At Milwaukee’s Neeskera Elementary School, 3rd-grade students are working with a local printing company, learning how to make paper so they can make books for kindergarten students. At Muir Middle School, students work with landscapers to design their own environmental garden, where they learn how to analyze soil samples and conduct other scientific projects.

And at Milwaukee Trade and Technical High School, students in the print shop work daily on state-of-the-art equipment in class before leaving for part-time jobs, where they are paid to further learn the printing trade.

These activities are more than lures to interest students in school or introduce them to jobs. Rather, they are part of a districtwide program aimed at reforming curriculum and instruction from kindergarten through high school. Called School-to-Work: Learning for Life, the program was launched in 1993 by then-Supt. Howard Fuller, who wanted to boost academic achievement and college attendance while, at the same time, preparing students to be competitive in the job market.

Fuller also saw the program as a complement to other reform initiatives, such as learning goals and an integrated curriculum.

Fuller’s successor, Robert Jasna, also has made school-to-work a top priority.

In the last three years, the 160-school district has spent $6.4 million of its own money on school-to-work, with most going for staff development. In addition, the district received $2.8 million from the federal government, by way of the state. And foundations chipped in more than $1 million for evaluation and for coordinators to work with area businesses.

Ten schools—a mix of elementary, middle and high schools—were selected for the first wave of the program in 1993-94. The next school year, another 34 schools came on board. This school year, the remaining 116 schools are to begin implementation or planning. Milwaukee has adopted four goals for its school-to-work program. They call for all students to: (1) be able to compete at a junior college or four-year institution, (2) secure a job that pays a living wage after graduating from high school, (3) have the skills to start their own business, and (4) possess decision-making skills to give them “personal control over their destinies.”

District officials also see school-to-work as a way to help students meet new graduation requirements that will go into effect for the Class of 2004. For example, one requirement is for students to be more involved in their communities and have a greater understanding of social issues. Officials hope that by working with neighborhood agencies, hospitals and churches, students participating in school-to-work will see firsthand the benefits of investing in their communities. Another graduation requirement calls for proficiency in math reasoning skills that often are needed on a job.

Milwaukee’s school-to-work program grew out of a task force Fuller established in 1992 to review vocational education in the city and explore ways to replicate the popular but aging Milwaukee Trade and Technical High School.

In decline everywhere

“The trends were really clear that the number of students had declined from the heyday of the Boys Tech era,” says task force member Jean Tyler, the former director of Milwaukee’s Public Policy Forum, a non-profit governmental research and watchdog organization. Jobs that vocational schools traditionally prepared students for were drying up as companies closed or moved to other states, she explained.

As a result, vocational school faculties had become demoralized and received little new blood, she adds.

“Vocational education all across the country was in a lot of trouble and had been for a lot of years,” Tyler says.

However, in visits to school districts around the country, the task force did see programs that were working in public schools.

“We went everywhere to look at schools that were working,” Tyler says. “What they had in common was what formed the backbone of the school-to-work movement.”

Those components include team teaching, an integrated curriculum and a strong connection between schools and community organizations, including businesses, community groups and churches.

“The issue was bigger than one technical high school,” says Fuller, interviewed recently. “We needed to look at the connection between students and the world of work throughout the entire school system.”

By 1993, the task force had become the School-To-Work Task Force. Its goal was to develop a plan to launch school-to-work in the district. One of the first challenges was simply educating community members and school district officials about school-to-work, what it was and what it wasn’t.

Fuller, Tyler and other proponents hammered home that the goal was to ensure that graduates of the Milwaukee public schools were prepared both for college and for training in new or existing technologies. The term “life-long learning” became a well-worn phrase in Milwaukee.

Fuller stressed that workers of the future no longer would have the security of working at the same job with the same skills for decades. Rather, they likely would have to be retrained several times throughout their careers, constantly learning.

