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Wanted: Milwaukee Professionals With Leadership Skills for School Boards

PAVE/Colin Deval

Milwaukee professionals looking to give back to their communities can now receive training as a school board member, thanks to a new citywide program.

Most public school districts are governed by elected boards. But many private, independent schools must piece together their own boards.

That’s where the organization PAVE comes in. The Milwaukee-based group, whose acronym stands for “Partners Advancing Values in Education,” runs a program called BoardCorps, which trains professionals on how to be productive members of independent boards – and then links them to schools in need of their help.

"Great schools really are, at heart, well-run organizations," says PAVE president and CEO Dave Steele, "but there's a lot of organizational challenges at schools that often times get in the way, or distract from great teaching and learning."

"We have the human capital here in Milwaukee to really improve academic outcomes for our kids," Steele adds. "Folks in the community have an interest in improving education, they have skills and expertise to bring, and they're really just looking for an opportunity to contribute."

BoardCorps began in 2012 as a way of connecting these folks with schools who could really use their expertise. 

All board members go through training to familiarize them with the local education scene, as well as teach them theories and best practices of how to be a board member in a nonprofit organization. Once they "graduate," members are placed as a board member at one of PAVE's independent partner schools. 

"A good school board members stays focused on the kids, they're engaged, and they understand the educational mission of the school," Steele says. "They listen well, they get to know the communities that that school serves, they get to know the teachers...and their challenges, and they're willing to make those tough calls sometimes on behalf of kids."

Most of the schools in PAVE's network serve primarily low-income kids in the city of Milwaukee. 

One of those schools is HAPA, the Hmong American Peace Academy. School founder and executive director Chris Her-Xiong works with four BoardCorps graduates on her board of directors. 

"The whole board act as my sounding board," she says. "They guide me and give me sound advice regarding strategic thinking, strategic planning, [and] strategic decision-making."

Brad Kramer is one of HAPA's board members, and a graduate of the very first cohort at BoardCorps. Kramer, the Director of Engineering at Husco International, says he heard about the program through some mailers that arrived at his office in Pewaukee.

"It hit a chord with me as something I could really have impact with right away," he recalls. 

Although established in his own career, Kramer says it took time to become accustomed to the world of education.

But, he adds, his colleagues at BoardCorps have been crucial in helping acclimate him to the position he now holds. 

"We've got some peer groups around us, and the other board members [at HAPA] have been great," he says.

New board members must also acclimate to their adopted school community. Chris Her-Xiong says her school, which has a very specific focus on the Hmong culture, works with new BoardCorps members to introduce them to the community and its mission.

"We have multiple ways of onboarding new board members -- classroom visits, teachers give presentations, lots of interactions," she explains. "That is a major part of having the new members truly understand who we are and what we're trying to accomplish."