‘All kids, all schools: That’s who we are’
Milwaukee Succeeds connects community to improve early literacy scores.
With an eclectic culture, countless must-eat cuisines and endless breweries, Milwaukee is a well-kept Midwest secret just an hour and a half drive north of Chicago. But with dismal rates of reading and math proficiency, the city needed to bring stakeholders together to work toward the same goals to change outcomes for students. Enter Milwaukee Succeeds.
Literacy specialist Mary Schmidt sat with a small group of second-grade students and their teacher at Gwen T. Jackson Early Childhood Center in a north-side neighborhood of Milwaukee, Wis. As the teacher worked through the lesson plan, Schmidt carefully observed students’ responses. At the end of the day, she met with the teacher to create a next-day plan based on student reaction.
“Our focus is on foundational reading skills and strategies, because this is exactly what struggling students are missing,” Schmidt said. “We are not evaluating teachers in the formal sense. Our passion is to build teachers up, and therefore build students up. It comes from a position of ‘Let’s team up to help you and your students get exactly what they need.’
“We help teachers change their behavior in order to change student behavior. We do that with a lot of shaping and reinforcement of what teachers and students are doing right and well.”
— StriveTogether (@StriveTogether) May 15, 2015
With only 15 percent of the city’s third graders reading proficiently, Milwaukee Succeeds brought together organizations, including Northwestern Mutual and Milwaukee Public Schools, to launch Focus on Reading Foundations (FRF). Through this initiative, literacy coaches are brought into classrooms to focus attention on teachers, rather than individual students.
“A lot of times, people think that if you have an expert in the building, it’s great if the expert can work right with kids,” said Debbie Kuether, Milwaukee Public Schools director of K-12 literacy. “Coaches can pull students out of class and work one on one, and they can really make a lot gains with a small group of kids. But they forget that that’s just for a lucky group of kids that gets to see that teacher.
“We want to multiply that impact by building the capacity of the teacher. If a teacher can embed the high quality instruction in the classroom as they learn it, and then practice and get coaching feedback, the students that teacher has for the current year and years after will be impacted, even well after that coach is gone.”
After its first year, the coaching program already proved to be successful. Overall, progress monitoring data scores went up last year for students who were involved in this small-group intervention. But even more impressive were the gains in progress-monitoring data, which teachers analyze when a student is receiving intervention: 75 percent of students doubled their literacy scores through the program.
“It was unbelievable,” Kuether said. “They made gains in a very short time frame; we’re talking in a matter of four to five weeks.”
The program has expanded to two schools this year.
“Everyone was thrilled about the results and we’re expanding it this year,” Milwaukee Succeeds former Executive Director Mike Soika said. “MPS has received a grant to expand the program, so we’ll see expansion in the district this year.”
To Kuether, this program is the perfect example of collective impact’s power in Milwaukee.
“We had the right combination of people working together who brought the same types of ideas, and the resources came together,” she said. “You really do have a lot of different groups working to problem solve and then coming to a resolution and creating a solid program that can be replicated in other places.”
Needing a ‘StriveTogether-like solution’
Four years ago, the Greater Milwaukee Foundation hired Ellen Gilligan as its new CEO. Her previous position was with the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, an organization that played a large role in starting StrivePartnership in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky.
“She said that education is a critical issue and she knew Milwaukee needed a StriveTogether-like solution,” Soika said.
Across the city, only 8.4 percent of children were attending quality-rated preschool, 15 percent of third-graders were reading proficiently, and 18.4 percent of eighth-graders were proficient in math. The Greater Milwaukee Foundation invited more than 40 stakeholders to sit on the leadership committee, and all 40 people agreed.
“The partnership was an easy sell,” Soika said. “The issues throughout Milwaukee were so volatile and dire that people were looking at the situation and wanting some new solutions.”
Bringing together key stakeholders, such as United Way, the Urban League, Greater Milwaukee Foundation, Association of Commerce and the Greater Milwaukee Committee, Milwaukee Succeeds was formed as the city’s cradle-to-career partnership. Soon after, the group brought on StriveTogether for strategic assistance.
“The early days working with StriveTogether were critical in helping to guide and create a strong foundation for the organization,” Soika said.
With nearly 300 organizations involved, Milwaukee Succeeds now includes a 15-member executive committee, 44-person leadership council and nine collaborative action networks around school readiness, K-12 education and social emotional development. The partnership has established 11 indicators; eight indicators are moving in a positive direction as published in the second report card.
Dealing with politics
The road hasn’t always been easy for Milwaukee Succeeds. The city has a long history of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program (MPCP), a local voucher system for private schools, which competes with Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) and the charter sector.
“In many cities, the politics around education are difficult, but that is even more true here in Milwaukee given the robust growth of nonpublic schools and the intense competition for students.”
To navigate the political education environment, Milwaukee Succeeds depends on the executive committee and leadership council.
“They recognize the unique nature of the city and work very hard to say, ‘We can fight about these issues if we have to, but Milwaukee Succeeds is the only place where we’re working very hard to find common ground,’” Soika said. “We’re very proud of that.”
Building the network through continuous improvement
Continuous improvement has not only helped Milwaukee Succeeds look at the data, but also bring new partners to the table. Since the partnership started, GE Healthcare, Rockwell Automation, Johnson Controls and others have donated the time of Six Sigma Master Black Belt coaches. Six Sigma is a set of tools for process improvement used mainly in the manufacturing and business worlds.
Each collaborative action network has two Black Belt coaches who help the networks work through continuous improvement processes and create best practices, to that “every step of the way, we know what the deliverables are.”
“That’s been critical to our development for sure, because they certainly keep us honest,” Soika said.
These coaches have also been instrumental in getting partners on the same page for collective impact.
“The coaches were able to take all the politics off the table because they’d say, ‘That program is great, but let’s see what you’re doing. Let’s look at your data. Let’s start mapping that,’” Soika said. “That forced groups to move outside a myopic view and move in a broader context to a systemic view.”
And looking systemically at the city is crucial for Milwaukee Succeeds to help students from cradle to career.
“All kids, all schools: That’s who we are,” Soika said. “We’re all committed to that. Our leaders are committed to that. If we can get people to the table and staying at the table, we can make this work. And we can make education work in the city.”
— StriveTogether (@StriveTogether) May 15, 2015
About Milwaukee Succeeds
Milwaukee Succeeds is a broad-based, communitywide collaboration that aims to improve educational outcomes for every child in Milwaukee, in every school, cradle to career. Using a data-driven process that focuses resources on high-impact strategies, Milwaukee Succeeds will begin to move the needle on what works for kids, and better position our children and our community for a successful future. Milwaukee Succeeds is a Sustaining member of the StriveTogether Cradle to Career Network.