Abby Ramirez: Believing in What’s Possible for Milwaukee Schools

Abby Ramirez wants other people to come to – and act on — the same beliefs she has: That a large majority of low-income children can become high-performing students and that the number of schools where such success is widespread can be increased sharply in Milwaukee.

In an “On the Issues” session with Mike Gousha at Eckstein Hall on Tuesday, Ramirez described the work of Schools That Can Milwaukee, a year-old organization that has the goal of increasing the number of students in high-performing schools to 20,000 (more than twice the current total) by 2020. Ramirez is executive director of the organization.

“If you haven’t seen a high-performing school, go visit one because it will change your belief in what’s possible,” she told about 150 people at the session hosted by Gousha, the Law School’s distinguished fellow in law and public policy. She said you can tell in such a visit that the program is different – more energetic, more focused, more committed to meeting ambitious goals – than in schools where there is an underlying belief that the students aren’t going to do well because of factors such as poverty.  

“Expectations are huge” as a factor in putting a school on the path to high levels of success, she said. She also said the leadership of the school is a crucial factor.

Ramirez said the organization, affiliated with a national Schools That Can effort, was founded around three high-performing schools in Milwaukee, St. Marcus Lutheran School, Bruce-Guadalupe Community School, and Milwaukee College Prep. It is now working with two dozen schools that meet or are working to meet the standards for academic success, attendance the group uses to define a high performing school.  The large majority of students at each of the schools are from low-income homes. The schools include five from Milwaukee Public Schools; the rest are either charter schools or private schools in the publicly-funded voucher program.

Ramirez said Schools That Can has three strategies for increasing the number of high performing schools: Expand the ones already here (both Milwaukee College Prep and St. Marcus have expanded substantially this year); bring up the achievement in existing schools that are willing to wade into the hard work the organization envisions; and recruit strong charter school operators from around the country to open in Milwaukee.

In dealing with the last route, Ramirez has been a central figure in efforts to bring Rocketship, Education, a San Jose, Calif., charter school operator, to Milwaukee. She told Gousha she hopes Rocketship will open in Milwaukee in 2013 and grow within several years to eight schools.

She urged people who want to help improve Milwaukee’s education picture to get involved in ways that focus on quality schooling and not on whether a school is a traditional public school, a charter school, or a voucher school. She suggested getting involved on the boards of schools, volunteering as mentors or in other roles at schools, making financial donations to schools, and advocating for quality education as part of political activity. “Make education your issue,” she said.     

The hour-long sessions can be viewed by clicking here.

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