just a few specialist companies to exacting standards of quality—can last for years. “If the materials are properly taken care of,” she said, “They don’t need to be replaced like textbooks.”
The materials are not the only expense; teachers and aides must be trained. (Every classroom must have at least one adult aide.) Plus, the state reimburses MPS for teaching four-year-olds at a lower rate than older children, and does not pay for three-year-olds at all.
However, MPS school board member Meagan Holman, a parent with four children enrolled in a Montessori school, has argued that Montessori schools can pay for themselves by capturing students who, were it not for the Montessori option, would otherwise not attend MPS. These students boost MPS’s enrollment numbers and, therefore, income.
The high achievement scores of Montessori students also benefit the district as a whole, she said. There is little doubt that MPS both needs more high-achieving schools and that, in general, its Montessori schools do better than the district as a whole.
But its Montessori boom still faces challenges. Kosciuszko Montessori School has seen MPS restrict its enrollment, for example, because it has not produced very good results or drawn many students to its near-south side building in Lincoln Village.
At the end of the last school year, MPS did not renew its charter agreement with Montessori High School after years of low enrollment and mediocre scores. MacDowell’s performance in grades 9-12 will be closely watched to see if that school, which is taking on Montessori High School’s staff and students this fall, can produce the same success with their high-school-age kids as Montessori students ages 3-12 have achieved.
And even now, at the end of the first month of the 2012-13 school year, MPS has not filled the available seats at the new Howard Avenue Montessori School, despite the demand the district believed exists for Montessori preschool. Nearby Fernwood Montessori had a waiting list for three- and four-year-old classes larger than Howard Avenue’s expected total enrollment. MPS has been heavily plying social networks like Facebook and Twitter to attract additional parents
MPS is heavily promoting its Montessori Community Summit, and they will use that gathering to provide “Montessori 101” to parents to try to convince more of them to enroll their children in Montessori schools. The summit’s program includes “Glass House,” a chance to watch Montessori students-in-action in a Montessori classroom.
If MPS can make its case to parents who then demand it for their own children, and can show success with its recent expansions, expect the Montessori boom in Milwaukee to continue.
More info about Milwaukee Montessori Summit here.
Jay Bullock teaches English at Bay View Middle and High School. He blogs at schoolmattersMKE.com and jokes a lot on Twitter as @folkbum
Read Jay Bullock’s story about the new Howard Avenue Montessori school: bayviewcompass.com/archives/11936
September 2, 2012
By Jay Bullock
I made a joke on Twitter the other day, that if Star Trek: The Next Generation had taught me anything, it’s that flipped classrooms don’t catch on. Which is to say, on the TV show, set 300 years in the future, children aboard the starship Enterprise still sit and listen to teachers lecture.
A “flipped” class is upside-down: Traditional homework activities are done in class with teacher support, while lecture- or demonstration-style teaching is done online, where students watch at home, or individually in class.
Flipping lets students, who are working at home, take as much time as they need to understand a lesson—rewinding and re-watching videos as often as necessary. Likewise, they receive as much help as they need to complete the homework while they are physically in their classroom, since the teacher is right there with them.
Perhaps the most famous flipping is done with help from Khan Academy. Former Wall Streeter Salman ‘Sal’ Khan started making web videos to tutor his cousins in math in 2006. Since then his work has exploded; he has received funding from the Gates Foundation and Google. A number of schools, mostly in California, are using his videos to teach math. Khan, via YouTube, does the teaching; teachers coach one-on-one as students work on practice problems.
It’s easy to find teachers who flipped their classes online—along with their videos!—and want to help more teachers do the same.
Around Milwaukee, though, you don’t see this teaching mode much. I don’t personally know of any teachers who are flipping their classes, so I plied every social network and lots of friends, and found, finally, one.
Kate Kelleher Junk taught math at St. Joan Antida High School for the last two years, although this year she has moved to a non-teaching resource position at the school. In her last semester of teaching, she flipped her 9th-grade algebra classes.
Junk discussed the flip with her students before she instituted it. “I offered them the option and we discussed what it would look like. We also discussed what my expectations were and that this didn’t mean we could get away with not working.”
Getting students to buy in is key to making it work, she said.
“It’s incredibly important,” Junk said, “that your students realize that each member of the class, including the teacher, has to put work in and that they can’t get away with not working. If you don’t have that, it can’t be successful.”
