Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – what’s more at the core of America’s identity than those words? But what do they mean if you’re living in the central city of Milwaukee?
Robb Rauh, the CEO of Milwaukee College Prep, a set of four high-performing schools with about 1,900 students on the north side, focused on those questions as he set the context for the mission of the schools during an “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” session Tuesday in Eckstein Hall.
Life? Infant mortality rates are much higher in Milwaukee than in the nation and even in some third-world countries, Rauh said, and life expectancy is lower than elsewhere. Liberty? Wisconsin has the highest incarceration gaps between white and black people in the nation. The pursuit of happiness? “One of the things that defines happiness is being able to have choices in life,” Rauh said, and without at least a high school degree, a person’s choices are limited. The overall situation of African American children in Wisconsin has been described as the worst or one of the worst in the United States.
“We want to prove that it can be done,” to bring terms like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to life by increasing the educational success and opening the doors to better futures for children, particularly along the North Avenue corridor where all four Milwaukee College Prep schools are located, Rauh said. Among schools in Milwaukee with high percentages of African American students, all four schools are at or near the top of the list when it comes to scores in the newly-released state report cards.
Rauh, who has led the schools since the first one opened in 1997, said the programs at the schools offer high expectations, high energy, high quality teachers, high levels of urgency about student success – and high levels of joy about learning and life in the school. He said the schools emphasize character development as well as academics. And every student develops a personal life mission statement.
Once a child is admitted to the schools – and admission is by random selection, without screening who gets in – the staff is committed to working with the child and parents to maximize the chance of success in the long run. “We don’t believe in expelling children or kicking them out,” Rauh said. “We don’t believe in yelling at children.” He described the school’s academic program as pretty traditional, and practices include homework that has to be signed by a parent just about every night.
“It’s hard work,” he said. “There are no short cuts.” But success is attainable, both for individual children and for the schools. Even as Milwaukee College Prep has added three new buildings in the last five years, overall success has grown, Rauh said.
The Milwaukee College Prep schools are each charter schools, two of them given authority to operate by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and two by the Milwaukee School Board.
Rauh said he sees the fighting among people involved in the “silos” on Milwaukee’s education scene – traditional public schools, charter schools, and private schools – giving away at ground level to educators from schools of all types working together to improve overall success. He praised several organizations, such as City Year, Teach for America, Schools That Can Milwaukee, and Milwaukee Succeeds, that have been involved in helping students succeed, regardless of what kind of school they go to.
The four Milwaukee College Prep schools each offer kindergarten through eighth grade classes. Rauh said that, at least for now, there is no plan to add high school grades. The biggest challenge facing the schools is maintaining the high quality of teachers as total enrollment goes up.
The video of the conversion between Rauh and Gousha, including questions from the audience, can be viewed by clicking here.