Understanding Milwaukee’s School Turnaround Program

Jun 22, 2016

Thursday marks a big deadline for Milwaukee Public Schools. It’s the day district officials must decide what they think should be done for failing MPS schools.

It’s a decision almost two years in the making. State legislators created the framework for a turnaround program in 2015, and debate has raged over the program’s design, even its mere existence, ever since.

How did the city get to this point?

It all started with the letter “F.”

Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction assigns letter grades to every public school in the state, every year. In 2014, the agency gave “F’s” to 55 schools in MPS, one-third of the schools in the district.

After seeing Milwaukee’s report card, Rep. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield) and Sen. Alberta Darling (R-River Hills) led a charge in the statehouse to fix the city’s failing schools.

“We cannot accept the status quo, and we need to be open to change,” Kooyenga says.

READ: Rep. Kooyenga spars with Milwaukee teachers union rep over OSPP

OSPP commissioner Demond Means (left) and Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele.
Credit Marti Mikkelson

The state’s solution was OSPP, the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program. In short, the program creates a new governance structure for underperforming schools.

The first leader lawmakers tabbed to shape that structure was Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele. Abele enlisted the help of Mequon-Thiensville superintendent Demond Means, an MPS graduate, as OSPP commissioner.

“We have to invest more in our kids,” Means says of his new role. “But in particular, when you look at the young people in Milwaukee, we have a moral obligation to do everything we can to ensure that every child can fulfill their full potential.”

LISTEN: WUWM talks with Demond Means after his appointment as OSPP commissioner

Means and Abele are charged with a two-prong task: reorganize the low-performing schools, and identify community partners to help.

But, it’s not been an easy task.

From the very beginning, public education advocates have opposed the program. They call it a “takeover,” and say they’re worried it will wipe out the public schools funding and teaching staff.

MPS parent and kindergarten teacher Monica Lopez attends a rally to oppose OSPP with her two children, six-year-old Gus and seven-year-old Ava.
Credit Rachel Morello

“I’ve seen our resources dwindle and dwindle,” says MPS parent and kindergarten teacher Monica Lopez. “This law actually continues to hurt Milwaukee, to pull more resources out of the city. My children’s class sizes are getting larger, they’re losing quality programming.”

So, walking the tightrope between legislators and the public, Means and Abele came up with a proposal in April. They want MPS to be their partner, to help decide how best to run the schools chosen for turnaround.

LISTEN: Details on Demond Means' proposal for OSPP

“We have a totally different vision of working with our colleagues in MPS and working with the community,” Means explained upon releasing the proposal. “That’s a very different approach from what the legislation actually says.”

The duo gave MPS officials until Thursday, June 23 to give their yes or no on this idea. Late last week, superintendent Darienne Driver had her answer.

“The OSPP proposal contains elements which contradict the legislation,” Driver said Friday. “Thus, we have developed an alternative option that will add value and align with the critical work that is already underway in MPS.”

READ: MPS officials present alternative plan for OSPP

MPS superintendent Darienne Driver and school board president Mark Sain present their alternative plan for OSPP.
Credit Rachel Morello

To fulfill OSPP, Driver and the MPS board want to create a new early education center. But, Rep. Kooyenga has indicated that plan would not satisfy what OSPP calls for. He says leaders must find a solution within the bounds of the law.

“I’ll tell you what I’m not going to do, is I’m not going to take my ball and go home,” Kooyenga says. “Because there’s too many kids in this city that are in a tight spot, because the current system’s not serving them.”

Means and Abele say they'll meet with MPS leaders to discuss the district's idea. What happens next is up in the air.

The clock is ticking. According to the law, plans need to be set in motion by the time school starts in fall.