The much-reviled Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) could be a surprising role model for the Madison school district as it begins formulating a plan to refashion its high schools for the demands of the 21st century.
MPS, which educates a student body that is overwhelming minority and deeply ensnared in the tentacles of poverty, has a horrid record of academic performance.
But MPS's very desperation has prompted the state's largest school district to begin experimenting with small specialty high schools that range from 100 to 400 students. This is an intriguing venture.
The schools' individualized programs, which promise a shared focus and personalized relationships with staff and families, are startlingly diverse.
How about a high school that uses Montessori instructional methods for an international baccalaureate program? Or one that mixes social justice projects with bilingual instruction? Or how about a four-year heaping of Great Books and Advanced Placement courses? Or a school that stresses visual and performing arts? Or one that couples Maasai-inspired African education with community-service projects? Or another that stresses teaching Chinese and Spanish in the context of international business?
Over the last three years, MPS has opened 21 of these boutique high schools, with another four to start next fall. By 2008, it hopes to have 50, some of which will be privately run.
Aided by a $17.25 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (the Microsoft founder is pouring vast sums into the small high school movement), MPS is offering the sort of specialized learning opportunities that many parents in Madison, I suspect, would love for their kids.
But Madison, unlike Milwaukee, has been reluctant to experiment with charter schools - public schools that are exempt from many state regulations to allow for novel educational approaches.
Consider the irony: Madison, the most liberal and progressive of communities, is downright conservative when it comes to operating its schools.
Still, most everyone recognizes that big, comprehensive high schools like Madison East, West, La Follette and Memorial need to be seriously reconceived for the 21st century, if not broken apart.
Large high schools have almost a quaint 1950s industrial cast to them, as if the kids are punching in to stuff hotdogs on the production line at Oscar Mayer. No matter what's done to personalize them (and the staffs work hard at this), too many kids get lost in the throngs of students.
Nor are these behemoths sufficiently agile to adjust to the dramatic shifts in job and higher education expectations we've seen over the past 20 years. And the sheer range of students to be educated - wider than ever before - defies any notion that a standardized curriculum can serve them all equally well.
What's to be done?
For Madison, it means the "High Schools of the Future" task force convened by Supt. Art Rainwater in the wake of East's aborted effort to change its program. As much as anyone, Rainwater seems to understand the need for change. And, commendably, he and his staff have gone out of their way to say the task force begins its work with a "blank slate" and that "everything is on the table."
But is it? The 11-person task force is packed with principals, administrators and education professors. Conspicuously absent are veteran teachers whose frontline experiences would probably best inform the undertaking.
Indeed, I'm told that of the 100 or so small high school proposals advanced in Milwaukee, MPS teachers are far and away the most prolific submitters.
Just as worrisome, the Madison district seems tilted in favor of the "small learning communities" approach already used at Memorial and West to build social and educational cohesion. In mid-July, the district hopes to submit a $5.5 million SLC grant proposal that would finance the district's high school redesign work.
The problem? Establishing "small learning communities" at the big high schools will probably come at the expense of chartering smaller high schools. (In Milwaukee, some of the boutique high schools operate in the buildings of larger high schools.)
And for some West parents, the mention of SLCs is a red flag. It's been in the guise of building small learning communities that West has homogenized its 9th- and 10th-grade curriculum, limited advanced classes and forced kids of all achievement levels to attend the same classes together.
This is a problem. Such regimentation runs counter to the individualistic tenor of the times. We live in an era when the authority of large institutions - government, media, and corporate - is facing unprecedented challenges.
Their quasi-monopolies are in question because choice is expanding in our daily lives. We want to listen to music, watch movies, consume news, mobilize politically, and pursue happiness according to our drumbeat, not as some humongous business or government entity tells us how to do it.
Education faces the same reality.
The public schools must recognize that parents want more choices. Otherwise, more and more families will head to the exits. Milwaukee has learned this lesson the hard way. Now MPS is showing the way on school innovation. Madison should take heed.