My rants and raves about a little bit of everything



The end of education as we know it?

A typical Monday night. A gym full of parents and citizens ready to discuss possible cuts to the Milwaukee Public School budget and how it will effect their school. MPS School Board President Michael Bonds in attendance to answer their questions.

But instead of answers, Bonds brought bad news for not only the parents and students at La Escuela Fratney Elementary School, he brought bad news for schools across the state.

“I have no good news for you,” Bonds said. “We were just told that Gov. Walker will propose a $1 billion cut to K12 education funding across the state.”

Bonds said this cut in aid will reduce the revenue available to the district by almost $200 million dollars, or a reduction of $500 per pupil. Other school districts would suffer similar loses in state funding.

But that was not the worst of it. Bonds added that Walker is also proposing an end to Federal Title 1 funds, money that is allocated to help low-achieving students in poverty-ridden districts.  For the 2011 fiscal year, MPS budgeted $33.5 million in Title 1 funds towards programming within its schools.

According to the Department of Education website, Title 1 funds are allocated to more than 50,000 public schools across the country to provide additional academic support and learning opportunities to help low-achieving children master challenging curricula and meet state standards in core academic subjects. For example, Title 1 dollars can be used for extra instruction in reading and mathematics, as well as special preschool, after-school, and summer programs to extend and reinforce the regular school curriculum.

In all, Bonds said the district could lose 1/4 of its revenue if Walker’s plan is enacted. Walker is expected to make these announcements next Tuesday (Feb. 22) during his biennial budget address.

The West Allis-West Milwaukee School District is facing a similar $500 per pupil cut to its state educational funding, according to School Board President Sue Stalewski. She added this could leave her district with a $7 million deficit in the next year.

“K-12 schools are 50-plus percent of the state budget,” she said. “How else will he balance the budget and not raise taxes without cutting public education? There are a lot of things on the table in this state.”

Bonds’ message was not what the 150 parents and teachers expected when the meeting began. They were there to learn how to reverse the proposed loss of the SAGE program (which allows for small class sizes in K5-3rd grade), six classroom teachers, two teacher’s aides, their librarian, an art teacher and the lead math teacher from La Escuala Fratney. Those cuts were proposed based on the upcoming 2012 MPS budget prepared by Superintendent Gregory Thornton, prior to hearing about Walker’s budget plans.

“I’m going to be honest with you. There will be major cuts, school closures and mergers, not just in MPS, but all across the state,” Bonds said.

He said the district is working on contingency plans, such as voiding individual school debts so those monies can be moved into instructional spending, but he was not hopeful.

“Given the fact that he (Walker) rejected $831 million in transportation aid, in this era anything is possible. These cuts will take education back sixty or seventy years, at least. This train is moving really fast and the only people who can stop this now is the legislators.  You have to call your legislators to stop this.”

Besides shock, the parents and teachers at the meeting were angered that their losses would probably be permanent and more would come. Calls to march on Madison were loud and repeated.

Lorena Terando, a Fratney/Escaula teacher and parent asked if MPS teachers would be excused from classes to join the protests in Madison. “We need to take action now,” she said.

“This is our civil rights movement,” teacher Tonieh Welland said, following an impassioned plea in Spanish. “I don’t agree the train has left. We can act. We can do more; we can write, we can call. We need to come out in force. We need 100,000 of us to stand up and talk about our right to sound and stable education.”

Another parent/teacher said if 2,000 teachers called in sick the district would have to close, allowing them to join the protests at the Capitol. However, Dr. Thornton has released a letter directed towards MPS staff congratulating them on their professionalism and promising disciplinary action if teachers and staff failed to report for work on Thursday or Friday.

Others were angry with Bond’s demeanor and attitude of hopelessness. They challenged him to do more, to fight for the students of MPS.

“You need to stop being a funeral director and start advocating for our district,” Angela McManaman demanded. “You need to tell the state that these types of cuts will hurt our kids the most. We need an advocate.”

But he seemed beaten and tired, even when contacted by phone following the meeting. He said board members and the superintendent have been meeting all day to work on contigency plans for MPS.

“I want to fight,” he said, “but I won’t play to your emotions and just tell you what you want to hear. At the end of the day, if the governor’s budget goes through is will be an unprecedented disaster. This may be the death of MPS.”

It may also be the death of education as we know it in Wisconsin.

This story also appears on


Bradley Tech: MPS needs to remove the troublemakers

Bradley Tech High School has always been one of the jewels of Milwaukee Public Schools. For the first 70 years of its history the school supplied many of the machinists, draftsmen and tool and die makers that made our city the Machine Capital of the World. The 1990s moved the school  from the machining of old into new technologies. A partnership between business, educators and civic leaders, along with a $20 million gift from Jane Bradley Pettit (daughter of Harry L. Bradley, founder of Allen-Bradley Company) allowed for the construction of the state-of-the-art trades school that stands in the shadow of its namesake.

