These Suburban Moms Are The Force Behind Milwaukee's Newest Charter School

Jul 13, 2017

Charter schools of all shapes and sizes populate a sizeable chunk of Milwaukee’s education scene.

But this year, only one new charter is joining the field: Pathways High School. Chartered by UW-Milwaukee, Pathways’ mission is to emphasize project-based learning during students’ teenage years.

But what's also unique about Pathways is the school's leaders.

They're two Wauwatosa moms -- Julia Burns and Amber Regan. They have three kids among them who will be attending Pathways, and they're starting the school from scratch – literally. Neither has experience as an educator.

So, how are these parents going about starting their own school?

The Pathways High School logo
Credit Amber Regan/Julia Burns

Regan says the inspiration came out of coaching for Destination Imagination, where she saw the impact of project-based learning on a variety of kids, including her own. The duo wanted to bring that model into their public schools – and saw an opportunity when they heard about the XQ Super School Project. The competition – developed by a philanthropy under Laurene Powell Jobs, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs’ widow -- challenged educators nationwide to “reimagine public high school.”

“That was the first foray we made into that [process],” Burns explains. “It was a very intensive and comprehensive process, giving us the framework and the deadlines to create our charter application.”

The pair dove into research – visiting other innovative schools across the country, attending conferences, and conducting interviews. They spoke with education experts, business and community leaders, and students themselves.

“We [wanted to] really understand what they felt would be vital for their dream high school,” Burns says. “It was very rewarding to hear that a lot of the ideas we had came back to us from the students, to say, yes, we were on track with the concept we put forth.”

Julia Burns (second from left) and Amber Regan (far right) are two of the co-founders of Pathways High School.
Credit Amber Regan

That concept: project-based learning. Students will split their time between “traditional” subjects like English, social studies and math, and hours spent in one of multiple Makers spaces Pathways will open up. Pathways teachers have already started coordinating projects with local business leaders, to give students real-world experience while they learn.

Burns and Regan throw around education jargon like old pros – but neither has a traditional education background. They aren’t trained teachers; neither has been a principal, or worked in a school in any way.

But they say, they’re using that lack of knowledge to their advantage.

“We really didn’t take anything for granted,” Burns says. “I think there’s a tremendous amount of inertia built into the education model that we have. It’s been around for 130-plus years! If you’ve grown up in that model, and been educated in many of the teaching colleges, there is a tendency to…perhaps have blinders on regarding innovative models.”

“The deficit really is in a system that the children are telling us isn’t working for them, industry is telling us isn’t working for them,” Regan adds. “We like to, because of the way we’re wired, to go find the experts to support our ideas.”

Burns’ son will be a freshman at Pathways come fall; two of Regan’s four children will attend, as well. And the moms say wearing dual hats as school leaders and parents has been helpful as they’ve approached prospective families.

“[Parents] have, like us, felt a need,” Burns says. “They recognize that the ‘one-size-fits-all model’ of the traditional school doesn’t work for a lot of kids. They are incredibly grateful and excited…when they talk to us about what they feel Pathways High will be able to do for their kids.”

Pathways is a regional public high school, because of its charter through UWM. Temporarily located on 4th and Walnut downtown – school leaders plan to find a bigger, more permanent location after year two -- they’ll be pulling students from the City of Milwaukee as well as the surrounding counties.

Classes begin for Pathways students August 28th. Enrollment is still open, and school leaders will hold an open house July 29th.