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

MPS Works Toward More Widespread Online Learning

Emily Files
Jeremiah Baez picked up a Chromebook from Pulaski High School on a snowy Friday morning, April 17. Since MPS schools closed March 16, his education has come from paper packets distributed by the district. Now he'll be able to access online resources.

On Thursday, Gov. Tony Evers extended his stay-at-home order — it includes keeping all Wisconsin K-12 schools closed for the rest of the spring semester.

Since schools first shutdown mid-March, some have been quick to implement virtual instruction. But Milwaukee Public Schools has been slower to make that shift.

The district serves more than 70,000 mostly low-income students of color. Its first priority has been feeding students by providing grab-and-go meals. MPS is now ramping up online learning by distributing more than 12,000 laptops and promising more teacher-supported activities. But many of the details are still unknown.

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On Friday morning, Jeremiah Baez and his mom stopped by Pulaski High School to pick up a Chromebook for him to use the rest of the school year. For the past month, Baez hasn't been able to access online education because he doesn’t own a computer. Instead, he’s used paper worksheets that MPS hands out at meal distribution sites.

"I’ve been coming up here, grabbing packets of work, keeping my brain occupied for this time being," Baez said.

Now that he has the Chromebook, Baez's teachers say they’ll give him assignments to make sure he's passing classes. He says his English teacher has been holding online office hours that he'll now be able to participate in.

"In English classes, I think I’m at a 'D' or something right now in them, so I gotta get those up before the end of the year," Baez said. 

Making Sure Students Graduate

MPS Superintendent Keith Posley says his first priority for online education is ensuring high school seniors like Baez can graduate and other students can advance to the next grade. Teachers are expected to check students’ progress and identify who needs to improve their grades and complete mandatory credits over the next few weeks. 

"Now we’re zoning in on and focusing in on those students that may have some gaps and they may not be at a proficient stage or whatever the situation may be," Posley said in an interview on Wednesday.

Posley is proposing to move high school and middle school to a pass/fail grading system this semester. Teachers would give students multiple opportunities to pass online assignments.

"We don’t want to penalize the child because of the coronavirus," Posley said. "So we’re giving them ample opportunity to be successful."

According to Posley, MPS will use an online course delivery system called Edgenuity for some older students. MPS usually uses Edgenuity classes for credit recovery. The online classes are student-driven with teacher support as needed.

In a written statement, Milwaukee Teachers Education Association President Amy Mizialko emphasized that as MPS develops education plans amid the pandemic, harder-to-reach children like homeless students and students with disabilities should not be left behind.

"Providing students and families with learning options that offer support instead of more stress is imperative," Mizialko said. "This shut down period constitutes 2% of a child's entire K-12 education, and with that perspective, any modified learning and grading policy must not measure and reward the privilege of some students while further penalizing students without those advantages."

Teachers Take Initiative As District Figures Out Their Role

MPS has told teachers that they should be checking in with students and sharing links to education resources. But the district hasn’t given teachers clear instructions yet on what their role in online learning should look like. 

"We haven't gotten a lot of details yet," said Carson Academy fifth grade teacher Amy Lynch in an interview Friday morning. "I know that we are expected to be in contact and to answer calls, to connect with our parents, and to support our students on the standards. How that's going to look? We don't know right now."

But many teachers, including Lynch, have been connecting with students out of their own initiative since schools were shuttered on March 16. Lynch says she is doing video meetings with students via Google Classroom almost every day and giving them learning activities, like quizzes they can take on their phone. But she's only been able to reach about 10 to 12 students out of her class of 30. Lynch hopes the distribution of Chromebooks will enable her to connect with more of her students.

Credit Joseph Brusky
English teacher Kelly O'Keefe Boettcher pictured at Rufus King High School.

Rufus King High School English teacher Kelly O’Keefe Boettcher has been using Google Classroom and Zoom to talk with students and give them homework. But it’s all voluntary — she hasn’t wanted to add pressure in an already stressful time.

"Everything I’ve laid out is an enrichment, which means it’s an asset, it can help, it can strengthen where you’re at academically. But there’s not gonna be anything that can harm your grade," O'Keefe Boettcher said. "Because I can’t know for sure that everybody can get to the technology they need."

Not all teachers have been engaging with students at the same level. And not all students have had access to video chats and online assignments.

Carrie Wilson was with her ninth-grader son at Bay View High School Friday to get a Chromebook so that he can finally get connected to online education.

"MPS has been kind of lagging behind on things," Wilson said. "We’ve been out of school for a month now? And we’re just now getting Chromebooks, when private schools and other schools were given them within a week of being out of school."

Wilson says she understands that MPS has more students to worry about than other districts. But she doesn’t want her children to start the next school year behind.

MPS teachers and administrators say implementing a widespread online learning plan for a district the size of MPS is a major lift, especially in a limited timeframe. Garland Elementary School Principal Steven Krull emphasized that K-12 districts are built for face-to-face instruction.

"It seems that some people are frustrated, other people are happy with our progress," Krull said. "I would say that we need to make sure that people understand that we have never done this before. We are trying to do something new. We all care about the kids in our buildings and we’re doing our very best."

For now, students with district-issued Chromebooks or their own computers can access a list of online education resources, along with sample schedules, on the MPS website. High school and middle schoolers will be hearing from teachers about work needed to advance to the next grade. And MPS is continuing to flesh out what teacher-led online instruction it can provide.

Are you a student, teacher or parent trying to trying to figure out your new normal during the COVID-19 pandemic? WUWM wants to hear from you.

Have a question about education you'd like WUWM's Emily Files to dig into? Submit it below.


Emily is an editor and project leader for WUWM.
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