School Diversity Matters

By Dave Steele, Director of School Partnerships

I would not be the person I am today without Mr. Taylor’s fifth grade class at Garland Elementary, an MPS School on Milwaukee’s South Side. In Mr. Taylor’s class, where students came from many backgrounds and from all corners of the city, I learned lessons that for many people don’t come until adulthood. I learned how to communicate and build relationships across barriers of culture, language, race, and class. I learned how to be comfortable with differences, to embrace them, and to work across them. These experiences have shaped my personal and professional life in countless ways.

For most of us, school is where we first build meaningful connections with people outside of our family or inner circle. For me, these connections were made in diverse classrooms with kids from many different backgrounds. For many kids today, however, their classrooms are as segregated as ever. Their interactions at an early age are increasingly among kids that are like themselves.

48% of MPS schools and 64% of private schools participating in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program are “intensely segregated,” meaning that 90% or more of the student body is of one race or ethnicity. Milwaukee’s schools are typically as racially and economically homogeneous as the neighborhoods they serve.PAVE school diversityWhile single-race or single income-level schools are increasingly becoming the norm, Studies of school communities across the U.S. offer convincing evidence that low-income students tend to do better academically in diverse environments. Whether this is due to diverse schools having more resources than predominantly low-income schools, or because diverse classrooms may be more steeped in “middle class values,” is still unclear. But we do know that diversity can bring not just social value, but academic value as well.

Being a school that is predominantly low-income or of one race certainly doesn’t guarantee a lack of success. To the contrary, many of these schools are among the best schools in the city with strong track records. And, of course, diversity is certainly no guarantee of school quality. But, among the small group of truly diverse Milwaukee schools stand some of the best educational options in the city, offering examples of what urban education can be.

These diverse schools face unique challenges. In an environment of nearly unlimited choice for parents, diverse schools must strike a balance where both middle-income and low-income parents feel a part of the community, a place where parents of all backgrounds “opt in” to a diverse school culture. Diverse schools can also face unique financial challenges in providing the highest quality experience to students of all income levels.

Those of us who care about education in our city, whether parents, board members of schools, volunteers, or voters, should understand and appreciate the value that diversity can bring to education. We should ask ourselves what we can do to make our schools more diverse settings, through supporting public policies like the Chapter 220 program, or through ensuring that students in our schools are afforded opportunities to meaningfully interact with their peers across racial, cultural, and socioeconomic lines.

And while diverse schools were great for me growing up, they might not have been great for the students who were bused for hours a day across town, sometimes against their will. So while we should celebrate and encourage diversity, let’s ensure that it’s diversity by choice. As board members, we should ask how we can build and maintain a diverse student body by being the kind of school that parents of all backgrounds seek out; a place where students from all backgrounds are welcome and celebrated.

We must create a space to talk about school diversity as a social and academic value for our schools and to celebrate and exemplify those successful examples in our midst. Diversity in and of itself is not a guarantee of school excellence, and will not in and of itself solve our society’s problems, but a diversity of experiences is a critical component for a well-rounded education.


New Year, More Work to Be Done

By Michelle Burmeister, Communications Director

Every January we look forward to sharing PAVE’s Annual Report. It’s an important time for us to reflect back on what has been accomplished the year before, and is a solid reminder of all the work that still needs to be done.

Like reports of the past, this year PAVE will highlight three Partner Schools who are making a difference in their communities and empowering students to aim higher and defy odds. We’re also excited to provide an update on the success of Board Corps, as well as share more information with you about other services and resources that PAVE provides.

The last few months of planning and writing our annual report have been a great time for me as the Communications Director to encourage the PAVE team to acknowledge and articulate the breadth and depth of work we’re doing with 57 Partner Schools. Much of this work includes time with our schools and their boards lending expertise in areas such as facilitating strategic planning sessions, assisting in the development of marketing plans, coaching on fundraising and development, and even providing graphic design support. You’ll find out about those activities and many other ways PAVE supports Milwaukee’s high-potential schools in our 2014 Annual Report.

This year we’ve put together a printed annual report booklet, but take the stories and information to a deeper level via a new online platform that we can’t wait to share. It’ll all be ready in a few weeks and we’ll share the link with you soon. In the meantime, I encourage you to glance at our Annual Reports from the past. They include videos of some of our Partner Schools in action, like this 2013 video of Milwaukee Collegiate Academy:

So, Happy New Year and what projects are you looking forward to diving into in 2015?

How Good Is My School?

By Dave Steele, Director of School Partnerships

PAVE's Assessment Process

As a parent myself, and a proud Milwaukeean, I know that the question “how good is my kid’s school?” weighs heavily on parents’ minds across our great city. I also know that my ultimate measure of the quality of a school is whether or not I would send one of my two boys there. When evaluating a potential school, a parent wants to know whether their child will receive the highest quality instruction in a productive, engaging and caring environment.

