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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Friday, March 10, 2006

Small High Schools Trouble in MPS

I expended a whole lot of electrons last spring writing about the small-high schools phenomenon, particularly as it was being implemented, badly, I thought, here in the Milwaukee Public Schools. With the (not-small-school) changes coming in my own high school, I've been thinking and worrying about how those changes will affect me and my colleagues, and not really focusing on what has been happening at the small high schools around the city. The grapevine gave me rumors, of course; today's news, though, brings confirmation of that poor implementation and follow-through:
In a sign of troubles at Milwaukee's Washington High School, the organization overseeing a multimillion-dollar grant to the city's schools has yanked its support and funding from two of the new, small schools located there. The move also speaks to the challenges in breaking apart existing, large high schools.

The Technical Assistance & Leadership Center, the organization charged with monitoring a $17.25 million grant Milwaukee Public Schools received from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support small high schools in the city, decided recently to deny continued funds to the Washington High School of Expeditionary Learning and the Washington High School of Information Technology. A third school located in the Washington multiplex, the Washington High School of Law, Education and Public Service, will continue to receive support from the Gates grant and from the center. [. . .] The two schools will lose coaching from the Technical Assistance & Leadership Center and will also have the remaining balances of implementation grants of $150,000 each revoked.

[The] Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent [. . .] said he told leaders of the two small schools that "they needed to keep forging forward and putting in the necessary changes to be successful as small high schools" and they could have their grants reinstated.
Washington is one of the traditional high schools to be phased out and replaced by a "multiplex," a process that was foisted upon the teachers and students from above. Decades of research and documentation show that small schools can be and are often successful when the reform is bottom-up, community based. The reforms of the MPS high school redesign have generally not been: Teachers and staffs (not to mention students and parents) have been told, "Here is what you're doing," with no buy-in from any of the stakeholders except the superintendent. This, as you can imagine, is problematic. As I wrote a year ago,
the successful small schools are bottom-up and designed not in pursuit of money but in pursuit of community goals not otherwise being met. And in this kind of top-down enforced reform, teachers are left powerless, but with a myriad of questions that administrators would prefer not to answer.
The answer, apparently, is "keep forging ahead." Once again, the superintendent is trying to lead by pushing from behind--which is nothing like leadership at all.

In the meantime, we have yet another year of lost education for the students in these schools.

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