Could A Simple Calendar Change Help Close Milwaukee's Achievement Gap?

Dec 23, 2016

Updated December 23, 2016:

The Milwaukee School Board approved Thursday earlier start dates for all district high schools, International Baccalaureate and year-round schools for the 2017-18 academic year. 

It's one of several changes the district will pursue, as part of a rigorous reform agenda from Superintendent Darienne Driver.

MPS leaders say the new calendar will start in mid-August and finish before the end of May. It would also allow for the addition of an optional, four-week "J-term" in June, between the end of the traditional calendar and the commencement of summer school. Both Driver and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Evers say this time will afford MPS students options for credit recovery, and help boost the district's four-year graduation rate. 

These calendar changes require legislative approval -- state law bars Wisconsin schools from starting class until September 1. Evers has added the item to his biennial budget proposal. If lawmakers don't approve, MPS could request a district waiver from Evers' Department of Public Instruction -- something the district already does for its IB schools.

Traditional elementary schools in MPS will still start after Labor Day in 2017. However, the board wants district administration to pursue further research about changing the K-8 calendar in coming years. 

Original story, posted October 19, 2016: 

A new batch of data on Wisconsin schools is bringing more attention to Milwaukee’s achievement gap.

The good news: the feds say Wisconsin boasts the 6th highest graduation rate in the country.

The bad news is the state also has the biggest gap between black and white students who finish high school in four years.

The state Department of Public Instruction also announced Tuesday that only one out of every five MPS students is considered “proficient” in English, science and social studies. The numbers are slightly worse for math – 15 percent of students are proficient in that subject.

All of this is to say, it’s clear that even though MPS won’t be considered “failing” by the state this year, the district still needs significant improvement. And school leaders acknowledge that fact.

State superintendent Tony Evers will work with MPS this session to lobby for a change to the district's academic calendar.

“Not all kids learn at the same rate, and that’s especially true in Milwaukee,” says state Superintendent Tony Evers. ”We want to give young people an opportunity to graduate on time.”

So, Evers is working with MPS officials on a proposal to give kids that extra time to learn by expanding Milwaukee’s academic calendar.

Right now, public schools can’t start classes until after Labor Day. The proposed fix would allow MPS to start before that date, and give the district additional time at the end of the year, meaning school could be in session here for longer than the state requirement of 180 days.

Evers says the additional days would create space for credit-recovery programs. Those programs provide extra time for kids entering high school to catch up, or those leaving high school to finish their work.

So, if a student is short credits to graduate, he or she could spend extra days “either working on courses a student had failed, or part of the courses,” Evers explains.

"Out of a $5 billion state budget for education, this is like an ant on an elephant"

For example, if a student failed a unit in math, he or she could stay a few extra days at the end of the year to complete the work.

Even though the shift could require funding changes, Evers says they would not be seismic. The shift wouldn’t necessarily mean more money to MPS; instead, the state might give the district some of its summer money in May before graduation.

“Out of a $5 billion state budget for education, this is like an ant on an elephant, this is not going to mean a huge increase in expenditures,” Evers says. “MPS already does summer school, they already do credit recovery. This is getting it in the right place, and giving it the flexibility they need in order to succeed.”

Evers will include the calendar extension idea in his budget proposal to the governor in a few weeks.