PAVE’s process of assessing our Partner Schools is not altogether different from how a parent chooses the best school for their child, but we go deeper. We consider not only the current state of a school, but its long term potential. We evaluate whether a school is a healthy organization where changes in personnel and other circumstances won’t significantly impact its core mission of educating kids. Where a strong board of directors, working in close partnership with parents, community and staff, articulate a clear vision for educational excellence, allocate resources wisely, and hold themselves and their head of school accountable for results. It’s these indicators of organizational health that PAVE considers when assessing potential new Partner Schools and guiding existing partnerships.

For most of us, the ultimate indicator of whether a school is good is the test scores that a school produces. This makes intuitive sense. If we want to know whether students are learning, we consider first and foremost their test scores. But if we evaluate a school solely on test scores, which test scores should we put more weight on? The State’s standardized test, tests that reflect national benchmarks like Iowa Test of Basic Skills, college entrance exams like the ACT? And how should we evaluate schools with non-traditional approaches such as Montessori programs or schools that serve primarily students with special learning needs? And consider schools that have taken on very difficult missions, such as high schools serving high percentages of students entering 9th grade well below grade level?

Suddenly a simple sounding question — “how good is my school?” — has a very complex answer. Schools must be held accountable for results, but a one-size-fits-all approach to evaluating schools misses a lot of great work going in a diverse array of schools serving the diverse needs of our communities.

At PAVE, we believe that lasting change in Milwaukee education will require sustained excellence at each school serving kids in Milwaukee. We meet each of our Partner School organizations where they are, and seek to provide them with the resources to help their boards and organizations successfully achieve their missions. To do this work we must understand each school as a unique organization. While all schools share a common goal, each school has unique assets and faces unique challenges. PAVE’s assessment process is based on our 20 years of experience in working to develop excellent urban schools, and is our method of evaluating potential partnerships, as well as guiding our work with each school we partner with.

Ultimately, a community decides whether a school is doing its job. This community is made up of parents, community supporters, board members, and school leaders, who agree on the school’s educational vision. PAVE’s Assessment Process seizes upon this unique vision for each school, helps boards define those goals aligned to that vision, and, allows PAVE to deploy those necessary resources, partnerships, and connections to help schools achieve their visions and fulfill their critical missions.

For an overview of the Spring 2014 assessment, view this video that was created for schools interested in engaging in our process:

Keep up with PAVE’s Blog for more posts about our assessment process.

Better to Build Bridges…

By Ben Hannemann, Director of Mission Advancement

Hoan Bridge Milwaukee

Amid the many challenges facing urban K-12 education in Milwaukee, we can take heart in three positives that are always worth remembering:

  • It is possible for a child – even in the toughest, poorest, most crime-ridden neighborhood – to learn, to grow, and to use their K-12 education as the first ticket to college and/or career success.
  • Success for this child generally results from being a committed student who is inspired and motivated by talented classroom teacher(s), along with supportive parent(s) and/or other adults in his or her life.
  • A small number of high-performing Milwaukee K-12 schools, galvanized by clear, unique missions and dynamic school leaders, find ways to establish and sustain high-performing cultures. Cultures of hope and opportunity that unite staff, students, family and community in highly productive partnerships. Together, they overcome every challenge to meet the educational needs of the vast majority of the students they serve.

With scant few of nearly 125,000 children receiving a quality education in our city, how do we best reach ever growing numbers of our children with what is possible: a life-transforming, high-quality K-12 education?

Unfortunately, as decades of effort with minimal gains suggest, there is no simple answer to this seemingly straightforward question. Crushing multi-generational poverty, endemic crime and violence, and a long history of struggling schools have a tendency to mess with the calculus of even the most promising educational solutions. Sustaining and growing vibrant urban school organizations is not for the meek. Vibrancy can quickly be replaced by bureaucracy. Talented people come, talented people go, cultures change and neighborhoods evolve. And the status quo of education in our city remains largely one of struggle and dissatisfaction.

Yet, while outrage is much preferred to apathy, we are far better served by productive partnership than polarizing debate and dissension. Sustained positive change is a school-by-school, neighborhood-by-neighborhood proposition. It requires the building of bridges across all sectors, connected by recognition that everyone has a role to play in championing student learning and supporting the educators that provide it.

That is why I joined PAVE. It is very rewarding to be a bridge-builder, connecting educators with other talented people within our community to work towards a common cause. To create strong, well-governed school organizations that remove barriers of time, talent and resources to ensure school leaders and teachers can focus to building strong relationships with students and parents that lead to educational excellence. I feel this is a compelling vision, and I encourage you to be a part of too.

How have bridges that others built influenced your education or career? What bridges or influential connections have you built?