Innovations in Education: Creating Strong District School Choice Programs
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Milwaukee Public Schools

District Demographics
Enrollment 97,293
Enrollment Trend Down
Number of Schools 223
Population Type Large central city
Subsidized Meals 72%
English Learners 8%
Special Needs 15%

As part of a court-ordered desegregation plan in 1977, Milwaukee Public Schools created well-endowed magnet schools and a voluntary exchange program with 23 neighboring suburban districts. The initial result, however, was more-segregated, not less-segregated schools. White students left the district, and the suburban schools in the exchange program, which came to be known as Chapter 220, did not actively recruit Milwaukee's African American students.

Today, open enrollment is available to all Wisconsin students, and Chapter 220 districts have set enrollment goals to increase cross-district transfers. This school year, 6,410 Milwaukee students took advantage of open enrollment, and participation in Chapter 220 open enrollment has been increasing over time. The district also offers 20 charter schools, with specialties ranging from music to Montessori to language immersion. There are also 10 charters authorized by other agencies. Perhaps the most significant form of choice might be the city's voucher program. Instituted in 1990 as an alternative for low-income students, the program allows students with a family income of 1.5 percent times the national poverty level to use vouchers to attend private schools. In 2003-04, more than 13,000 Milwaukee voucher students enrolled in 107 private schools--both sectarian and non-sectarian. Voucher use has increased to more than 13 percent of the school population and is approaching the state-legislated 15 percent cap.

In the face of steadily declining enrollment and funding, Milwaukee is now moving to bolster its 163 neighborhood schools and to encourage parents to make the school "down the street" their primary school of choice. This effort, known as the Neighborhood Schools Initiative (NSI), is in its third year of implementation. To simultaneously fund this new effort and make needed budget cuts, the district took a long look at its $55 million annual transportation budget. Some of the savings from keeping more buses in the garage are being transferred to refurbishing neighborhood schools. In addition to upgrading physical plants, the district is trying to incorporate other feedback from parents about what they want in a neighborhood school. District priorities include creating more K-8 configurations, adding specialty programs and before- and after-school programs, and increasing neighborhood safety. Additionally, funds are being spent to make sure that if all the students in an attendance area choose their neighborhood school, the school will have enough classrooms to accommodate them.

Parents learn about schools identified for improvement and student's NCLB transfer options in a three-stage communication from the district. First, the superintendent sends a letter to all parents that describes the district's efforts to improve achievement and what it means to be a school identified for improvement. Once improvement schools are determined, each of these schools customizes a district-initiated template letter to let parents know what the school is doing to improve. In schools where students have the right to request an NCLB transfer, another letter is sent to parents explaining the transfer process. The district gives NCLB transfers the first priority, and staff in two parent centers work personally with parents on NCLB transfers.

The improvement work called for by NCLB and the new work of NSI are being supported by another comprehensive district initiative--a refocusing of its program of teacher professional development. The district now places a literacy coach in every school. These on-site coaches work with colleagues to build capacity that is tightly aligned with school and district learning targets. Not only does each school have on-site literacy expertise, but all members of a faculty are working toward common professional development goals. Teacher development is also enhance by the district's involvement in the Milwaukee Partnership Academy. This partnership with local colleges and universities, the Milwaukee Teacher Education Association, and area business groups has the goal of preparing teachers specifically for work in an urban environment.

The Milwaukee district has a long history of facing its challenges by working with parents to make school choice correlate with effective education. As it moves ahead, district personnel have outlined two overriding goals: Lay out all of the facts, and make every classroom a quality classroom.

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Last Modified: 11/30/2009