Milwaukee is making good schools a reality

With no extra funding, no added staffing, no busing of the inner-city student population served, the Milwaukee public school system (MPS) has begun an elementary school program that it believes will guarantee every child's mastery of the basic skills in reading, math, and language arts.

Project RISE involves 20 elementary schools in Milwaukee's inner city. It makes such common sense that an educational genius must have designed it. And one did -- a cadre of dedicated central office administrators, curriculum specialists, building principals, and teachers.

Though the first year's test results are not yet in, preliminary samples offer signs of significant progress, with far fewer students scoring in the lower levels in math and English than in previous years.

What RISE does is establish a workable game plan for putting into practice the significant body of current research on what makes an effective school.

Such education notables as Ronald Edmonds of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and Peter Mortimore of the British Inner London Education Authority look to the RISE program to substantiate in a large way what they have found to be true in other effective inner-city schools.

The first step was to define in very narrow terms what the educational mission of an effective school in the inner city should be.

"We looked at what it was we could control in our own buildings, our own classrooms, to make them effective, to end their record of failure," says Dr. Maureen Larkin, curriculum specialist for RISE and Title I math coordinator for the school system.

"We sought to isolate those factors that made for a successful school, a school that was teaching students the basic skills so that if you didn't know where it was located [i.e., the inner city] and only knew about its standardized test scores, you would think it was a predominantly white, suburban school," she says.

In their order of priority as adopted by Milwaukee the necessary factors for an effective school are:

* Strong academics, characterized by the principal's role as the instructional leader, not just a building manager.

* High expectations by the teaching staff about the ability of all students to learn. Ms. Larkin adds: "The academic goals of the district are articulated to staff, and they agree with them and are committed to them before any other agenda. You take all kids where they are and bring them up to grade level."

* Without being rigid, an orderly, relatively quiet, and pleasant building atmosphere; something the researchers call "school climate," but which one RISE principal, Gerry Vance, thinks of in his building as "a readiness to learn on the part of everyone."

* A strong emphasis on reading, math, and language skills, with three hours each morning spent on these areas and extra sessions for those having difficulties in any one area.

* Careful and frequent evaluation of student work, with the principal knowing the academic progress of each student as measured against staff goals and objectives.

* Frequent, productive staff meetings dealing with progress (or failure) in reaching the academic goals. History:

All of the RISE schools are case studies of what can be most challenging with inner-city schools -- in which there is high student mobility (anywhere from 30 to 70 percent turnover per year); low socioeconomic status of the student population, with disproportionately large numbers receiving ADC money (aid to families with dependent children); 18 of the schools having 80 percent or more minority students; low teacher morale; the absence of significant parental support.

In March 1979, Milwaukee's school board directed central office administrators to correct the large proportions of students in inner-city schools scoring poorly on citywide tests in the basic skills of reading, mathematics, and language arts.

Every effort was to be made to bring the city's 20 elementary schools (out of 111) with the lowest test scores in math and English up to at least the citywide or national average by the 1981-82 academic year.

And though the 20 schools involved were not given any additional funding, each building principal was given wide latitude to allocate existing funds as he or she saw necessary. If progress was not made, the respective principals were to be replaced.

Grant Gordon, special assistant to the superintendent and an educator with over 30 years' experience as both teacher and principal in MPS says: "In our case the starting point was, we had to see low test results as unacceptable regardless of the color or socioeconomic background of the student, and be willing to do something about it. With a genuine commitment to change, we know we have a chance of succeeding." Practitioners:

Al Weiss, a RISE principal, reflects on the initial planning stages as something where "a high degree of guilt had to be dealt with. We felt we were being singled out [the principals and staff of the 20 schools] as failures about things we had no control over."

In the course of a year his school experiences a 50 to 60 percent population turnover. "We didn't know how we could be accountable for this. We soon realized blame was not the goal of RISE; teaching kids was.That's when I and my staff tasted a sense of hope that what we did made a difference. Reality of urban life is mobility, and we cannot use this as an excuse for a child not reading at grade level," Mr. Weiss says.

Elsie Kromraj and Kathy Wisniewski, teachers at Riley elementary, a RISE school, both saw the third grade plan they helped develop in mathematics adopted by the entire school district.

Maureen Larkin sees the Riley school's response as "giving the people involved, the people in the building, a sense of ownership. This was the critical factor that had to be faced. It was really surprising to see how quickly the practitioners in the buildings responded and already knew intuitively what had to be done." Competition:

One novel aspect of Milwaukee's approach was its willingness to reach outside itself by going to see what the "competition" was doing.

And the competition was St. Leo's, a parochial elementary school in the same inner-city locale as many of the RISE schools. It drew from the same low-income families from which children too often had a history of failure in school.

99 percent black, St. Leo's presently has a waiting list of over 500 students.When it re-opened five years ago, its test results would be just as unacceptable as those the RISE schools were facing. Today, nothing would distinguish the academic scores from any suburban school in the country.

All of the RISE principals were required to spend at least two full days observing classes at St. Leo's, and in particular to follow its principal, George Raymond, through the course of a normal day.

What they saw was: a principal and staff committed to the principle that all children can learn; significant amounts of time spent each day on reading, math, and language arts; homework assigned daily; a quiet, orderly atmosphere where learning was the first priority of everyone in the building from the moment they entered the building. Central office:

Dr. Bob Long, assistant superintendent in charge of administrative services for the Milwaukee schools, says one of the key ingredients in RISE is that the "curriculum specialist should spend an inordinate amount of time in the school building, reviewing and implementing academic goals."

When questioned as to the potential threat RISE might pose to principals, he points out that "there are no surprises once the goals are clearly stated and agreed upon. We [central office supervisors] know how schools are coming along, we know on a weekly basis.

"And we are there to help if they aren't.Twenty principals are sharing with each other, reinforcing each other's ideals and goals, not 20 separate individual schools. This is a very important concept. It is the central office's role not to lose the special coordination needed."

Seven of the original 20 principals have either transferred to other buildings or retired since the program began in the 1979-80 school year. "We did not view this as any stigma against individual principals," Mr. Long says. "They work for the district, and we make systemwide assignments for our principals. The RISE schools call for our very best."

About the fact that no additional financing was provided for the RISE program , he says: "You always have a lot of money, and though you can't do everything you might want, you analyze what you can do with it and realize you have enough to do something significant. People, not money, is the key to the RISE program."

Dr. Larkin adds, "RISE offers a starting point to new and old principals and teachers in turning a failing school around, in getting the school to see where it is going academically, rather than reacting to social problems beyond the area of its control. What has been most exciting for me is to see the inherent strengths of our schools and teachers that just needed a clear sense of purpose and direction."

In Milwaukee, that is the genius responsible for RISE.

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