As kids return to school this week, many MPS families are wondering about the future of their programs, thanks to a document that quietly seeped out in December, drawing immediate discussion.
Nestled quietly into an MPS finance committee meeting agenda last month was a description of facilities and programmatic changes that district administration calls “Pathways Projects.”
The summary of proposed building strategies, as the document was subtitled, said Pathways Projects were “designed to have benefits that apply to all schools in the feeder pattern. Projects may include facility improvements but may also include instructional program support, community building between parent groups, neighborhood outreach and transportation redesign.”
Some of the suggestions were nothing new, such as moving the Rufus King Middle Years program to a renovated Malcolm X building and long-discussed expansions of two of the district’s most successful programs (Fernwood and Maryland Avenue Montessori Schools). Indeed, some changes have already passed the full board.
Other suggestions included feeder relationships, like ones proposed for Vieau – which has a great Project Lead the Way STEM program – and Bradley Tech across the street (the two schools are even connected by a tunnel) and one suggesting Howard Avenue 6th graders feed into MacDowell.
Still others were a little more unexpected, like building an entirely new facility for Greenfield Bilingual School, and most static-generating of all …
Relocating Reagan High from its current home in a former middle school to the Pulaski High School site and moving Audubon Middle School to Reagan’s current home. And, wait, why doesn’t it say where the Pulaski kids will go?
The day the agenda was made public, a parent at Reagan sent me a note that families there received about the plan. And, we’re off!
But, wait, said school board member Claire Zautke, who represents the city’s Southwest Side. The document, she told OnMilwaukee.com, is simply a discussion of ideas. It is not a formal proposal being considered by the board, and that’s apparently why it was pulled from the agenda at the last minute.
“The Reagan/Pulaski/Audubon part of the conceptual district-wide strategic plan is just one a few ideas that we are going to bring to school communities,” Zautke told me via email during the holiday break. “It was only ever meant as a starting place to have a conversation about what the district’s opportunities are and, more importantly, the educational opportunities we are trying to create for our students.”
Zautke added that despite the reaction, the intention of allowing the information out in its unfinished state was meant to be pro-active; to show that the district is thinking aggressively about innovative ways to maximize its space to build upon successful programs.
It’s worth noting here, too, that for decades, district discussions have resulted in the airing of many concepts that have never come to fruition. Talking about a range of options is not unusual and doesn’t mean the ideas will become reality. After all, there is no Walker’s Point Middle School, Siefert is not a Montessori school and there are no condos on the Maryland Avenue site, despite the fact that all of these ideas – and countless others – had been raised at one point.
“My intentions were always, and I know the superintendent (Dr. Darienne Driver) feels the same way, to use the December agenda item to demonstrate to the community that we are, as a district, thinking strategically about our high-performing as well as struggling programs, what our parents want and how we are going to meet the needs of our students and families,” she said.
Zautke said that she met with Driver during the holiday break to discuss some of the concepts that that “frank discussions” with school communities will ramp up now that school is back in session.
“That’s the phase we are going to moving into in the new year. I met with Dr. Driver to discuss the different concepts and a large part of our conversation was about the format and order/timeline of meetings with schools. It’s my expectation that each piece will have a separate and individually designed engagement process.
“I believe that the first step will be meetings with the internal school community – teachers, school leadership. I think that’s important step so we can have candid conversations about the schools, programs and ideas, as opposed to only a presentation and listening session which limits our ability to work through kinks and create the best possible proposal. After that, the wider community and stakeholder engagement plans will be tailored to each proposal. For example, if a plan involves two schools or buildings, then we would have a community meeting at each place.”
After the community engagement piece, the administration will craft more detailed proposals that will be discussed at the board committee level – where public testimony is heard – and later by the full board.
Zautke said the proposals are based on knowledge that folks at many schools – including successful Montessori, language immersion, bilingual and IB programs – have long been seeking to expand access to their programs, and that expansion issues take time to solve.
“I’ve been hearing from families in my district for quite some time that they are interested in an increase in high-quality school programs, particularly high school seats,” Zautke told me. “The IB programs in MPS are some of our highest performing and most in-demand schools. They attract students from every part of the city.
“Reagan High School, for example, is a great school, but does not have the capacity to meet the demand for the program. There are families that send their children to IB elementary and middle schools, but then cannot get a seat in an IB high school. As a result, I’ve been talking to the administration for many months on ways to expand certain programs, like IB and bilingual, on the South Side.”
One of the results of those discussions is the idea of creating a new Spanish immersion program at the old 88th Street School (a Montessori program had also been floated for that currently vacant site). Another is the plan for moving Reagan and Audubon. But, Zautke is quick to remind that no board action has been taken and that these things take time.
And the final proposals may not look like the current ones.
“(The Reagan/Pulaski/Audubon concept) is not the only, and not even my favorite, concept for program development on the South Side,” she said, adding that the discussion around a few of the items has obscured others included in the “Pathways” discussions.
“There are ideas in the conceptual plan that are very exciting and have been overshadowed by discussion of other items. For example, the ‘arts campus’ idea around Elm Creative Arts School, Roosevelt Middle School and Milwaukee High School of the Arts is very cool and has the potential to create a vibrant and high-quality arts program.
“I’m genuinely excited about the opportunities we have to do great things for kids and young adults in our city and I am looking forward to being a part of this process as it progresses.”