Business Plays Role in Success or Failure of MPS

Jun 4, 2010

It’s often been said that it takes a village to raise a child. While the old African proverb may be a bit cliché, some Milwaukee area businesses have taken it to heart. In the final installment of our Project Milwaukee series about educating Milwaukee’s children, WUWM’s LaToya Dennis reports on how companies are teaming up with Milwaukee Public Schools to boost student success. It’s just after lunch at Hartford University School on the campus of UW-Milwaukee. The class I’m visiting is Project Lead the Way.

Lorenzo Ramirez interacts with Project Lead the Way classmates at Hartford Avenue University.

“Let’s see your dimensions on that. Two point five and three point five.”

Project Lead the Way is a national program that provides hands-on engineering education, with the help of professionals. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, GE Healthcare sends three employees to work with the class. Today, Alex Joestgen is manning the computer design station.

“It’s a basic engineering practice that you always design before you actually build,” Joestgen says.

“It’s fun to design on the computer.”

Thirteen year old Lorenzo Ramirez says the class brings together his two favorite subjects: science and math.

“I like engineering science a lot more than biology. And I like geometry,” Ramirez says.

Ramirez says he’s now thinking about becoming an engineer. Those words are music to Van Walling’s ears. He’s executive director of Engineers and Scientists of Milwaukee. It promotes business involvement in the schools.

“K-12, MPS in this case, is not an island. It’s not totally on their shoulders to deal with the tremendous challenges that they face. If they know that they have true allies that are willing to provide advocacy, funding, in kind services, volunteerism, it’s that level of support that ultimately will make the difference for the success or failure of MPS,” Walling says.

While Walling views Project Lead the Way as a shining example of collaboration, he cautions that improvements in student performance can take time. Test scores for many of the 4,000 MPS students who’ve taken part, did not show much progress right away.

“After a year, didn’t see a lot of difference. After year two, just saw the beginning of a little bit of difference,” Walling says.

But Walling says during year three of tracking, the district saw black students begin to close the achievement gap with their white peers.

Stephen Bolander power-washes a building at a work site.

Another way MPS has gotten businesses involved with students is by requiring certain contractors to employ a few young people. That’s how Stephen Bolander, a graduate of Bradley Tech, got his job with Statz Restoration in Menomonee Falls.

“I love it,” Bolander says.

I caught up with him power-washing a building. He says basically everything he does involves getting dirty.

“We pour concrete, we lay brick, we lay block, we do epoxy floors,” Bolander says.

Bolander says he had no plans for his future and doesn’t know where he’d be, if not for the program. It provides jobs for about 200 students every year, according to Renee Taylor. She’s head of contract compliance for MPS. Taylor says the fledgling workers enjoy getting paid, but the real benefit extends far beyond money.

“When they are in a setting where they are seeing working people everyday come in and perform whatever duties it is they have to perform, and they’re allowed to observe and be engaged in that, it provides a basis for understanding for why our young people have to go to school,” Taylor says.

Taylor says the program got its start in the early 90s, and is becoming more successful as businesses realize their role in educating Milwaukee’s children. Tim Sheehy is president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce. He says, for the most part, companies here realize the importance of partnering with MPS.

“The only way businesses are going to be successful is if we have a functioning, vibrant democracy. And that doesn’t happen without a well-educated kid,” Sheehy says.

Sheehy says low test scores in MPS indicate everyone should be doing more. However, he says no one wants to throw money at a school that’s not doing a good job. What companies are excited about supporting, are high-performing schools, public or private.

“And what I mean by high performing schools are schools that are reaching kids that are low income, that are multiple grade levels behind their peers, and are helping those kids catch up,” Sheehy says.

Sheehy says he perceives a problem in MPS: that it does not seem to have a clear strategy for creating more high performing schools. But he’s hopeful the incoming superintendent will get things on track, with the help, of course, of area business leaders.