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Passing Notes: Local School Districts See Potential Changes on the Horizon

Sefton Ipock/MATC
Rachel out in the field with her favorite interview subject: students!

Every few weeks, WUWM education reporter Rachel Morello opens up her notebook to give us the scoop about what's happening in schools around the greater Milwaukee area. Test your knowledge of headlines big and small with her education news quiz.

Forget how it works? Check out the back-to-school quiz for a refresher.

Only a few weeks into the new school year, and already there's a lot going on in the world of education.

Nationally, we've learned more about what the feds have planned for DACA. And there's plenty happening on the policy front statewide, as well as in local districts around Milwaukee. 

Let's take a look at some developments from the month of September...

A System's Future Hangs in the Balance

One public school system in particular kicks off the 2017-18 school year in a bit of suspense. This district -- which is one of Wisconsin's largest -- is in jeopardy of being taken over by an outside commissioner, if the district as a whole receives a failing grade on its state report card this year. 

Can you name this district?

  1. Milwaukee Public Schools
  2. Racine Unified School District
  3. Madison Metropolitan School District

Credit iQoncept, fotolia

You might remember a little thing called the "Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program," or OSPP, for short. State lawmakers developed the concept for this initiative in 2015, as a solution for turning around Wisconsin's failing schools. Simply put, it lays out the process for creating a new governance structure for underperforming schools -- schools that earn an "F" two years in a row, on their state-issued report cards.

Most people learned about OSPP in 2016, when about one-third of the schools in MPS faced the possibility of reorganization under a county-appointed commissioner. After quite a bit of drama, that idea fizzled out when MPS got its grade from the Department of Public Instruction -- which indicated that the state found improvement at the schools in question.

Now, the Racine Unified School District sits in the hot seat. Racine's performance grades could qualify for OSPP -- it all depends on the district's grade for the most recent school year (2016-17). DPI is set to release those grades later this fall.

We reported more details about the potential future facing Racine Unified earlier this week. 

No Substitute For Good Teaching

If you follow proceedings of the Milwaukee School Board -- the governing body for MPS -- you know that there's quite a process for getting ideas introduced, discussed and passed through that system.

Basically, the full board consists of nine members -- eight representing a different "district" within the bounds of MPS' service area, and one at-large member. And the various members are organized into five subcommittees, which each meet once per month to sort through items of business before deciding what's appropriate to bring to the full board at the end of the month. 

This week, it was the Committee on Finance, Accountability and Personnel's turn to meet. One item they'll push to the full board in a few weeks: phasing out the use of a temp agency in hiring more __________ to work in district classrooms. 

Can you fill in the blank?

Credit Rachel Morello
Milwaukee School Board members, including MPS superintendent Darienne Driver and board president Mark Sain, speak at a press conference last summer.

MPS employs about 660 substitute teachers, who are considered district employees. But like a lot of other districts in Wisconsin and around the country, MPS faces a teacher shortage -- so the district used a temp agency to fill some sub slots last year. 

The Milwaukee teachers' union MTEA has argued that the district would be better off breaking ties with that agency, and bringing on all subs as MPS employees. 

Alex Brower is president of the Milwaukee Substitute Teachers' Association, or MTSA -- a subset of  MTEA. We chatted over coffee Wednesday morning, after he spoke in front of the board committee. He shared his stance: if you make subs part of the MPS family, they feel more invested and do a better job delivering services to students: 

Alex Brower, president, Milwaukee Substitute Teachers’ Association

"What we're advocating for in the Milwaukee community, and to the district, is to create a professional class of substitute teachers. That means we're people who work more, and who -- if they choose to work full-time -- are treated like professionals and have things like health insurance and paid sick days, and paid time off. We're saying to the district that this shortage issue will be solved if we can make substitute teaching a professional occupation that people will choose to go into -- that we can draw more teachers from, but will also draw more people in. And also make some of the folks who aren't working full-time for our district, choose to work full-time to receive that benefit."

Right now, in terms of benefits, MPS only offers full-time subs a pension after three years. The MTSA is advocating that the district expand those offerings to include health insurance, paid time off and paid sick leave, as Brower mentioned. 

The Committee that met Tuesday agreed with MTEA, and passed a preliminary resolution to phase out the use of the temp agency they'd been going through to hire subs, as well as work to professionalize substitute teaching within the district. The full board will consider that proposal, later this month. 

"The Year of ____"

Here's something a little lighter to cap off the week!

Every year, MPS picks a sort of "focus" -- a topic or element within the district they're going to highlight during the school year. For example, last year the district set a goal to improve attendance across its schools. 

Can you name the focus this year?

  1. Playing fields/facilities
  2. Women in STEM
  3. Arts


2017-18 marks the "Year of the Arts" for MPS!

District leaders say they plan to "redefine the MPS experience for students, staff and the Milwaukee community" this year, by connecting kids to art and other creative experiences throughout the city. 

They'll kick things off next week Thursday, Sept. 21 with a celebration at Red Arrow Park downtown.

What's Coming Up?

The state legislature is still working to finalize a biennial budget -- which includes totals that local schools eagerly await -- and they'll continue to move through that process as September comes to a close.  

If something big or important is coming up in your area, let me know! In the meantime, bundle up for the Fall Equinox and submit your questions about schools and learning in the greater Milwaukee area below.