Junk made her own PowerPoint presentations for students to watch on in-class computers. “These PowerPoints had the basic info, practice problems (with worked out solutions), and videos or animations whenever I could find good ones.”
The results were mixed. Junk said her honors class preferred the old way, and “unflipped” after a few weeks. About half the students in a second class bought in but the other half did not.
A third class thrived, though. “These were mostly students who told me they hated math and hadn’t been very successful in their previous classes,” Junk said. This class had some student leaders, she said, and “they could help slightly less needy students and I could work more closely with my lowest performers.”
That mix of self-directed learning with teacher and student coaching is a fantastic dynamic. But as you might guess from Junk’s overall experience, it’s not always easy to find.
And it suggests perhaps the perfect reason to try flipping. Students who don’t have a lot of success in “school” as we know it might do much better when “school” stops being as we know it.
As I think about my own practice, I struggle with how or when to flip, since many of my students—and students throughout Milwaukee’s schools—could benefit from a different kind of school experience. But literature and writing is not as easy to flip as math or science.
Luckily, the trend towards flipping means a wealth of online resources for an English teacher who wants to leave lectures behind. Students can play Grammar Ninja to learn skills or run writing through PaperRater to check for basic errors. (kwarp.com/portfolio/grammarninja.html and paperrater.com)
One obstacle to successful flipping is technology access. I have no student computers in my room—most MPS teachers don’t—and I can’t always get a lab reservation or laptops for internet access. And many of my students don’t have reliable internet access at home.
Still, contrary to what Star Trek might have us believe, the technology is moving inexorably toward flipping. It’s time for Milwaukee teachers to embrace it.
Jay Bullock teaches English at Bay View Middle and High School. He blogs at schoolmattersMKE.com and jokes a lot on Twitter as @folkbum.
August 1, 2012
Story and photos by Jay Bullock
If you blinked, you might have missed it—the rapid idea-to-implementation process now converting the Tippecanoe school building, 357 E. Howard Ave., into a brand-new Milwaukee Public Schools Montessori school.
The program was envisioned in May, outlined in a memo to administration on June 1, proposed at a Milwaukee Board of School Directors committee meeting on June 14, and approved in a unanimous vote by the full board on June 28. The new school’s principal, Phil Dosmann, longtime leader of Craig Montessori School, was appointed on July 26.
And next month, September, the school, known as the Howard Avenue Montessori School (until a permanent name is chosen), will enroll 120 three- and four-year-old children in a half-day kindergarten program (K3, K4). A major school transformation moved from conception to birth in just three months—something that just doesn’t happen in slow-moving MPS.
The creation of the school has focused attention on board member Meagan Holman, elected in 2011 from the district that includes Bay View and the Tippecanoe neighborhood around the new school. It was Holman who composed that June 1 memo outlining what the new school could be; however, she does not take credit for Howard Avenue.
“It was the superintendent’s idea,” Holman said, referring to MPS Superintendent Gregory Thornton. “When we were looking at what to do with that building, he said, ‘What about Montessori there?’
“I said, ‘In 2013-2014?’
“He said, ‘Now,’ It was a curveball. We were able to figure out in a week that we had everything we needed [to start the school].” Howard Avenue is moving with surprising speed, in part because MPS was not expecting the building to be empty.
Tippecanoe School for the Arts and Humanities moved from the building in fall 2011, joining Dover Street School in the former Fritsche Middle School. (Fritsche’s program was merged with nearby Bay View High School in 2010.) For the 2011-2012 school year, Wings Academy, a charter school that primarily enrolled special needs students, occupied the building, but an untenable financial situation forced Wings to close, suddenly making Tippe available.
However, additional Montessori schools were being planned for MPS before Howard Avenue. The Strategic Facilities Plan adopted by MPS last fall called for an expansion of Montessori into more areas of the district, although at the time, no new schools were approved. Holman, whose four children attend Fernwood, has been working with Montessori principals and parents on a strategic plan to expand the program’s reach. She also worked to convince Thornton of Montessori’s potential.
Third Bay View-area Montessori School
The Bay View area already has two Montessori schools. Downtown Montessori Academy, 2507 S. Graham St., is a school chartered by the city of Milwaukee, meaning it is a public school, but it is not part of the Milwaukee Public Schools. According to its website, DMA enrolls more than 125 students from four-year-old kindergarten through eighth grade.