Bradley Tech has slightly higher GPAs than other district schools, hovers around the average score on the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exams and has a higher graduation and stability rate than the district as a whole. It is a school with much promise.

While the idea is a good one – provide early training in trades, engineering and communication – the school has been plagued by violence. A brawl broke out following a basketball game in Jan. 2007, resulting in four Milwaukee Police officers being injured and an 18-year-old woman suffering a seizure.

In 2009, six girls started a fight at the end of the day, which was watched by over 100 students. Another fight between a number of boys started in an adjacent area. This event made headlines when a Milwaukee officer was punched in the face by one of the girls and sixteen students were arrested.

This year, fights have been even more common, with  two fights in November alone. On Nov. 10 a small fight resulted in a lock-down of the school, which MPS officials said was done because school administrators “wanted to send a strong message.”

Then came Nov. 30. Another small fight at 2:15 p.m. erupted into a full-blown incident as other students joined in or watched, while still others called non-students to the schools via cell phone. Numerous officers and sergeants responded, and within one hour of the event 18 juveniles were arrested, including 3 who are not Bradley Tech students. An 18-year-old was also arrested and a sawed-off rifle and fake handgun were supposedly confiscated.

In the days following the fight, 2-person MPS squads have been increased around the school and neighborhood throughout the day, with 14 squads now regularly patrolling the area. So far, there have been no further incidents.

These events play into the paranoia people have about MPS schools, and in Bradley Tech in particular. And one person who plays on that fear the most is Alderman Bob Donovan, chair of the city’s public safety committee and a member of the anti-graffiti committee.

During the past week Donovan issued a press release with his take on what happened at the school, demanded a meeting with school and police officials, issued a subpoena for all of the MPD’s Open Sky communication system documents and has demanded that all police dispatches and 911 calls be disseminated to the media. Following the fight in 2009, Donovan called for the closing of Bradley Tech in response to the violence.

“The information I’m relaying to the public was not – to my knowledge – reported by the news media, nor am I aware of any information about the incidents being shared with parents of Bradley tech students,” Donovan said in a press release on Dec. 7.

“It is unconscionable to me that the citizens of Milwaukee haven’t been made aware of this situation at the school, and it’s an insult to all Bradley Tech parents and students that this matter has been kept under wraps. It’s also an insult to the decent teachers and staff at the schools, who must work in chaotic and sometimes violent conditions.”

MPS and the MPD issued its own releases, disputing some of Donovan’s assertions and repeated their commitment to providing a safe environment for students and citizens.

Police and school officials held a meeting with the public and heard a multitude of suggestions as to what needs to change at the school to ensure  safety.

As reported in the Dec. 9  Milwaukee Journal Sentinel,  one of the solutions would be to change the transportation policy for the district school. Now, students ride yellow school buses after the cost of supplying MPS students with Milwaukee County Transit passes became too expensive for the district. But one member of the public suggested, and policy makers seemingly agreed, that MPS should return to county transit for students.

The thought process is that now, students are transported on school buses to their campus but choose to skip classes. Instead of having the ability to get back on an MCTS bus and leave the area, the truants are forced to remain in the neighborhood (in this case Walker’s Point) and cause problems.

Are we as a community and taxpayers supposed to seriously consider returning to a more expensive transportation method for students, because it will allow truants to leave the area and take their mayhem and foolishness elsewhere?

Instead, we should implement Superintendent Dr. Gregory Thornton’s idea of removing troublemakers from the school.

“Everyone needs to be educated, but not everyone needs to be here,” Thornton said during the public meeting.

It is unfortunate that some students don’t have the social skills to behave themselves in a classroom or school environment. Economic distress and lack of parental involvement can lead to this, as does the involvement in gangs. These students have a right to an education, but in a highly controlled situation.

Changing how they get to school  and allowing them an easier way to get away from school if they don’t want to attend won’t end the problem – educating them and instilling in them the behaviors necessary to be productive, contributing members of our society is what is needed to stop the violence. MPS has schools set up for these students and should move quickly to remove violent students to them.

Only then should we look at other alternatives, like changing the color of the bus the kids take to school.


Thornton assesses his first 100 days

Dr. Gregory Thornton

After years of Milwaukee Public School Superintendents trumpeting the party line, it was surprising –and refreshing– to hear Dr. Gregory Thornton say these simple words at a recent Milwaukee Press Club Newsmaker’s Luncheon:

“I am in favor of school choice.”

In these parts, school choice doesn’t just mean charter schools sanctioned by the local public school district or open enrollment, but state-funded vouchers for parents to use at any school within the MPS district – charter, private and even religious.

