Friday, June 04, 2010

Sounds Strangely Familiar

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel:

MLLI was the result. It was a group effort, with Coyle serving as the lead teacher - there was no principal. The program was project-based, meaning students generally were supposed to focus on learning about real-world issues in ways that incorporated multiple subjects in one project - reading, science, social studies, something like that.

Everything went well in a year and half of preparation and training.

"We thought everything was going to be perfect," Coyle said.

Then, in September 2005, the kids arrived at the space in Wedgewood Park Middle School (previously Bell Middle) that was MLLI's home. Reality was a lot different than the plan. One big factor: Many students assigned to the school by the MPS central office had no idea what they were getting in to and were neither ready for nor interested in a project-based program.

The staff took major steps backward. They made schedule changes aimed at establishing control and revamped the educational plan to try to give students basic skills they didn't have.

Turnover of both students and staff was high in the first couple years. Test scores were low, attendance was not good, discipline was a continuing issue. But gradually, things got better.

This year, MLLI had some of the sharpest improvements in test scores of any school in Milwaukee and the percentage of sophomores rated as proficient or better was sharply above the MPS average in all five areas tested. The percent of proficient readers jumped in one year from 40% to 66%.

But the MPS budget picture for next year (exacerbated by a deficit MLLI ran last year) would have meant a cut in the number of general education teachers from nine to seven in the 173-student school. Class sizes would increase, and the climate would suffer. The staff felt that, even if some way were found to avoid the cuts this year, the outlook for succeeding years was discouraging.

"We all looked at each other around the table, and we all kind of said we can't keep doing this," Coyle said. They looked at their vision statement and asked: Can we do what we say we're doing?

"There's not a single person who said yes," Coyle said.


  • Another urban high school being closed by a cash-strapped and uninterested district just as it finds its stride.
  • Getting discipline right is one reason progressive/project-based high schools get a slow start out of the blocks. I think they often over-estimate the centrality of a permissive disciplinary posture to their mission.
  • There was, in this Gates-fueled era, too much of an emphasis on starting the high school of your dreams from a blank slate. They/we missed the middle ground between cookie-cutter franchises and re-inventing the wheel every time.
  • Still, throwing all this away now, after surviving the painful "school finding itself" period, and managing to improve, despite what sounds like an uncooperative and uninterested district administration, is an incredible waste.
  • And Gates deserves particular scorn for how completely they abandoned their progeny. I'm not even talking about money, just the merest expression of support or even acknowledgement would be nice.

In local news, the RI Board of Regents yesterday approved a new small progressive charter high school in Rhode Island, The Greene School. Differences this time around:

  • Explicitly affiliated with Expeditionary Learning schools, which will provide some structure and professional development out of the gate.
  • Leadership from an experienced high school principal.
  • Charter, not district, although to be honest I don't know why RIDE approved this school at the same time they were going after Highlander, so in a few years RIDE might be as hostile toward The Greene School as Providence is toward its small high schools now.
  • Not in the city.

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