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Cross Pollinating Education Ideas in Milwaukee

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By: Abby Andrietsch and Isral DeBruin

No single school sector can adequately address the education crisis in our country's large cities. We need meaningful collaboration and resource-sharing among all types of schools, leaders, and teachers who have in common an intense desire to improve and a fiery belief that all children are capable of achieving at a high-level. Leaders need to set aside divisive political concerns over market share and instead embrace a wholehearted focus on educational quality.

We want meaningful system-wide change, but our kids just can't wait for top-down, systemic reform. Well-meaning policy efforts are too often mired in political gamesmanship and reduced to little more than incremental improvements. Meanwhile, students continue to suffer the effects of failing schools. Their lives can't be put on hold while adults sort things out. Instead, we must work person-by-person and school-by-school, ensuring exceptional quality across all sectors - traditional district, public charter, and private voucher.

At Schools That Can Milwaukee, we've assembled an unprecedented and growing cross-sector network of more than 185 talented leaders from 33 schools all over the city. Each month, we host a set of professional development meetings, called Collaboratives, that bring together Principals, Network Leaders, Instructional Leaders, Teacher Leaders, and Deans of Students.

During sessions, participants learn from local experts, see peer-driven presentations, and participate in observation and feedback sessions. The real power, though, is in the relationships that get built. Leaders from every type of school in the Milwaukee ecosystem are able to talk through common goals, struggles, and solutions while sharing practical resources and strategies that improve their day-to-day practice. They do so in a room filled with people who share their beliefs about student ability and their desire to be part of something bigger in Milwaukee.

Our Collaborative attendees see each other at least once per month, visit each other's schools, and hear updates on shared goals and struggles. Between sessions, our leaders call, email, text, and tweet to follow up on ideas, request resources, and work through problems together.

Each month, a different STCM school hosts these Collaboratives, offering participants the opportunity to tour the host school and observe classrooms. This ensures every leader in our network visits at least one school every month, giving them an opportunity to encounter new ideas and best practices to bring to their schools.

The mixture of Collaborative attendees makes for a cross-pollination of education ideas that isn't happening anywhere else in Milwaukee education - or, arguably, nationally. As a result, district school leaders are implementing strategies borrowed from their charter and voucher counterparts. Voucher leaders are visiting charter and district schools to observe best practices in action. Charter leaders are using resources developed collaboratively with public and voucher schools. Together, we're improving student outcomes as we shift the community's beliefs about what is possible for urban kids.

This cross-sector collaboration has proven incredibly powerful - more so than we had even hoped. By basing this movement on relationships and a culture of freely sharing resources, we believe our progress will be more resilient and sustainable long-term. Our leaders are constructing a dense web of personal connections and experiences that provide support and assistance, and will maintain the momentum of this movement even in the face of political headwinds. These leaders are transforming Milwaukee.

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Since 2010, Schools That Can Milwaukee has partnered with and supported high-quality and high-potential schools across all three sectors to close the Milwaukee achievement gap and ensure all students have the opportunity to learn and succeed. With a vision of 20,000 students in high-performing schools by 2020, STCM is intensely pursuing three strategies: grow Milwaukee's best schools, strategically support high potential schools' movement to excellence and recruit proven national charter school providers and education leaders to Milwaukee to increase the number of high-performing schools.

Abby Andrietsch is STCM's Co-Founder and Executive Director. Prior to launching the organization in 2010, she worked in finance, human resources, philanthropy and education policy. Abby lives in the Milwaukee area with her husband, Omar, and daughter, Page.

Before becoming STCM's Manager of Communications & Development in 2013, Isral DeBruin taught upper elementary students at a Milwaukee charter school, where he started as a Teach For America corps member. Prior to teaching, Isral was an award-winning education reporter. He lives in Milwaukee with his wife, Joanna.

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