It is a popular program in Milwaukee, as the number of children wanting to use the vouchers exceeds the 22,500 limit imposed by the state legislature.

However, the teacher’s union and administration have vilified the program as a drain on funds that are desperately needed by MPS, and say that it is not effective in teaching the state’s poorest and most needy children.

Thornton sees it differently. “Good schools are good schools, no matter where they are or who is running them.”

While he hasn’t had time to visit any of the promising choice schools in Milwaukee, Thornton is looking forward to stopping at three – Hope Christian SchoolsSt. Marcus Lutheran and Milwaukee College Prep (a charter school) — in an effort to find out the best practices being used in those schools and put them to work within MPS.

“We need to spread the good stuff around so all the kids can benefit,” he added.

Tapping choice school for ideas isn’t the only way Thornton plans to turn around MPS,  which contains the worst reading schools among 4th-grade African-American males in the country.

In his first 100 days, Thornton has implemented a literacy program which standardizes the subject across the district and put into place the MAP (Measures of Academic Success®) assessment program to track results.

“We’re looking at the students several times throughout the year to see how they are doing, to make changes, regroup,” he says. “We just finished our first assessment in November and will do another in January.”

In addition to testing the students at regular intervals to determine progress, the district has changed how literacy is being taught. Large classes are broken into small instructional pods for basic concepts, then the entire class meets to practice before returning to small groups to reinforce what they’ve learned. Teachers are even meeting on Saturdays and afterschool to learn techniques and new ideas from each other.

He is also working closely with the teacher’s union, which has already given him health benefit concessions and allowed for a test run with teacher merit pay to develop teacher evaluation methods thatwould help good teachers and also identify those that are struggling.

Thornton has also started having coffee hours with parents, excitedly pointing out that over 100 parents have attended the sessions to share their challenges and issues with him. He is also hiring an outside consultant to organize a network for parents to help with their own educational deficiencies as well as parenting skills.

“We need to get parents in the room, reengage them and find more ways that parents can get involved,” Thornton said.

He also wants to give students a voice in the discussion by developing advisory groups within schools. He’s open to the idea of having a student representative sit on the school board, and wants to make sure that students have a direct method of contacting him.

But the bottom line is that schools need to better prepare students for what lies beyond high school.

“All students must be college-ready,” Thornton said,“and that is different from going to college. I want a diploma to mean something to both colleges and employers.”

While woodshop and metal shop are a distant memory, Thornton wants all students to be proficient in algebra, technology, English, financial literacy and the soft skills needed to further their education after high school or to go into the workforce – ready for college, if they want. He says that in addition to engaging parents and students in the discussion, a partnership between schools and Milwaukee businesses must be built in order to successfully get more students to graduation day.

“We are using everything at our disposal,” Thornton said. “We don’t know the code that will unlock the hearts and brains of students. We need a total school effort.”

Showing students the path to college

Photo courtesy of Wisconsin Lutheran College

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”  — Nelson Mandela

There was never a question that I would go to college. If you’re like me, you grew up in a home where college was a given, where your parents went to college and your siblings did too. The only question was where you were going and what you would study.

But that culture and mindset is not universal. There are large areas in our own community where college is as foreign a concept as hopping on a spaceship and flying to Mars. There are families with no history of college attendance to be emulated. It is this void that is quietly being filled by the Pathways to College program.

Pathways is sponsored by Wisconsin Lutheran College to aid lower income, first generation college prospects with the potential to succeed in college. Started in 2007 with 44 sixth-graders, the program has grown to 125 students enrolled in grades 6-9 this summer.

Pathways has three components – Pathways Prospects for Kindergarteners through 5th graders introduces students and parents to the idea of college and the financial planning necessary for success;  Pre-College for students in grades 6-12 focuses on the academics and social skills necessary for college; and Parents provides them with the mentoring, support and skills they will need to prepare and support their children in college.

“We focus on the academics, socialization, spirituality and financial aspects of getting to college,” said Pathways Director Milton Cockroft. Spirituality is woven into the discussion of life skills, while financial preparation involves money management and education investment workshops, along with the establishment a scholarship fund for program graduates to use for college costs.

The program itself is subsidized by the college and community partners, including the Milwaukee Urban League,Know Thyself and The Parenting Network.

Academics are the focus of Pathways weekly College Prep Center, currently held after school at an inner-city church. Book clubs, computer-aided coursework and individual tutoring are all used to close the academic gaps some of the students are struggling with and also to build excitement for school.

“It is just amazing to see a student struggling with reading at the beginning of the school year begging to read aloud a few months into the program,” Cockroft said.

