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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Monday, December 04, 2006

The Milwaukee Public Schools Strategic Plan: A Virtual Public Meeting

Last week I had an opportunity to attend a training session to be a "facilitator" for the meetings and listening sessions being held around the district, sponsored by the Greater Milwaukee Committee, the Milwaukee Public Schools, the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, and more. (The list of public meetings is here.)

I know a lot of the people who read this blog are stakeholders in the Milwaukee Public Schools. Many of you live in the city, work in the schools, have children in the schools. Others of you live in Southeastern Wisconsin, and you know as well as I that the future of the region depends on the strength of the education children in Milwaukee receive. A bunch of you are also bloggers, which means of course you have something to say. Still others of you work at the state capital (I check my stats), either legislating or administrating or something else, but certainly our state government holds a stake in the process.

Knowing that about my readership, I asked after the training session whether I could hold a "virtual" meeting here for the Cheddarsphere, and got an enthusiastic yes! in response. So please, read through what I present here, check out the links with the background information, and then go ahead and fill out the feedback form I will link to towards the end. Your comments left online will be counted just as much as comments left by the people who brave the cold to attend an actual meeting. I consider, in fact, your participation here among the most important things you can do today while sitting around on your internet.

By the time you get to the end of this post, I hope you'll have a better understanding of what this process is, that you'll take the time to review the challenges and opportunities we in MPS face, and that you'll share your feedback in four key areas about how to improve every school.

If you do have your own blog, and feel your readership would want to participate, please direct them here, or to the consultant's web site linked below. Here we go:

***

I have been saying for a long time and to anyone who will listen that the problems of the Milwaukee Public Schools are not problems with the schools per se, but rather they are Milwaukee problems. Which is why it's encouraging to see some unity across the greater Milwaukee community on this issue, with the involvement in this work not just of those running MPS, but of members of the business community and civic leaders as well. The work being done right now represents a turning point for MPS, because never before--at least not in recent memory--has there been such a coming together with such a strong focus on developing a long-term strategic plan for how to see improvements in the preparation of all Milwaukee students for meaningful careers or post-secondary education. You can read more information about the process and the parts involved here, and I will be linking to other parts of that website as we go through this.

The work is being called Working Together, Achieving More, which reflects that unity and involvement across the community and among different interest groups. While the public keeps challenging us (MPS) to do better, we're challenging the public to play a key part in developing this seven-year strategic plan. We recognize the failures within MPS, and that's why we need a strategy that is efficient and effective, that includes short- and long-term goals, accountability monitoring, time frames, and specific plans of action. The strategy developed here will be backed by a level of rigor and accountability we've not seen before, and will remain regardless of changes in the Board or administration.

MPS, MTEA, and the GMC have developed the process for writing this strategic plan with a consultancy, a group called Focus on Results. The work is being funded by the generous folks at the GMC, who expect to pay $250k or more for the process and the 30+ meetings being held to get the stakeholders' input. No one wants this plan to develop in a vacuum--if any given communiy is left out, the document will not have legitimacy and may miss critical elements of needed reform. Everyone is hoping for a first working draft of the strategic plan by the beginning of March, 2007.

To be sure we're all on the same page about MPS, let's look at some data. Over at FoR's site, you can find the sobering statistics. The data there are all accurate, though they're not in any way every single thing we could tell you about MPS. The data are broken down into four areas: STUDENTS AND ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT, LEADERS AND STAFF, THE DISTRICT AND ITS SCHOOLS, and MPS COMMUNITY AND GREATER MILWAUKEE. When you get to the feedback stage, those are the four areas you'll be asked to provide feedback for, as well.

You're all smart people, so I won't waste your time repeating everything here. But please take a moment to read through those pages of information about MPS and the challenges we face. If you don't have familiarity with these facts, it will be harder for you to provide relevant feedback in the next step.

Now that you've seen what's going on in and around the district, it's time to start thinking about that feedback. I'm guessing that as you read, you were probably thinking already of things to say about what the district is or is not doing, about how you think that we should stop doing things that aren't working or start doing things that would work. Well, now's your chance to put finger to keyboard and provide those responses.

If you click through to the feedback form, you'll see that you have the opportunity to respond to the data you just saw in each of the four areas: STUDENTS AND ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT, LEADERS AND STAFF, THE DISTRICT AND ITS SCHOOLS, and MPS COMMUNITY AND GREATER MILWUAKEE. For each of those categories, you see two text boxes where you can write out your thoughts.

The first is where you can write down some of the things MPS does (or has done to it) that you think should STOP. There is a link right there back to the data so you can refresh your memory. For example, you might remember that fully half of our ninth-grade students are suspended at least once; you might want to right down in the STOP box under STUDENTS AND ACADEMIC ACHIEVEMENT that we should STOP suspending so many kids. It's up to you what you want to write down to STOP for each of those four categories.

In addition, there is a second text box under each category for things you'd like MPS to START doing. What, to use my previous example, might we do instead of suspending half of our ninth-graders?

Once you've finished with the STOP and START text boxes, there is one thing at the top and one thing at the bottom of the feedback form that I'd like you to fill out before we finish. At the top, there's a drop-down menu for you to indicate what your role is, whether you're a parent in MPS or just someone in the community (even if you don't live in the city, you are still a part of our "community"). The process is entirely anonymous, but the people compliling these answers (and every answer will be compiled!) would like to know your relationship to the schools. Also, at the very bottom of the feedback form is a last text box for any additional comments you might like to make that don't easily fit into either STOP or START in any of the four categories. Please use that space to comment on anything else that may have struck you, or to provide any other ideas you may have.


***

When I sat in that training session last week, there was a lot of--I think justified--skepticism about whether or not this process would work, about whether or not any strategic plan that came out of it would either be followed through or even worth the paper it got printed on.

But the answer I got was encouraging. In the cramped little corner of the dining room where they squeezed the thirty or so of us in, we had both the president of the MTEA and the president of the school board. We had prinicpals, teachers, counselors, librarians, and students. We had community members, business leaders, communilty learning center coordinators, and central office personnel. The only thing missing, it seemed, was a partridge in a pear tree. And we all got along; we all agreed that believing in the potential of this process was a hell of a lot better than believing in nothing, that no improvement is ever possible.

And the fruit will bear soon: As I wrote above, everyone involved wants to see a working document by the beginning of March, just in time for the school board elections. It's worth witholding judgment at least until then.

Thanks for helping out, for clicking through and seeing what there is and contributing your feedback.

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