Struggling Milwaukee public schools are in limbo.
The first day of classes is right around the corner, and they don’t know if they’re going to get picked for the state’s new Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program.
Under OSPP, the state has labeled one-third of schools in MPS “failing,” and instructed the county executive to place several under the direction of a commissioner. But he recently resigned, without enacting a plan.
While leaders decide how to proceed, schools on the list are planning to use the new year to demonstrate they’re doing a good job.
That’s Josh Jackson’s goal. He teaches at Sherman Elementary, an MPS school that has received failing marks on its state report card the last three years in a row.
Jackson says this year will bring a lot of change.
“I’m just transitioning from being a kindergarten teacher, and now I’m doing my first year in fifth grade,” he explains, creating new lesson plans on his computer at a local café. “It’s made me really excited about this upcoming year, because it’s going to be a challenge.”
And Jackson has more to look forward to, on top of the classroom transition.
“I’m getting married in the fall!” he says, grinning. “So I have the wedding, I have the new school year, and it’s just kind of all coming together!”
Even more change could be coming -- but not the kind Jackson and his colleagues look forward to.
Sherman is one of 53 schools that could potentially be plucked out of MPS, to take part in the new Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program. While no one is certain what the change could mean, Jackson says morale is high among Sherman students, teachers and parents.
“We’re kind of all banding together to do what we can to push back against it,” he says.
That also appears to be the case at Keefe Avenue Elementary, where Ebonie Conner’s daughter will start third grade this fall. Keefe is one of about 30 elementary schools under consideration for OSPP.
Conner says she thought about moving her daughter to another school, simply to avoid the potential stress if Keefe is chosen. But Conner’s family is satisfied with the school. She says it’s a good fit for her daughter, who’s been there since preschool. She says they like her teachers and classmates, plus the school is close to home.
“We’re not doing anything different, we’re just taking it in stride, day by day,” Conner says. “Whatever we can do community-wise to try to change it, that’s what we’ll do.”
Legislative leaders had hoped to begin OSPP reform in a few MPS buildings this fall. But political backlash and pushback from MPS led the program’s commissioner, Mequon-Thiensville superintendent Demond Means, to resign earlier this summer.
Since then, state leaders haven’t said much about where OSPP is headed.
“I think the legislation has created a sense of urgency,” says state representative Dale Kooyenga, who co-authored OSPP.
Kooyenga says the program may select several city schools, but nothing will change in them over the next nine months. Yet he says he’s already observing positive changes that he attributes to the program.
“I hear from stakeholders that there’s things happening on the ground because people say, ‘hey, we don’t want to be one of the schools selected, we want to stay in the Milwaukee public schools system,’ and that’s good,” Kooyenga explains.
“Ultimately, I want to see MPS improve,” he adds. “If this legislation creates some pressure to simply try something different to get different results, that is a good indirect consequence of this legislation.”
“They awoke a sleeping giant,” says Sherman Elementary teacher Josh Jackson. “We’ve always had the ability to do it, we’ve always been working to do it. We are just refining our skills and doing it better.”
Jackson continues to make plans for the approaching school year. He says he’ll work with his students on attendance, something Sherman – and MPS as a whole - has struggled with. And those lesson plans he’s making? He’s trying out a new math curriculum.
He says he’ll do whatever it takes to showcase his school for what he knows it can be.
“My school doesn’t deserve to be on that list,” Jackson says. “I’m going to do everything I can in my room with my 30 kids on a daily basis to show them that that’s not what MPS is, and that’s not what Sherman is.”