Throughout the school year students and their parents attend Saturday sessions at WLC, exposing them to the college environment. While the students are becoming acquainted with college concepts and their peers, their parents attend workshops on money management, life skills and ways to support their children’s dreams.

Seventh and eighth grade participants also attend leadership exercises at St. John’s Northwestern Military Academy in Delafield.

The highlight of the program is a 2-week intensive “summer camp” held at WLC and led by college students and professors. 6th-8th graders take classes in art, drama, English composition, robotics, marine biology and public speaking, along with breaks for recreation and meals.

I stopped into one class where 7th graders were busily constructing robotic cars. Teams of two were cooperating on  the construction, learning by trial and error the mechanics of engineering. When the cars are complete, the class will learn how to use JAVA language to control their cars through a series of distance trials and obstacle courses.

While it may look like fun and games, Professor David Schulz said the students will make use of algebra, geometry and trigonometry skills to determine angles and turns for their computer code.

“I’m really having fun,” one student said as he gently attached a small wheel on his car. “I’ve been to other college-prep camps and this one is the best.”

In another classroom, students were putting together human skeletons. In addition to learning the names and placements of the 206 bones, the kids were looking for markers to determine if the skeleton was male or female, old or young and what type of life they had lived. The professor began the week by telling the students that the remains were from Pompeii, allowing for the additional discussion of history and archeology.

A drawing class was not focused solely on art. Instead, the eight students were enamored with Paco the dancing Parrot. After studying the habitat and background of parrots and Paco, the kids were eager to share their knowledge with the teacher. Did you know that parrots have white bellies so they look like clouds when flying, disguising themselves from predators below? These students do.

Cockroft said the program has been successful, judging by participation numbers. While Pathways deals with the same type of attrition as many schools and programs in the inner city, it has continued to grow — to the point where they need more space for the future. A little under half of the students who started in 2007 are still in the program, entering the ninth grade this fall.

Pathways and the various schools the children attend will begin this fall will work together to track grade improvement and other areas in which the program can help its participants.

Photo courtesy of the City of Milwaukee

Pathways recently purchased the old Finney Library on the corner of North Ave. and Sherman Boulevard from the city of Milwaukee. City Council President Willie Hines welcomed the new use for the long-vacant building.

“Finding the right fit for this location has been a long and arduous process,” said Hines, who lives just a few blocks from the building. “But I think all of us are grateful for the final outcome. This is exactly what our community needs. Wisconsin Lutheran College will bring its proven track record to a neighborhood that desperately needs its young  people to become more aware of higher education and the opportunities it can provide.”

The new location will be called the “Center for College Success” and contain classrooms, a kitchen area, a room for parents to obtain information on school and job opportunities and will also have a large computer and research center. This area is greatly needed since the program will have its first high school students this year who will focus more on academics and study skills than before.

Cockroft is enthusiastic for the new high school students in the program and the new campus. “This will provide us with the space and resources to serve more students,” he said. “This will help us meet our goal to prepare first generation college students to attend the college of their choice.”

If you would like to help Pathways to College meet that goal, please click here.

Board needs to focus on MPS, not Arizona

Photo by Fibonacci Blue via Flickr

The list of problems in the Milwaukee Public Schools – huge cuts in the teaching staff,  some of the lowest academic achievement rates in the nation, decreased state and federal aid – could fill a book. So why is the school board wasting our time and money to issue a resolution boycotting the State of Arizona?

Because when you don’t have answers to the real problems, you can at least do the “feel good” thing and maintain the image of doing something.

Arizona has run afoul of some across the country, including President Obama and his Justice Department, by passing SB1070. The law, which goes into effect in August, makes it a misdemeanor to be in the state of Arizona without legal documentation and gives local police the ability to detain people they “reasonably suspect” are in the country without papers. In addition, it allows citizens to sue local governments and agencies if they believe federal and state immigration laws are not being enforced.

MPS is set to pass a resolution this Thursday boycotting Arizona, after the Committee on Legislation, Rules and Policies approved a measure last week. This just six days after it sent pink slips to over 1,000 teachers, substitute teachers and classroom paraprofessionals. Authored by board member Larry Miller, the boycott blocks the purchase of products and services from Arizona and travel to the state.

If an Arizona-based company has denounced the state’s illegal immigration position, MPS can do business with them.

This boycott is similar to one passed by MATC in April and the City of Milwaukee in May. More than 50 other organizations are listed on the Arizona website as also boycotting or canceling events.

Miller called the Arizona law discriminatory and “a type of apartheid” against Latinos. He described how Latinos are rounded up, housed in tents, and forced to wear humiliating “Clean and Sober” T-shirts which he implied is law enforcement’s way of insinuating that Latinos are actually dirty and drunk.

