Eleven MPS High Schools – Including Four Charter Schools – Get Low-Performer Tag in 2011; Will Federal Intervention Help?

By Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

Eleven schools in Milwaukee have been identified as some of the lowest performing in the state and are in line for over $6.3 million in federal grants to spur a turnaround. If MPS’ targeted plans go through, more than half will be looking for new principals for the 2011-2012 school year – and one will be closed altogether.

Major reforms are in line for four of the schools, according to city superintendent Gregory Thornton. The city will adhere to the federal turnaround model designed specifically to combat the culture of failure in these schools. As a result, Pulaski High School, Northwest Secondary School, Washington High School of Information Technology, and Advanced Language and Academic Students (ALAS) will have their entire instructional staff released.

These schools will be tasked with finding a new principal and several new teachers, as only half of the existing teaching corps is eligible to be rehired. Many of these changes will come with assistance from outside sources, which will be accommodated by $6.3m of federal funding.

Two other schools, the Hamilton and Montessori High Schools, are in line for less drastic reform, but will still need to adjust their leadership. These institutions will have to hire new principals while bringing on outside consultants to work with the remaining staff.

The four charter schools, which include the non-instrumentality Wings Academy and the Wisconsin Career Academy, aren’t eligible for the federal assistance and will instead be placed on probation. The terms of this probation aren’t entirely clear, but will include additional monitoring from MPS, as well as classroom reforms. Should the schools in question end up on the list in 2012, additional action will be taken.

Finally, Washington High School will be closed altogether under the federal model.

These are bold steps to address the growing education problem in Wisconsin’s largest city. However, recent data suggests that the turnaround model is a longshot at best. A December 2010 study by David Stuit of the Fordham Institute examined success rates in low-performing charter and district schools across the country. His report, titled Are Bad Schools Immortal? found a dire connection between America’s worst schools and their ability to transform into sufficient educators.

Between 2003-04 and 2008-09, eliminating or improving these bad schools has been a rarity. Of the 2,035 schools nationwide that were examined in the study, only 26 (one percent) were able to claim significant turnarounds (from the bottom 25% of all schools to the top 50% of all schools) in the five year period. 164 schools were able to show modest gains (into the 25-50% range). 224 more were shut down entirely.

In Wisconsin, the results weren’t much more optimistic. Only one out of the 56 schools classified as low-performing in 2003-04 made any improvement – a significant turnaround. Nine other schools were shut down, while no schools showed moderate gains over this period.

Additionally, many of these schools were previously covered here at the MacIver Institute in an examination of operating budgets at MPS schools. Of the 11 schools located in Milwaukee that were designated as low-performing, four racked up yearly debts of nearly $350,000. Four others recorded surpluses of almost $120,000. Three other schools did not have operating budget data readily available.

School FY’10 Operating Debt/Surplus
Pulaski HS -$30,262
Washington HS of IT $42,307
ALAS $58,529
Northwest Secondary n/a
Hamilton HS -$26,009
Montessori HS -$227,998
The Alliance School -$64,207
Community HS $18,102
Wings Acad. n/a
Wisconsin Career Acad. n/a
Washington HS $119,335

The question that remains is whether or not an infusion of $6.3 million of federal funds and the addition of outside forces can change the culture of low performance at these schools. In 2010, the first year of the program instituted by President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, 11 MPS schools were subject to tighter regulations and drastic change. So far, there haven’t been any significant changes to suggest that the program has taken effect – though it’s still very early into the re-haul process.

Time will tell if the program can take hold in Milwaukee and turn around the city’s worst schools. Recent history suggests that it may be a losing battle. Still, it’s a valiant attempt by MPS to take legitimate action in the schools that need it the most.