Terry Falk
K-12 Education

Milwaukee Excellence Ends School Charter

Its demise leaves questions about 'zero-tolerance' approach to discipline.

By - Mar 22nd, 2024 09:32 am
School classroom. Pixabay License. Free for commercial use. No attribution required.

School classroom. (Pixabay License).

Eight years after its founding, Milwaukee Excellence Charter School is no more. At Thursday night’s Milwaukee School Board meeting, MPS and Milwaukee Excellence agreed to terminate the school’s charter. Was this caused by its disciplinary approach or other issues? That’s far from clear.

In 2015, Maurice Thomas came before the school board with a proposal to establish a charter school using a “zero-tolerance” or “no-excuse” model relying heavily on school uniforms, a strict code of conduct, and quick disciplinary action.

Some board members raised questions about the approach. Ultimately, the board authorized Milwaukee Excellence but only under the condition that it would follow the MPS discipline policy which relied more on intervention and less on punishment. (Full disclosure: as a member of the board then I opposed a charter for the school.) At the time MPS was itself facing issues regarding its disciplinary policies as it faced an investigation by the U.S. Department of Education. In January 2018, the department found that the district’s disciplinary system discriminated against students of color, and the district agreed to disciplinary policy modifications.

The early years for Milwaukee Excellence seemed promising. Only three years after its founding, it posted the highest state report card of any Milwaukee Public School in 2018. Its grade of 94.3 was one of the highest in the state and was praised in a November 30, 2018 article by Alan Borsuk headlined, “Milwaukee Excellence Charter School is showing impressive results. ‘We don’t waste any time.’” The story suggested the school’s success was because of its disciplinary approach.

But Bridget Schock from MPS contracted school services office tells Urban Milwaukee that the high ranking the first year for Milwaukee Excellence only included its 6th grade and says she cautioned Borsuk at the time not to read too much into the report card score.

Milwaukee Excellence maintained high report card rankings for the next two years, but dipped to 89.5 the next year, then to 84.0.

2021-2022 was the first school year its high school students took the ACT college entrance exam used to calculate its state report card. “As they started adding grades, they got back to reality,” says Schock. “High school has a different formula.” In 2021-2022 its report card plummeted to 55.0 and 48.8 the next year, lower than the overall score of MPS at 58.0.

And despite the school’s agreement to follow the MPS disciplinary code, Milwaukee Excellence had the highest suspension rate of any MPS charter school at 34.6%.

In September 2021, Milwaukee Excellence fired its CEO, Maurice Thomas, for what was called violations of school policies, code of conduct, and professional standards. The specific allegations against Thomas were not disclosed.

Milwaukee Excellence was adding one grade a year beginning with grade 6 in creating a 6-12 school. Originally, the school was housed in the McNair building, 4950 N. 24 St. With increasing enrollment, the school looked for additional space. The district found the top floor of the Douglas middle school, 3620 N. 18 St., for its high school program in 2021-2022 until the Happy Hill building, 7171 W. Brown Deer Rd., scheduled to be vacant the following year, was opened up.

But Happy Hill proved to be too far from the McNair middle school program, out of the neighborhood for most of its students. The highest total enrollment was 591 students in 2021-2022. It dropped to 544 in 2022-2023 even though this was the first year the school had all grades 6-12. Enrollment was declining, and the school elected to move everyone back to the McNair building this school year and eliminate costly student busing. Enrollment plummeted to 250 students because of a lack of busing. Ultimately the school failed.

When asked why Schock told Urban Milwaukee there may have been many factors that caused the school’s demise: a questionable educational and disciplinary model, a misunderstanding of the school report card system, a poor location of buildings and ending school busing.

Zero-tolerance and boot-camp schools have always had their appeal and may have attracted some parents in the early years. A story by Sarah Carr in the Atlantic in December 2014 showed the limits of this model in New Orleans, where Carr worked as an education reporter (after years covering education for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel). Parents were all for zero-tolerance until the own children got in trouble, were told to leave, and the parents asked for a second chance. This can lead to a backlash against the approach.

The model is often used with minority students, even by educators in the same minority community. Researchers state that it imposes discipline externally rather than creating internal discipline. The goal should be that students should do the right thing even when no one is looking. But when a student’s behavior is controlled by external discipline, what does the student do when no one is watching? The lesson learned is often don’t get caught.

While Milwaukee Excellence did modify its disciplinary policy, its continued high suspension rate raises questions. Urban Milwaukee reached out to the school for comment, but received no response.

In February 2024, Milwaukee Excellence announced it was combining with the Dr. Howard Fuller Collegiate Academy. It will use the Fuller Academy name and move into its building. In essence, the Fuller Academy is picking up the leftover pieces of Excellence.

On Thursday, March 21, the MPS school board voted to terminate the charter between the district and Milwaukee Excellence at the end of the school year.

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One thought on “K-12 Education: Milwaukee Excellence Ends School Charter”

  1. Mingus says:

    I was always wondering if the high ranking of this was just a mirage. Merging with Howard Fuller Academy won’t make much of a difference. Academic data from choice schools is intentionally hard to find. The website Niche reported that students at Howard Fuller Academy had only 5% of their students proficient in reading and math yet the school is collecting millions from the business community like Northwestern Mutual to build a new school. This article is a very good explanation of the “boot camp” approach to education.

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