“I’ve been told to focus on our low reading scores,” Miller said. “That has been my focus, but I care about children being in school and the content of what they are learning. We must stand up against these injustices in Arizona and Wisconsin. It won’t cost the taxpayers anything.”

There was a large crowd on hand at the public hearing, most in favor of the resolution.

MPS student Kelsey Kaufmann spoke in support. “We believe in equality and human rights, we are taught them in school and we opened the meeting with the Pledge of Allegiance. At the end we said ‘liberty and justice for all.’ Arizona’s law violates this.”

But others scolded the committee for even considering the measure.

“How in any way, shape or form is this helping this district out of the mess it is in,” asked Barb Mosley. “[The Arizona law] is about stopping illegal activity. Nobody is entitled to be here illegally. This is not about discrimination any more than if it were Canadians. It is about illegal activity no matter what the person’s nationality.”

Mosley, 21 people who e-mailed the board and the majority of Americans support Arizona’s crackdown on illegal immigration. The key word here is “illegal.” The Arizona law does nothing to infringe upon the rights of legal, law-abiding Hispanic and Latino citizens and residents.

Arizona, it appears, is doing what its citizens want. 70 percent of the state’s voters agree with the crackdown on illegal immigration, and yes, some of them are even concerned that U.S. citizens may have their civil rights violated in the process. But Arizonans are more concerned about the tide of illegal immigrants flowing into their state, violating the border with drug trafficking and using state medical and educational services.

Leaders in Washington D.C. have been fighting over what to do with the millions of illegal immigrants in the country for decades. Most politicians want to use some type of amnesty to allow undocumented workers already here to earn citizenship. But in Arizona, as a border state groaning under the weight of ever-increasing welfare rolls, keeping illegals out is the number one issue. So Arizona politicians took matters into their own hands.

MPS board members complain that the state of Wisconsin and the federal government are eroding local control of schools with mandates, legislation and veiled threats. However, they are quick to turn around and approve a resolution on Arizona’s local business, claiming a moral obligation to students everywhere.

Instead, they should turn their moral fortitude toward the children right down the street from their offices. They should be concerned about the ability of MPS students of all nationalities to read, do math and explain scientific facts. They should have used the time they spent discussing Arizona’s problems in search of ways to settle teacher contracts and put educators back in the classrooms.

And rather than waste more breath on the subject, the board should spend time finding alternative funding for art, music and gym teachers who have been torn from schools. The need here is immediate and couldn’t be closer to home: to demonstrate to Milwaukee taxpayers and parents, not that they feel it’s their place to take a political stand, but that they care as much about the 80,000 students attending MPS.

Keeping teachers in the classroom:The struggle continues

Photo by Patti Wenzel

More than 1,000 Milwaukee Public School teachers, teaching assistants and substitute teachers foundpink slips in their mailboxes over the weekend.

In response, teachers gathered in protest at the MPS administration building on Vliet Street yesterday evening. It was organized by Amy Mizialko, but she credits the teachers, parents and students who came to the event. Fueled by chants of “MPS teachers care about kids,” the crowd marched in front of the administration building and listened to speakers demand that the district restore the positions.

“We have to support the kids and we can’t keep withdrawing funds and teachers from the district. I just don’t see how [students] can sustain that loss,” Mizialko, a district-wide mentor, said. “We’re at a critical time in the district where we need to move the achievement levels of the students.”

One speaker said the layoffs were inconsistent with the the district’s core beliefs to put students first and to make the classroom the most important place in the district.

A student from Roosevelt Middle School asked the school board to “bring back our teachers for our future,” while a recent graduate of The Alliance School bemoaned the loss of 4 out of the 10 total teachers at his alma mater. “The teachers there are caring people who wanted to help students who were struggling. That is what made the school a success,” he said.

But was the protest in front of the correct building? Are these layoffs the fault of the MPS board and administration or the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association and its members?

Within the 2010-11 budget is an amendment to reverse the layoffs if the unions agree to use a lower-cost HMO offered by the district over the Aetna plan with a higher premium. A single union, representing painters and other tradesmen, agreed to the concession and had their positions restored. However, MTEA has not agreed to the amendment request.

An MTEA official said the district never brought the concession request to the ongoing contract talks with the union, choosing instead to publicly negotiate the issue in the press and at public hearings.

MTEA president Mike Langyel shared his position on the subject in March with a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial. He said that the MPS Aetna plan is similar to the benefits offered to teachers in surrounding suburban districts. He added that most districts don’t offer a lower cost option and none only use an HMO.  In addition, a wellness program started by MTEA has provided nearly $1 million in savings in its first year, according to Langyel.

