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Smart Cities: Milwaukee

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If you asked me who my favorite educator, speaker, community organizer, and tour guide was, Howard Fuller would be high on all four lists. When I heard about Rocketship's decision to pick Milwaukee as the first expansion site, I was puzzled and called the team. They said there was one compelling reason--Howard Fuller. I smiled.

Dr. Howard L. Fuller is a Distinguished Professor of Education and Director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette. He is the former superintendent of the Milwaukee Public Schools (91-95) and Chair of Black Alliance for Educational Options ( BAEO) and a local charter school.

A dozen years ago, after catching an early flight from Grand Rapids I landed in Milwaukee at 6:30am. I was really early for a meeting with Fuller but called him anyway. He picked me up at the airport and we spent the extra three hours touring the streets--and churches, schools, childcare centers and YMCAs--of Milwaukee. It was evident that Fuller knows and cares for this city.

"There are a few of us trying to move forward with blended learning models," said Fuller when I called him last week. "The school whose board I chair is moving to implement a blended model next school year." They will be working with Education Elements.

Fuller notes "growing opposition to charters" but he chalks it up to state politics more than charter schools. He said there is "vehement opposition" against the 21 year old voucher program. Authors of an independent study concluded, "school choice in Milwaukee has had a modest but clearly positive effect on student outcomes."

With so many choices, education in Milwaukee is post-neighborhood. But sadly, education in Milwaukee is still "polarized and controversial," according to Fulller.

George Lightbourn, president of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, said, "Ten years ago, no one could have predicted today's reality in which 40,794 Milwaukee students have opted out of MPS; 24,941 to private schools, 7,365 to independent charter schools, 8,488 to suburban schools." In short, he thinks folks should "quit complaining about MPS and do something."

"One thing that I think goes unappreciated in the surrounding 'burbs is that despite living in the city with 10-20% higher property taxes than some suburbs, living in the city provides residents with 12-15 quality, tuition free Montessori options whereas people in the burbs have none," said edtech entrepreneur Shane Krukowski. "In my opinion, the growing number of MPS Montessori's would not have cropped up without the advent of charters."

Project Foundry , Krukowski's project-based learning and competency tracking software powers the Edvisions network of innovative flex schools.

Yes, We Can. The most impressive progress in town is being made by the Schools That Can Milwaukee (STCM) team led by Abby (Ramirez) Andrietsch. Abby's background includes a mixture of philanthropy, reform, and finance that I can appreciate!

The goal is 20,000 high performing seats by 2020--and they are about halfway there. "We have a group of more than 80 leaders from 24 district, charter and voucher schools serving over 10,000 students coming together around quality, collaborating cross-sector, striving for excellence and a greater vision for Milwaukee," said Andrietsch. STCM supports high performing school visits, best practice sharing and leadership coaching.

"Leaders remind people what is important," said Bill Hughes, STCM Director of Leadership Development at ASCD two weeks ago. "Leadership is a learned skill." In Wisconsin, it must be learned in a masters degree program so Hughes created a partnership with Alverno.

STCM focuses on moving schools into high performance, replicating homegrown high performers, and attracting high performers like Rocketship. They learned a lot about 'no excuses' leadership from Uncommon Schools and like their mentors, STCM is more about execution than innovation.

Alignment. There appears to be a high degree of reform alignment. TFA Milwaukee, STCM, City Year, PAVE, Milwaukee Charter School Advocates and other non-profits align and leveraging each other. Andrietsch said, "Part of collaboration across TFA, STCM and City Year includes a desire to have an intentional pipeline to recruit, keep and develop top and high-potential talent in Milwaukee."

The business community, led by the Metropolitan Association Chamber of Commerce (MMAC) is deeply involved in education and the shared vision for quality across sectors and transformation in Milwaukee. Tim Sheehy, President of MMAC, is Rocketship Milwaukee's chair and raised $2 million to help bring them to town.

Wisconsin's big city on the lake doesn't get much help on the digital innovation front from the state which gets a D on the Digital Learning Now! report card released last week.

Further & Higher. Milwaukee has some great universities. You've heard of Marquette (a Sweet 16 team) but you should know about Milwaukee School of Engineering ( MSOE), An Example of Education for Employability. In addition to engineering, MSOE has business school, a nursing school--and 95% of the grads are employed in the field of their choice. As an affiliate university for Project Lead the Way, MSOE contributes to hands on learning in 300 area high schools. The Grohmann Museum at MSOE is home to the world's most comprehensive art collection dedicated to the evolution of human work.

The Medical College of Wisconsin (MCW) is the largest med school in the state. CEO Dr. John Raymond is bright, creative, collaborative and thinking about Next Generation Professional Training, Blending For-Me & For-Degree (as exhibited during a recent convening of med schools co-hosted by MCW and Mayo).

One thing MSOE and MCW have in common is support from the Kern Family Foundation. Robert Kern turned Generac into the world's leading source of portable power and now chairs one of the country's largest foundations. Kern believes character counts, enterprise is vital, and that leadership can be taught. Led by Jim Rahn, the foundation has a smart forward leaning staff that convenes grantees and partners at an old Stone Manor in the Waukesha woods. Education lead Ryan Olson is thinking hard about next gen leadership development--stay tuned. As an engineer and entrepreneur, I appreciate the mission of the Kern Entrepreneurship Education Network "to graduate engineers equipped with an action-oriented entrepreneurial mindset."

Conclusions. "There are some exciting things happening on the ground in Milwaukee," said Andrietsch, "a long way to go to get to real systemic change in the city, but exciting progress, urgency and focus really coming together."

Milwaukee gets a relative high score of B- on Brookings Choice & Competition Index. The portfolio approach is clearly improving options for families in Milwaukee, but it's a shame that it is still so contentious. They could use less partisanship and more Rocketship.

The level of alignment between reform orgs is encouraging--it's clearly leading to better teaching at a growing number of schools. However, there is lot of opportunity for innovations in learning. They need some innovative high school models to complement the coming wave of Rocketship elementary schools.

It's great to see the Chamber involved (that hasn't been the case in most of the 20 cities we've considered). They could use an incubator like 4.0 Schools. Like Baltimore, Milwaukee needs a Digital Harbor.


Education in Milwaukee is on the rise. Watch Kern, listen to Fuller, support Andrietsch, add a dose of innovation and things will get better fast.

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