Partnerships Help Milwaukee Schools Address ESSA

Partnerships with national service programs such as AmeriCorps are at the heart of success for Milwaukee Public Schools. As a recent webinar hosted by the Alliance for Excellent Education laid out, such collaborations can help districts implement plans for evidence-based school improvement under the Every Student Succeeds Act. ESSA requires evidence-based interventions to improve low-performing schools — those that fail to graduate a third or more of their students.

In "Partnering for Success: How Milwaukee Public Schools Is Leveraging National Service to Improve Low-Performing Schools," representatives from the Milwaukee school system, City Year, and College Possible explained how they collaborate to improve the outcomes for students in that city's schools. City Year, which operates in 28 cities and 40 districts, currently has nearly 3,150 AmeriCorps members performing full-time jobs in 331 schools. Participants, who have an average age of 22, earn a stipend during their year of service. College Possible taps AmeriCorps members placed in schools and after-school programs to deliver a mix of "near-peer" coaching, peer support networking and research-based curriculum to boost college success among low-income students, beginning in middle school.

ESSA offers flexibility to states in determining how to turn around low-performing schools. According to Superintendent Darienne Driver, an "all-hands-on-deck" effort has been required to find success in her district. "Yes, we can be creative and we can be innovative," she said. "But more than anything, we have to have the infrastructure to support success; we need to really focus on leadership development [among] principals, teachers and students; and it is those critical partnerships and listening to what the data tells us, being very intentional about making the necessary corrections so we have more students succeeding, graduating on time, getting into college successfully, getting into careers successfully."

The latest graduation rate for Milwaukee schools is 60 percent, which is an improvement from previous years. "It is going up, but it very clearly has a long way to go," she added.

As an example of this "collective impact," as Driver called it, she gave the example of an elementary school that began its turnaround journey between four and five years ago. City Year provided social and emotional support. Teach for AmeriCorps focused on new teachers and professional development. Schools That Can focused on leadership development. And the school district itself helped with day-to-day operations of the school.

That combination of players, Driver observed, came together "with a shared mission and vision" for student achievement — which required support with the "infrastructure, the human capital, the time that it was going to take to be able to make this happen, joint accountability measures, being intentional about how we share data and how we're measuring success, [and] having a collective strategy around how we are going to communicate that to sustain the program and eventually be able to replicate the program."

The model developed in that elementary school, Driver added, has been replicated multiple times in other schools.

The same collective impact has taken place on the college front too. Through heavy lifting by College Possible, City Year, the city of Milwaukee, Milwaukee Succeeds (a partnership with StriveTogether) and the school system, the district has lifted its federal student aid applications from 49 percent in 2016 to 72 percent this year.

College Possible has put a big emphasis on college-readiness. For example, students all take baseline ACT exams so that their progress can be measured over time, then several practice tests, and the official assessment as well. Going through that process has helped students increase their scores by about 18 percent, said Edie Turnbull, executive director of College Possible Milwaukee. Among seniors, about 95 percent have earned admission to four-year colleges, she added. And once in college those students persist at a rate of about 80 percent semester over semester and year over year.

Data sharing has been an important aspect of the district's success. "We're working on trying to be a leader in the field of sharing data in an automated fashion in a way that is secure and that allows us to have the requisite permission at the school district and city levels," said Jeff Jablow, senior vice president of City Year's national organization. Working with district leaders and district IT teams, the data flows into City Year's student information system and gets parceled out to AmeriCorps members, teachers, College Promise and other district partners.

In Milwaukee, the service members enhance the reach of classroom teachers, tackle after-school activities and reach out to individual families, using the data to guide their work. As Kayla Stephan, who served a year with AmeriCorps but is currently the senior impact manager for City Year Milwaukee, explained, the "typical day" in the life of a service member starts early, in front of the building, to greet students and get them "jazzed for the day." In class, they hand out breakfast and then transition to coursework. During that time, she noted, members circulate throughout the room, helping students one-on-one and in small group support. They may make attendance calls to keep families up to date on goals they've set with their students. Corps participants also handle social-emotional learning coaching, to help students resolve conflicts, address learning issues and set goals. After school, they provide tutoring, do social justice talks — "a variety of things that bridge that day-school and after-school and provide a safe space for students," said Stephan.

Like many national education programs, AmeriCorps was under White House scrutiny during the latest federal budget development process. President Trump's original budget would have eliminated the program altogether. Jablow said a bi-partisan congressional effort preserved the program at the previous appropriation level — around $500 million — as part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services budget. More than half of AmeriCorps members serve education specifically.

To watch the webinar, which is rich in detail, visit the Alliance for Excellent Education website.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.