New MPS Project: Public Fears Takeover, Leader Envisions Turnaround

Jan 29, 2016

Milwaukee residents had their first chance Thursday night to speak up about the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program, an initiative lawmakers put in place to turn around the lowest-performing Milwaukee Public Schools. 

In November, County Executive Chris Abele appointed Dr. Demond Means, superintendent of the Mequon-Thiensville district, to head the project. Means is tasked with devising a plan to boost student achievement, and says he wants public input on what that plan should look like.  

Around 30 people gathered at the Washington Park Senior Center on Thursday night.
Credit Rachel Morello

About 30 people showed up to talk to Means during his first community listening session Thursday night. The public made it very clear that they are not in favor of any 'outsider' coming into MPS to help fix the district's problems.

The buzzword of the night was “takeover.”

From the perspective of community members, takeover is what they don’t want. A number of people shared concerns about the possibility of a private entity taking control of the schools selected for the program. They say they're afraid it is just a ploy to add more charter and voucher schools on Milwaukee’s education scene.

Longtime MPS parent Angela Riley says that scenario would be bad for democracy. 

"When you have a private school entity, it is effectively a business," Riley said. "Even though public schools are run as a business, the difference is when you have a public school, people who live in those areas and put their children in those schools are allowed to elect or get rid of a member that is doing something detrimental to the community."

Means told the audience his definition of a “takeover” is not what he has planned for this program. He said that would mean seizing authority from the city's elected school officials, disenfranchising public employees, diverting public money -- and he doesn’t want to do any of that.

"We want this to be a net positive for MPS," Means said. "People believe [the program] will hurt traditional public schools. I understand that anxiety, but the county executive and I don't want to harm MPS in any way."

Community organizers with the Overpass Light Brigade demonstrated outside Thursday's meeting, with a message that read No Takeover in LED lights.
Credit Rachel Morello

Milwaukee residents also laid out concerns with other ills plaguing local public schools, including the need for increased funding and better pay for public school teachers. 

Many proposed a similar solution: the concept of community schools. This approach hinges on the idea of local schools as the “hubs” of their neighborhoods. It emphasizes teamwork among all members in a local community - parents, students, teachers, businesses – to provide schools with resources and supports.

One audience member even suggested commissioner Means' home district in Mequon-Thiensville is a perfect example of this type of model.   

"That is one school system where all of the residents in that community have a hand in that school system, and it's working," said Jamaal Smith. "It’s a high-level, high-performing school system. So why is that is not something we would think to do in Milwaukee?"

Despite what are widely believed to be financial and demographic differences between the two districts, Smith said Mequon's model would translate well to the city of Milwaukee. He argued that Milwaukee is home to more financial power than people give the city credit for - but, he says, it’s just not being used wisely.

Meanwhile, Demond Means – who’s running this alternate program for troubled schools -- says investing more in wraparound services will be crucial to improving struggling MPS schools. That includes components like afterschool programs, onsite health care, social counseling.

"We invest strongly in our student services," Means said. "I think for the schools on the state superintendent eligibility list, we need to even marshal more of those services."

Means says the program will also take community buy-in, which is why he wants to continue to gather local input. He stuck around an extra half-hour after last night’s meeting to continue taking questions in the parking lot.

Means said he isn’t sure if he’ll host more sessions, but he does want to figure out a way to take in as much feedback as possible.