Just before the beginning of the 1994-95 school year, the Milwaukee School Board voted to stop funding three of about two dozen alternative schools participating in the district’s partnership program.

An independent evaluation of the program had found that while some schools provided a rigorous education, others were little more than “dumping grounds.”

The board’s action sparked heated debate over how the alternative schools should be monitored and evaluated. Some community activists charged that the schools were under attack because they served African-American students. In the end, the School Board backed off, renewing contracts with two of the three schools.

“One problem with the Milwaukee program was that it lacked a solid evaluation method until years after the partnership program was up and running,” says Tony Baez, a University of Wisconsin education professor who was hired by the school district to evaluate the program. With little support or direction from the School Board, some programs had foundered by the time an evaluation finally was conducted, he says.

With Baez as an advisor, Chicago seems to be avoiding that problem. “What Chicago is trying to do is make sure that before the program is established, the alternative [schools] are viable,” he notes. For one, Chicago gave contracts only to organizations that had been operating similar programs for at least two years.

Unlike the Chicago program, the Milwaukee program attempts to reach students with academic or discipline problems before they leave the system. Regular schools make referrals, and the alternative schools recruit students. Launched in 1985, the program now includes 20 alternative schools, which receive 1-, 2-, or 3-year contracts depending on their track records.

In his evaluation, Baez found innovative programs that turned public school failures into success stories; the most successful schools were preparing students for college. Commenting on one, Baez wrote: “It outperforms regular MPS high schools on many academic variables. … Without a doubt, the academic quality of this program, its emphasis on critical thinking skills, and its high level of meaningful community involvement makes it a model other traditional and alternative high schools should learn from.”

Other schools, however, had neither the vision nor know-how to offer a challenging education to alternative-school students, Baez found. Some students were “bored to death,” he wrote, and one told him “the place was depriving him of an education.”

Union opposition

Milwaukee’s partnership program also suffered from conflicts between the alternative schools and the Milwaukee teachers union as well as the school district’s administration.

“The teachers union was against it because their position was that all students should be taught by their members,” notes Dan Grego, educational services director of Trans Center for Youth Inc., which runs two of Milwaukee’s more successful alternative schools.

The union won the right to have at least one member on staff at each partnership school; Grego said that the practice created some tension because the public school teachers make more money than the non-unionized alternative school teachers.

Chicago likely won’t have that problem because the Legislature stripped the Chicago Teachers Union of much of its power last year when it turned control of the school system over to the mayor.

In Milwaukee, some alternative schools also chafe under their financial arrangement with the school district, which funds them at 80 percent of average per-pupil cost (about $5,400) and provides some in-kind services. “They should give us all of the money and let us purchase back [the services] that we want,” says Danny Goldberg, director of an alternative-schools network called the City Survival Education Project.

And then there is the conflict between autonomy and accountability. “We have to say [to school districts], These are the outcome objectives, now get out of our way,” says Grego, who believes alternative schools should have the freedom to choose their own curriculum and not be subject to dictates from public school bureaucrats.

He concedes, however, that fighting for independence isn’t easy. “The hardest thing to do is to say ‘no’ [to bureaucrats] because they’re giving you the money. You have to develop something you believe in and fight for it.”

Baez says Chicago must strive to avoid “intervening excessively with a provider that has experience and not intervening where there is a need.” Chicago has not set any specific guidelines for intervention, but attempted to build in accountability by setting high performance standards and only considering proposals from institutions with at least a two-year track record.

Baez also found that the Milwaukee program was hampered by low expectations from School Board members and the public. “Generally, the public’s perception is that all alternative and partnership schools are second-class schools, holding tanks and dumping grounds,” he said in his evaluation.

However, Grego says that some state and local public school officials weren’t anxious for the program to succeed. “Some people have felt threatened by this process. Kids that aren’t making it in public schools are successful in our schools. They [the school district] want us to succeed, but not too much.”

Curtis Lawrence

Curtis Lawrence is a freelance writer and director of the Journalism Graduate Program at Columbia College Chicago.

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