“What we didn’t want to do,” Fuller says, “was to have a new form of tracking where you put some kids in classes that would prepare them for work and some kids in classes that would prepare them for college.”

One of the reasons for extending school-to-work to all schools was to show everyone that it was for all students, says Tyler. But she acknowledges that that battle has not yet been won: “We certainly haven’t overcome the perception even on the part of some teachers, much less with the general public.”

A recent report by SRI International, a California firm hired to evaluate school-to-work in Milwaukee, found that some “teachers were not seriously committed to school-to-work and therefore continued to resist involvement,” which requires them to rethink what and how they teach.

SRI also found that some teachers viewed school-to-work activities as separate from their school’s academic programs instead of a component that would help boost achievement. Said one teacher: “It scares me to get too far away from academics.”

Another troubling aspect was that some schools were having a hard time finding business partners. Last school year, 400 businesses and more than 1,000 employees were involved in school-to-work activities. But that falls short of what’s needed to involve all students. Of the 44 schools that participated in the program last school year, half had fewer than a quarter of their students participating in work-place learning, SRI found.

The problem stems in part from “the confusion that exists within the business community about how schools operate and [from] uncertainty about how they might participate in a meaningful way in instruction,” SRI said. Principals and teachers “need to think beyond field trips” and find meaningful ways to use partners, said SRI.

In interviews with students, SRI evaluators found “examples of students being motivated to learn and to continue in school because of the experiences they are having with school-to-work.” One student said he “tolerates” school because he loves being the anchor of his school’s newscast.

Another student credited the school-to-work program with keeping him from dropping out; his teachers said that his grade-point average rose from 2.0 to 3.0 after he became an assistant to a school-to-work teacher. Evaluators acknowledged, however, that the students they interviewed likely represented a “select” group. The report also said that “in only a few cases … has the SRI team seen examples of students gaining the knowledge they need to help them in their personal and social growth.”

School-to-work also has been criticized by education reformers who worry that it is simply a shift in focus rather than an expansion of children’s horizons.

“Within MPS elementary schools, there appears to be a trend toward schools adopting a narrow, non-academic ‘let’s mimic business’ perspective,” teacher Bob Peterson wrote in Rethinking Schools, a progressive education periodical produced by Milwaukee teachers.

Peterson is leery of projects that rely too heavily on children learning how to run banks or grocery stores: “The not-so-hidden message here seems to be that human behavior is valuable only to the extent it makes money.”

Jared Johnson, a Milwaukee School Board member, concedes the point but says: “The bottom line is that it’s our business to make sure kids are educated so they can have productive lives and make choices.”

However, the SRI report also says that the district needs to clarify the program’s goals and how the program fits into other reform initiatives. Eve Hall, the district’s school-to-work director, agrees and says that her primary goal this year is “solidifying the school-to-work vision. … This year we need to make a concerted effort to reiterate what we’re trying to do.”

She says there are other challenges, too, including increasing communication among school-to-work staff so that schools can learn from each other’s mistakes and successes. Summer institutes that train teachers in school-to-work techniques will help in this regard, she notes.

Overly ambitious?

And then there’s money. With federal funding due to run out at the end of this school year, the district will have to figure out how to reallocate resources even as more schools are coming on board.

“I always thought that it was overly ambitious to say every school would be a school-to-work school,” Fuller said recently. “Had I stayed, I probably would have had school-to-work be among the range of [reform] options a school could choose from.”

Hall acknowledges that extending the school-to-work program to all of the district’s 160 schools is ambitious. “But at the same time, once you have built the momentum, you don’t want to lose it,” she says. “We don’t want to lose the support of the business community.”

Tyler agrees with the district’s decision to expand the program, so long as everyone recognizes expansion will take time. “We know that it will take five years for all [MPS] schools to move full tilt into it,” she says.

Tyler believes that as more and more school districts experiment with school-to-work, the concept will become so common that the term will probably disappear. “What I hope will remain is a different way of thinking about how students learn,” she says.

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

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