Bay View’s other Montessori school, Fernwood, 3239 S. Pennsylvania Ave., is one of MPS’s top-performing schools. State test results show that in the last school year, Fernwood had more students scoring proficient or advanced in reading and math than the state average, let alone the average for MPS.
Fernwood also has a wait list of 139 three- and four-year-olds, according to the district.
Priority for enrollment at Howard Avenue will be given to Fernwood wait-list students, as well as students on the wait lists for the district’s other Montessori schools (Craig, Maryland Avenue, and MacDowell have wait lists), according to MPS. Enrollment will be done by lottery. The first round of the lottery was open to those who joined the wait lists during MPS’s “three-choice” open enrollment period in January 2012, when parents pick the top three schools they want their children to enroll in. Those joining the wait lists after that were entered in a second lottery for any remaining spaces. MPS expects the last enrollment letters to be sent by August 6.
Students from all over the city can enroll at Howard Avenue, but MPS indicated that students living near the school would also be given priority.
Students within a one-mile radius of the school will be expected to walk to school (all schools have such a “walk zone”). Students who live outside of a five-mile radius will need to be provided with transportation to and from school by their families. However, students who live between one and five miles from the school will be provided yellow bus service by MPS.
According to Principal Phil Dosmann, the school will serve its 120 students in three classrooms, running six half-day kindergarten sessions between 9am and 3:30pm. According to MPS, the district’s Recreational Department “will offer a fee-for-service wrap-around camp option for the other half of students’ days.”
Dosmann added that the three teachers required for Howard Avenue are already in place, and there are plans to add two more teachers in 2013-2014 when the school expands to include five-year-olds.
When MPS was granted federal stimulus money under the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the district spent some of it to train 40 teachers in Montessori instructional methods, planning ahead for teacher retirements, and for school expansions already underway, such as at the Lloyd Barbee School, which began transitioning to Montessori in 2010-2011.
Certification training for a Montessori teacher takes a full year at the Montessori Institute of Milwaukee, in Bay View, one of a number of accredited training programs around the country. Alternately, a teacher can be trained over three consecutive summers, according to the MIM website. Training costs $10,000 or more, but the district pays for its teachers’ training as long as they teach Montessori in MPS for three years.
In 2010-2011, MPS employed nearly 290 people, including 154 teachers and 54 paraprofessionals, in eight Montessori schools serving 2862 students.
These figures come from an audit of MPS’s Montessori programs, in particular its four oldest—Craig, Fernwood, Maryland Avenue, and MacDowell—completed in June 2012.*
The audit also identified other funding challenges for Montessori beyond teacher training, such as the cost of materials specific to Montessori, for example, and the curriculum’s requirement for a Montessori-trained paraprofessional in every classroom.
But perhaps the biggest cost comes from enrolling three-year-olds in kindergarten: The state of Wisconsin does not reimburse MPS at all for K3 students. K4 students are reimbursed at a reduced rate. Further, the audit indicated Montessori schools can’t qualify for Head Start funding to cover K3 students, or for SAGE funding, which is designed to keep classes at a specific size.
Howard Avenue is moving with surprising speed in part because MPS was not expecting the building to be empty.
That means Howard Avenue, which will enroll only K3 and K4 this fall, will be opening with and operating on funds drawn largely from what MPS calls “board funds,” money from property tax or grant sources, rather than state funding, which will be minimal. Those board funds could have been available to other schools, instead of invested in starting the school. The audit estimated the cost of starting a Montessori program—in general, not specifically Howard Avenue—at $135,000 in its first year and up to $420,000 over six years.
Holman said that by 2013-2014, with K5 students enrolled at full state reimbursement, and K4 students receiving their partial reimbursement, the school will be self-sufficient. Further, Holman believes that the cost will be made up in future years. “Because Montessori schools have a higher retention rate,” she said, “the expense of K3 is paid off quicker than you’d think.”
The audit noted this tendency for Montessori students to remain in the same school from year to year. “Montessori programs had higher attendance and stability rates than the district for both elementary and middle grades,” it said. “In addition, mobility rates were also lower than the district averages.”
According to the audit, Montessori schools retain more of their students after five years than any other early childhood program in MPS.
Superintendent Thornton has brought a greater focus on “market share” to MPS. Many education observers see Milwaukee as the most “open marketplace” of schooling options in the country. The city’s public schools have been losing students for decades to private voucher schools, to non-MPS charter schools—including Downtown Montessori Academy, and to suburban schools through Wisconsin’s open enrollment policy.