The union feels the problem facing MPS is not the benefits issues but the funding formulas used by the schools. “School funding in a national problem,” MTEA Interim Executive Director Pat O’Mahar said. “Districts across the country are struggling financially. The problem must be addressed with a national solution — a federal stimulus package that will restore educator positions and allow MPS children to keep their teachers.”

In a statement released by MPS, the district states that escalating health care costs for current and retired employees are the single most critical fiscal issue. According to Superintendent William Andrekoupolos, benefits cost more than 75 percent of the wages in the district.  It also disputes the union’s claim they have not received information from the district stating, “We have exchanged information with the district’s bargaining units regarding these costs, and we continue to talk.”

MPS Spokesperson Roseann St. Aubin  said the teachers are currently working under an expired contract, so there is hope the issue of benefits could be reopened. If that occurs before October, there could be a chance to reinstate the positions when adjustments are made to the budget relating to state aid and enrollment numbers.

She added that even though 482 teachers were laid off, that is  not the final number that will be let go. Vacancies, retirements and voluntary resignations will change the number.

Protesters were just as divided over what caused this dilemma, with some saying their pay is so low the benefit package is necessary or it was unfair that the district was negotiating in public. Others thought the teachers need to accept some cuts or that they are being unfairly portrayed in the press.

Overall, it seems that the administration and union are talking past one another with the kids left to suffer the consequences.

“We are willing to settle the contract with concessions,” said Bob Jorin, a digital technology technician for MPS. He said the district is asking for a memorandum of understanding from the union agreeing to the health benefit concessions, while the union is telling the district the contract is currently open and they should ask for the concessions. It’s hard to point fingers, but there is bad communication on both sides.”

The argument between the district and the union has come down to who will budge first. Until then, there will be less adults in the classrooms and achievement standards, literacy programming and overall education goals will not be obtained. Retiring teacher George Brosky said this isn’t just a problem for MPS, but for the city of Milwaukee as a whole.

“You cannot educate children without adults in the classroom,” he said. “This will hurt the pool of future employees, employers and leaders in Milwaukee. We all better start being concerned because we don’t want to become the next Detroit, which is what happens when you don’t finance education in classrooms.”

It’s time for these adults to sit down, discuss the options and make a decision that will put teachers back in front of the students, without breaking the bank for taxpayers.

Why do the students get it?

Members of the Rescue our Librarians Club join La Escuela Fratney Librarian Mayra Negron with their favorite books. Photos by Patti Wenzel

If everybody had the enthusiasm of the elementary students who founded Rescue our Librarians Club, there would never be another mention of cutting the library services or librarians in our schools or communities.

Unfortunately, that enthusiasm isn’t universal. But if these students have their way the status quo will be changing soon.

The RLC was started this spring at La Escuela Fratney (Fratney Street School) after teacher Bob Peterson wrote on his chalkboard that the school’s librarian would be cut as part of the 2010-11 budget shortfall in the Milwaukee Public Schools. His students were crestfallen, since the library at Fratney is central to the curriculum and Librarian Mayra Negron is beloved by the entire student body.

Peterson’s students decided they were going to do something about it. They created the RLC and one girl enlisted her father to design the club’s website to their specifications. The students worked with a representative from Rep. Gwen Moore’s office to create petitions for adults and fellow students. They researched the importance of libraries and librarians to the educational process and presented their evidence to the Milwaukee School Board during the public budget hearings held during May.

“It’s good to have a librarian to teach us and to show us [that] learning can be fun,” club member Anneke said.

Joe, another club member,  said without libraries in the schools the students would lose resources, computers and books. “A lot of kids (in Milwaukee) need those things and they can’t get them at home.”

Negron is visibly proud of her students and the members of the RLC. She involves them in material choices and allows students to work the circulation desk and restock the shelves.  She also works closely with all of the Fratney School teachers to ensure that the library has books and materials that tie in with class curricula. And since Fratney is an English-Spanish bilingual school, Negron has worked hard to have a complete English and Spanish elementary library.

Negron and her students were relieved in May when Gov. Jim Doyle signed legislation increasing the size of SAGE(Student Achievement Guarantee in Education program) classrooms from 15 students to 1 teacher to 18:1. This allowed Fratney to tap into more SAGE funding, freeing up money for Negron’s salary and benefits. Unfortunately, it came at the expense of smaller class sizes in the early elementary grades.

Even though Negron’s job is safe for the next school year, the RLC is not stopping in their quest to build awareness for libraries and librarians. They have lobbied Moore, who is developing an amendment to the No Child Left Behind bill which would provide federal funding for librarians and art, music and gym teachers. They have met with Alberto Retana, the U.S. Department of Education’s Director of Community Outreach, presenting him with copies of their petitions to save librarians.

