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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

3 Things To Know As MPS Begins Its New School Year

arinahabich, flickr

Believe it or not, school starts next week for some kids in the Milwaukee area – and MPS students, parents and staff have a few notable changes on the horizon as kids head back to class.

Led by Superintendent Darienne Driver, the struggling district has implemented a number of reforms that leaders hope will spur gains in student achievement.

Here’s what you need to know before the first bell rings…

New year, new calendar

Save a few types of district schools (International Baccalaureate schools, like Reagan High School), classes have traditionally started around Labor Day throughout MPS.  

Some elementary schools will still stick to that schedule. But the majority of buildings will switch to a new “early start calendar” this year -- all MPS high schools and middle schools, and a handful of elementary schools. Their first day of school is Monday, August 14 – which is about three weeks earlier than usual. Classes will wrap up in mid-May.

The district has a full list of schools following each calendar on its website.

This might look like a simple schedule shift, but the district sees it as an opportunity to make some serious gains. Dr. Driver says the shift gives students more days in class before taking tests like the ACT, and allows for a clean break between semesters at holiday time. 

Another selling point: ending the year earlier leaves space for what Driver has dubbed “J-Term,” a four-week session in June for students to catch up or get ahead.

“What it will provide for our students is the opportunity for credit recovery, for service learning programming, for internships,” Driver said during a press conference earlier this year. “We have a number of students who want to take courses like art history and music theory – this gives them the opportunity to do that. As well as students who have failed a course, maybe failed more than one course or failed a grade, would have the opportunity to participate in this J-Term.”

The calendar change has earned support from state Superintendent Tony Evers, as well as state lawmakers, who tend to keep a close eye on MPS. They say it could help boost the four-year graduation rate in MPS, which lags behind many other Wisconsin school districts.

What to wear?

The 2017-18 school year also marks the advent of a district-wide uniform policy for MPS.

The Milwaukee School Board voted to approve the change last winter. A number of district schools already required students to wear uniforms – but this mandate means all students will now wear khaki-style uniform pants, along with polo shirts that are black, navy blue or any pre-approved school-specific colors.

Individual schools had the opportunity to opt out of the uniform policy, if more than 66 percent of the school community voted to do so by this past April. Seven schools chose not to participate.

Parents also can opt their own children out of wearing a uniform, with the proper paperwork.

District leaders say they put the requirement in place to reduce distractions in the classroom, as well as bullying in schools. But several parents have expressed concern over the cost of the uniforms – which averages out to about $17 per student. The district’s policy requires schools with uniforms to make them available to all students, even those who can’t afford them.

Money talks

The state budget is still in the works in Madison. Typically, lawmakers hope to finish the process by the end of June.

Does the delay affect schools, as they start up the new year?

The answer is no – not yet.

Much like the UW and Wisconsin Technical College systems, K-12 public school districts – including MPS – set and approve their budgets ahead of the upcoming schools year, based on estimates. Once final state figures (and district enrollment numbers) come down the wire in fall, district leaders can make any necessary changes.   

So, the sooner the legislature can pass a state budget, the better as far as schools are concerned. As soon as schools know how much state money they’ll receive, it helps them start to plan for future terms.

Indications from Gov. Scott Walker and members of both the state Senate and Assembly look good for public schools, who stand to gain a good chunk of money if the budget passes as written. 

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