Bob DelGhingaro, the district’s Chief Accountability and Efficiency Officer, said that MPS isn’t going to be able to do much more cutting to meet its tight budget restrictions. Instead, MPS has to maintain enrollment or start growing again. “Growing market share is also critical for MPS due to shrinking state dollars and the voucher program,” he said.
“Our Montessori programs are in high demand,” DelGhingaro noted, citing the potential for Montessori to boost MPS’s market share.
Priority for enrollment at Howard Avenue will be given to Fernwood wait-list students, as well as students on the wait lists for the district’s other Montessori schools.
MPS auditors addressed this issue too. They noted that almost 50 percent of the students on Craig Montessori’s 2010-2011 wait list, who were not admitted to Craig, elected not to enroll in another MPS school. That was a loss of about 45 students—and the accompanying state funding for those students—who left the district because they did not get into their Montessori school of choice.
If nothing is done to address the Montessori schools’ wait lists, which are growing every year, the auditors warn that MPS “may see a further loss of student enrollment because there are simply not enough seats available to address the demand at these particular schools.”
One such loss may have been Dave Nelsen’s son. Nelsen, a Bay View resident, has a child newly enrolled in Howard Avenue’s K3 program, selected from the Fernwood wait list, where he was number 58.
Nelsen considered a private K3 preschool for his son this fall, and if he hadn’t gotten into Fernwood for K4 in 2013, leaving the district was a possibility. “We also would have looked at other MPS elementary schools in the area,” he said. “Had we not gotten into MPS Montessori and not liked any of those schools, we would have considered moving.”
Montessori Attracts Suburban Kids to MPS
After trying to get her daughter into Fernwood’s K4, Anna Paradowski got a letter stating that she wasn’t accepted, so she enrolled her in Willow Glen in St. Francis, she said. Paradowski lives in St. Francis. But when she learned of the new Montessori program, she enrolled her daughter in Howard Avenue’s K4 program, instead of Willow Glen.
Montessori schools can’t qualify for Head Start funding to cover K3 students, or for SAGE funding.
The same is true for St. Francis resident Danielle Simonovic, whose son who was number 29 on Fernwood’s K4 wait list, the very bottom. She applied for her son’s admission to Howard Avenue, and was accepted. “He would have gone [to Willow Glen] had this opportunity not come our way,” Simonovic said. “I am beyond thrilled that he is going to be able to be in the Montessori program.”
So Howard Avenue is capturing at least two children from Willow Glen, bringing state funding into MPS from a suburban district in a reversal of the usual pattern.
The academic success of Milwaukee’s Montessori schools is the big attraction. The MPS audit of the district’s longest-running Montessori programs goes on at some length about the schools’ success.
Last year Fernwood and Maryland Avenue, the audit said, outperformed MPS “on all subtests (math, reading, language arts, science, and social studies) and all grades.” Craig was not far behind them, and MacDowell beat the average on half of all the tests given in 2011-2012.
Fernwood was singled out in the audit for outperforming state averages on most tests that year as well, a rarity in MPS.
Beyond the MPS audit’s findings, others have touted success in Milwaukee’s Montessori schools. In a 2006 issue of Science, a peer-reviewed research journal, Angeline Lillard and Nicole Else-Quest wrote that students who were selected in the lottery to attend Craig Montessori school outperformed peers who entered the lottery but were not selected, whether those peers stayed in MPS or left for suburban districts or private schools.
“By the end of kindergarten, the Montessori children performed better on standardized tests of reading and math, engaged in more positive interaction on the playground, and showed more advanced social cognition and executive control,” the researchers reported. “They also showed more concern for fairness and justice. At the end of elementary school, Montessori children wrote more creative essays with more complex sentence structures, selected more positive responses to social dilemmas, and reported feeling more of a sense of community at their school.”
It must be noted that both Craig, praised by Science, and Fernwood, singled out for its success by the MPS audit, have a far smaller proportion of non-white, special-needs, and low-income students than the district as a whole, and than other Montessori schools. In recent years, MPS closed or severely cut back Montessori programs whose enrollment looked more like the district average: Montessori High School was closed at the end of last year after consistently receiving below-average scores, for example. MPS has removed the upper grade levels from Kosciuszko in recent years because of low enrollment.
However, Montessori success is not limited to whiter, wealthier students.