The students are also continuing their petition drive with an online form for adults and printable forms students can circulate among their peers at school. So far they have collected over 800 student signatures in their mission to save libraries and librarians in MPS.

Tonieh Wellan, an adult member of RLC, is impressed with the children’s efforts and would like to see a Children’s Educational Bill of Rights that would ensure access to libraries and arts education.

She described MPS schools with rooms filled with books and resources designated as libraries, but empty of children because funding only allows a librarian in the building once per week. This is a trend that is continuing according to MPS  –  in 2007 there were 52 full-time equivalent librarians in the district, today there are only 42. And the number will continue to fall if librarians and their impact on reading proficiencies are not promoted.

“Librarians are teachers too,” she said. “They serve as a resource for other teachers and the children.”

While reading scores, the ability to use a library and budget woes are known to the students who founded the RLC, they all agree on one basic thing.

Board does little to save teacher’s jobs

Photo by Patti Wenzel

The Milwaukee Public School Board voted to give incoming superintendent Dr. Gregory Thorntoneverything he wants to do his job at the expense of hundreds of professionals who work directly with children. In addition, the board approved an amendment that implemented two furlough days within the district to save the jobs of district painters and other tradesmen. The tradesmen also agreed to accept the district’s lower-cost health plan to avoid the chopping block

Efforts by Board Member Annie Woodward and Board President Michael Bonds to eliminate district administration positions and use the savings to fund a small number of teaching and para-professional positions were easily defeated by large majority votes and vehement argument from outgoing superintendent William Andrekopoulos at Thursday’s special board meeting to approve the proposed 2011 MPS budget.

He described the positions targeted – an administrative coordinator in the superintendent’s office, a secretary for the new Accountability and Efficiency Officer, the assistant safety director and a variety of maintenance workers, as essential to the district and desired by Thornton.

“This position is critical and the person is highly skilled,” Andrekopoulos said about the administrative coordinator. “Dr. Thornton feels this position is important to his transition and running of the office. It would be extremely unfortunate if this passed. You spent a lot of money to hire a new superintendent and provide for his transition and he will start the ground running.  But if you eliminate this position it will set Dr. Thornton back months and will ruin your relationship with him from the start.”

Board member Terry Falk summed up the overall feeling of the board to give Thornton whatever he wanted. “I would like to give him the rope he needs to do what he thinks is right, or to hang himself.”

Other board members noted that the elimination of administration positions would only make a small dent in the hundreds of teacher and para-professionals being eliminated and that it wasn’t a strategic solution. Others asked that the board take a closer look at the perceived “top-heaviness” of the district at a later date.

That top-heaviness grew as three people were appointed to serve as Regional Executive Specialists, a position that will provide support to building principals and also hold them accountable for the success of their students. The job is similar to a current one in the administrative offices, but the new year will transfer management responsibilities to two new labor specialists. Again, moves that are wanted by Thornton to fulfill his goal of improving achievement among students.

Dr. Gregory Thorton, photo by Patti Wenzel

Some of the approved amendments to Andrekopoulos’ budget seem toothless. There are three that require a two-day furlough for all district staff during the annual state teacher’s convention and agreement by three unions to take the district’s low-cost health coverage or pay the difference between the low and high-cost plans. If the concessions occur the  district could restore five assistant principals, 21 digital technology positions and art, music and Phy. Ed teachers current slated for layoffs.  But acceptance of health care concessions are highly unlikely, according to Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association President Mike Langyel, ultimately keeping teachers out of the classrooms.

One amendment returned 5 guidance counselors to the schools, by taking $500,000 from a $1 million charter-school retention fund.

Bonds took a couple shots at a proposal to place $9 million in bonding for an MPS commissary kitchen. He asked for $4 million be moved into energy efficiency projects, such as using solar panels to heat the swimming pools in MPS, $300,000 to upgrade technology at the administration offices and $500,000 to make improvements at Washington High School for a culinary arts program. He added that he was against approving a $9 million bond issue for a project he hadn’t seen materials for prior to the meeting.

Bonds backed off his amendments when the facts were presented. The district’s bonding expert and facilities manager explained that there was $5.9 million in energy efficiency projects in the proposed budget and the pool project would only cost $2 million with the savings taking almost 27 years to materialize. The technology upgrades at the central office would only cost $10,000, not $300,000 and the improvements at Washington could be completed using a school construction fund loan and paid off in 14-17 years.

When Bonds was convinced that approving the $9 million commissary, which could save the district $2.8 million annually in food, wage and benefit costs, was not actually an approval of the plans or even an agreement to sell actual bonds, he backtracked. In were the Washington High improvements paid for with a loan; in was the technology upgrade using funds yet to be discovered in the technology department and out was the plan to heat swimming pools with solar power.

