From the outside, it looks like any other urban school. On the inside, the hallways are quiet; the children, in crisp uniforms, sit quietly at their desks, focused on today’s lesson. Teachers here exude a gentle sense of command, guiding their children with love and discipline. A predominantly African-American school on Milwaukee’s northwest side, Atonement Lutheran posts some of the highest scores in Milwaukee on the Wisconsin Knowledge Concepts Examination (WKCE) exams.

Much of Atonement’s recent success can be attributed to the leadership and vision of Shaun Luehring, the energetic new principal, and his partnership with Schools That Can Milwaukee (STCM).

Schools That Can Milwaukee, Inc. was founded in July of 2010 with a vision to grow from 2,000 to over 20,000 students in high-performing urban Milwaukee schools by 2020. The non-profit organization plans to reach that benchmark through a unique combination of transformative strategies that include extensive teacher and school leadership coaching designed to elevate schools from “good” to “great,” and to dramatically increase high-quality education opportunities to underserved children in Milwaukee.

STCM is helping predominantly low-income schools like Atonement effectively close the achievement gap long plaguing cities like Milwaukee. Two years ago, Atonement’s students scored a discouraging 36 percent proficient in English Language Arts (ELA) and 47 percent proficient in Math on the WKCE tests – with even lower rates of students making their way to college. Shortly after partnering with STCM, however, things took a sharp turn for the better: The latest test scores show an impressive 94 percent of its 8th graders scoring proficient or advanced in reading, and 76 of them percent proficient in Math. Similarly, 81 percent of its 4th graders scored proficient or advanced in English Language Arts (ELA) and 81 percent of these students proficient or advanced in Mathematics [1].

The Argosy Foundation has partnered with Schools That Can Milwaukee since its inception in support of general operations to help bring quality, results-driven education to low-income children in Milwaukee.

Replicating and Improving

There are hundreds of examples of highly successful urban schools across the country obtaining dramatic results and closing the achievement gap, and STCM is working to replicate those successful outcomes in Milwaukee. Leaders have identified strategies and cultural characteristics of some of these high-performing, predominantly low-income schools nationwide in a list of “Vital Behaviors” – academic aspects believed to be linked to student success. These “Vital Behaviors” include an increased time on task; focus on student performance data; longer school days; rigorous attendance policies; additional faculty support to ensure teachers are able to focus on student learning and achievement, among others.

STCM’s three founding partner schools – St. Marcus Lutheran School, Bruce-Guadalupe Community School, and Milwaukee College Preparatory School – have provided the replicable framework for excellence that STCM now uses to coach other schools. STCM also stimulates schools to continuously encourage their students and celebrate their successes. At Atonement, for example, walls are adorned with the proud portraits of “star scholars” – kids who completed 100 percent of their homework or were never absent.

In addition, STCM works with school leaders to foster a collaborative culture, often co-planning professional development opportunities for staff enrichment purposes. The organization tailors their coaching to specific areas of improvement depending on the school, fostering close relationships with school leaders in guiding their steps to success. Visits to local and even national high-performing schools help partner school staff to both see the best practices in action and get a sense for what is possible in their own schools. In the summer of 2011, this resulted in a trip to New York City, where Atonement’s principal, together with other school leaders and STCM staff, visited a high-performing school in Harlem in order to observe and draw inspiration from its best practices. “We don’t want to reinvent the wheel,” explained Stephanie Ely, a School Leadership Coach for STCM. “We like being able to implement and replicate practices based on what’s working at other high-achieving schools.”

An important inspiration Atonement drew from their trip was the combination of high expectations with a tremendous sense of joy and purpose at the school. Indeed, institutions affiliated with STCM constantly emphasize the concept of “joy”: Not only is it manifested through the smiles of children and teachers, but also through inspiring messages decorating the walls of these schools. “Zest,” “love,” “grit,” and “hope” are some of the motivational slogans meant to function both as character-builders and instigators for academic success.

“We’re strict, but even discipline is done with love,” said Henry Tyson, the superintendent for St. Marcus Lutheran School. “We hug kids all the time.” He said kids are constantly reassured of their value and purpose throughout the school day [2]. In addition, when a child scores low on a standardized test, school staff and administrators are careful not to blame or discourage the child. Instead, they take responsibility upon themselves in assessing where teachers’ efforts did not meet the child’s capabilities.

The Argosy Foundation is proud to support this innovative educational partnership and help close the achievement gap in Milwaukee, with the goal of giving every child – regardless of their circumstances – the opportunity to learn and succeed.

1 Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. (2011) Milwaukee Parental Choice Program – Student Assessment System – Fall 2011 school results. Madison, WI. [Fact Sheet]

2 Richards, E. (2009, March 05). 'Crazy love,' 'no excuses' = successfully educated urban poor. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

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