The June 2011 edition of “Milwaukee Today: An Occasional Report of the NAACP” reported that African American students particularly benefit from Montessori education. Using 2009-2010 state test results, the report’s authors noted that African American students in Milwaukee’s Montessori schools tested as proficient or advanced at almost twice the rate of their peers in Milwaukee’s non-Montessori schools.
This may be because African American students learn better in a Montessori-style classroom. A paper prepared for the American Montessori Society last fall, by researchers Horace R. Hall and Angela K. Murray, explained, “There exist multiple in- and out-of-school connections between Montessorian pedagogy and the social and educational needs of black children.”
The “Montessorian pedagogy” is a deeply constructionist philosophy of education; that is, Montessori practitioners believe that children and students learn best by interacting with and acting upon the environment around them. Rather than sitting still in an assigned seat and listening to a teacher deliver planned content, Montessori students are encouraged to find what interests them and pursue it in collaboration with their peers. Students learn in multi-age classrooms and work with specialized materials.
Developed by Maria Montessori in Italy a century ago, “the Montessori philosophy and curriculum focuses on natural child development,” said Joe DiCarlo, principal of Maryland Avenue Montessori.
“It’s a whole-life approach to education, with developmental levels geared toward the natural inclinations of children, and a focus on what children are naturally geared toward,” DiCarlo said, adding, “The regular classroom environment is not set up to allow that to happen.”
Bobby Tanzilo, a Montessori parent and member of Maryland Avenue Montessori School’s school governance council, said Montessori is “self-discipline from the get-go. You get a child at three and teach them that they are as responsible for their cognitive development as the teacher. They have eight years of self-guidance.” He added, “It’s not crazy magic; it’s really fundamental stuff.”
Expanding the availability of Montessori’s standardized curriculum should appeal to MPS administration, said Catherine Loss, Assistant Principal in Charge at Lloyd Barbee. In the last two years, the district has concentrated on standardizing its curricular offerings, by mandating a Comprehensive Literacy Plan and a Comprehensive Math/Science Plan in most schools.
“Teacher training is standardized,” Loss said, “and that’s why it’s so replicable. The materials and training are the same.”
Phil Dosmann agreed. “Bring in any kid from any [Montessori] school into any Montessori classroom, and they’ll be at home,” he said. This may serve MPS well since Howard Avenue may not be able to accommodate students all the way through eighth grade. Dosmann said the building has only eleven classrooms available, and a capacity to hold 180 students, only 60 more than the 120 students it expects to start with this September.
Older students, both Dosmann and board member Holman said, might be able to find space at Fernwood or another existing Montessori school—or perhaps at a new Montessori school as the district considers further expansion.
Montessori does prepare adolescent students for transition to non-Montessori high schools; MacDowell is the only Montessori school in MPS offering grades 9-12. There are persistent rumors of one or more additional Montessori high schools being considered for MPS, but as no formal strategic plan is in place for expansion, nothing is certain beyond Howard Avenue’s opening with K3 and K4 students this year.
Howard Avenue Just the Beginning?
Holman stressed that decisions about grade levels ultimately offered at Howard Avenue, like a final decision about the school’s name, would be made later by the school’s community.
However, Howard Avenue is likely to fit into a larger plan for Montessori growth in MPS, guided by the steering committee made up of Holman, Montessori parents, and current Montessori school principals. The group was not expecting to have a new school to work with this fall, and instead had been planning a Montessori symposium for October 6, where they expected to talk up the program and solicit input on a strategic plan for Montessori growth in Milwaukee.
That growth will be spearheaded by Dosmann, who in addition to being principal of Howard Avenue is being asked to take on special assignments, like recruiting Montessori teachers to come to Milwaukee.
As Holman put it, he’s going to “quarterback Montessori expansion.”
Holman thinks expanding the Montessori elementary option is the exact right thing to do, given what MPS expects of its middle and high school students. “MPS is putting so much money and energy into STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) and Project Lead the Way, which is asking kids to do teamwork and project-based learning.” Holman said that “is what kids do in first grade in Montessori.”
She explained that non-Montessori students, who spend more time at teacher-led seatwork and less time cooperating with and critiquing their peers, have a harder time transitioning to project-based learning in later grades. “Montessori is the best preparation for the kind of work we want them to be doing,” she said. “This city is the right place to do it, and [expanding] Montessori is the right thing to do here,” she said.
* “Evaluation of Montessori Programs, Audit 2012-51, June 2012.” “Read the audit here.