Finally, the board tackled a pressing issue – court reporters taking verbatim minutes at board meetings. Not once, but twice, they voted to eliminate a court reporter from regular board meetings, for a savings of $5,000 annually. Last year, the board stopped using reporters in committee meetings relying on recorded minutes. Falk explained while the $5,000 savings was small “if we find ten other things at $5,000 we’ll have $50,000 in savings and if we find 100 things we’ll save a half million.”

The first vote failed as board members were concerned they wouldn’t have a written record of their meetings. But after a break and huddle with the technology officer the board came back and voted to eliminate the reporters and look for software that will record voices and transcribe simultaneously.

Yes, this is your school board and it will only cost you $1.3 billion during the next school year to keep them. Here’s hoping that buys enough rope for Dr. Thornton to do his job.

The tax levy and mil rates will be set in October by the city of Milwaukee.

Reading and writing is found in the arts

Even the littlest dancers shake their stuff at the SHARP Literacy "Circle of Life" celebration.

The bad news about student literacy within Milwaukee Public Schools never ends. African American fourth graders in Wisconsin (most are students at MPS) have the lowest reading scores of black children in the country and only 38 percent of MPS tenth graders tested proficient or better in reading.

These statistics have led the school board and administration to reassess its reading curriculum. Currently MPS has over 17 different reading programs in use in its 198 schools. The multitude of reading curricula has hampered student progress due to the high percentage of school switching, where more then a third of students starting in one school are in a different school by the end of the year.

While MPS considers its options, SHARP Literacy has been quietly working throughout the city in public, private and charter schools to build a love of reading and overall literacy with exposure to the arts.

Founded in 1996, the Student Historical Art Resource Program began as an arts education outreach program in partnership with the Milwaukee Art Museum. Executive Director Marlene M. Doerr worked as a docent at the MAM where she realized that art sparked student’s imaginations. She worked with educators to develop a curriculum that used art as a vehicle to learn core subjects such as reading, writing, math and science. Over the years SHARP has served more than 48,000 students in 32 Milwaukee area schools.

An example of SHARP’s method is a partnership between the organization and the Forest County Potawatomi Community Foundation to present the Greater Milwaukee Circle of Life Project. The focus of the project was to eliminate discrimination by having children celebrate and teach their friends, teachers and parents about differing cultures by making use of the student’s artistic efforts while building reading, writing and research skills.

"Circle of Life" mural created by students enrolled in the SHARP Literacy program. This mural is on permanent display at the Alumni Memorial Union on the Marquette University campus. Photo courtesy of Marquette University.

In year one, the students worked together to design and create a mural titled, “Circle of Life,” focusing on the interconnectedness of all cultures. The piece is on display at Marquette University.

During the second year, students shared stories of their cultures and produced artwork that was made into a book focused on eliminating racism and discrimination. The following year SHARP brought students from a variety of cultural, racial and economic backgrounds to discuss their heritage and unique qualities. A DVD of their discussions was produced and is available for teachers to use in their classrooms.

The capstone of the Circle of Life Project was a live multicultural arts performance in Uihlein Hall at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts on May 24. Students of all ages took the stage to share their culture’s songs and dances to show that even though we are all different we also share commonalities that enrich and color our community.

Dancers from Escuela Vieau School exposed the audience to a variety of Hispanic offerings, while students from the Indian Community School demonstrated the idea of community with a Native American round dance and song. More dancers from the Hmong American Peace Academy brought the concept of peace and harmony to life with three dances from their culture. A plea for everyone in the audience came from students from Hartford University School, who sang  Agents of Change while choice students from St. Marcus Ev. Lutheran School bridged the German background of their school with their African American heritage, performing Ise O Luwak, a Yoruban chant.

To top off the evening, all of the performers sang Let’s Make a World. This song was a collaborative effort between all the schools in the program. The original song was composed by students from Escuela Vieau under the guidance of composer Connie Grauer (of MRS. FUN) and Present Music. The students suggested lyrics and melodies, while Grauer guided and filled in the orchestration. Once the chorus was completed, each of the five schools contributed a lyric about how they would like the world to become a better place.

The performance brought the audience to their feet and tears to their eyes.

All of the performances were a result of reading, writing and researching cultures and translating that information into a tangible artistic product. That process has been the goal of SHARP since the beginning and the results are tangible.

In a study conducted over two years with more than 4,000 students at 25 Milwaukee schools, it was determined that SHARP students read and write 40-70 percent better than students not taking part in the program. Another benefit developed from participating in SHARP, students have better interpersonal skills and appreciation for one another, leading to better behavior on field trips.

With such a fine example of success in reading and writing with Milwaukee’s students, why isn’t MPS replicating this everywhere? And why are MPS and other districts across the country eliminating arts education?

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