College-focused Milwaukee high school working to get students career ready too

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Dr. Howard Fuller Collegiate Academy freshman Astana Boyd loves to bake and cook. Her principal, Judith Parker, thinks she has a mind for business too.

So, on a recent afternoon, Boyd spent time at Heaven’s Table, a new barbecue restaurant on Milwaukee’s west side, to get a better idea of what it takes to run a restaurant.

Job shadowing chef-owner Jason Alston taught Boyd about how much time goes into prep work and the importance of staying well stocked on supplies and ingredients. She walked away with more confidence that owning a food establishment could be her future career.

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“I think owning a bakery would be nice for me – that’s what I want to do,” Boyd said, adding that she aspires to eventually open multiple bakery locations across the state.

Dr. Howard Fuller Collegiate Academy leaders want to see more students like Boyd leaving high school with direction related to what they want to do after graduation and plans for how to get there.

“We’re trying to make sure our students are not just graduating with a high school diploma, but they have skills and a pathway forward that’s going to provide them with that better life they want,” Parker said. “Our goal is to make sure that every single child that graduates here sees themself doing or being something.”

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To prepare students for high-demand careers, the school now offers three “career pathways” in the areas of health care, business and marketing, and technology. Students can specialize within those fields or create their own career track. Ninth grade is a “year of exploration,” in which students can dabble in their various interests and participate in job-shadow experiences for a day, Parker said. As they refine their interests, students are placed in multi-week or semester-long internships.

Founded in 2004 as a private voucher school under its previous name, CEO Leadership Academy, by education reform advocate Dr. Howard Fuller and a group of area pastors, the school converted to a public charter a decade ago and adopted its founder’s name in 2019.

The school has historically put an emphasis on the college part of “college and career readiness,” promoting messaging that keeps students focused on their post-secondary education plans.

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As a non-selective enrollment high school, Dr. Howard Fuller Collegiate Academy accepts students from across the city and has positioned itself as a school that delivers the kind of intensive, tailored instruction that’s needed to not only bring students up to grade level, but also ensure they are accepted into college.

Most freshmen are grades behind in math and reading when they arrive at the school.

“They are not where they need to be, not just by a little bit, but by a lot,” Parker said.

The school uses strategies that have proven effective nationally to help make up those gaps, including extended school days, dedicated remediation time built into class periods, and extensive teacher training (Dr. Howard Fuller Collegiate Academy teachers receive over 200 hours of professional development annually).

It also emphasizes personalized learning and developing strong relationships between families and schools staff.

“It’s important for the people who work here that they be able to build relationships with students. In fact, we hire for that,” Parker said.

Principal Judith Parker

The stakes for the school are high. For students who have fallen behind academically in elementary and middle school, high school is the last opportunity to get them college ready.

“One of the great things about Dr. Howard Fuller Collegiate Academy and what inspires me is … a lot of organizations focus on A, B and even C students,” said Michelle Nettles, the school’s board chair and chief people and culture officer of Milwaukee-based ManpowerGroup. “Our kids come to us often with first-, second-, third-grade reading levels. And we work tirelessly to get our kids up to national averages … for ACT scores to allow them admission to college, and then we work to see them through college.”

The school has reported a 100% college acceptance rate for the past decade, but completion rates have been much lower. Nettles said around 15% of alumni persist through college, compared to the citywide rate of about 12%.

“Our performance is outpacing, but it’s still not sufficient to meet the demands of the employers here in the city of Milwaukee,” Nettles said.

Meanwhile, a growing focus on preparing students for career pathways in recent years reflects the realities of its families: For many, waiting four years for their child to complete college before they enter the workforce is a luxury they can’t afford. Over 90% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch; the majority are single-parent households. Homelessness and transience are common, and the pandemic has brought even more disruption.

“The state of things in Milwaukee is just so hard right now and has been for so many years — it’s just gotten progressively worse — that that option of attending a four-year university and prioritizing education is becoming a thing of the past and for a limited number of people,” Parker said.

With trades on the rise and increased opportunity to earn professional certificates in less time than a traditional college path, some families are eager for their children to take advantage of opportunities that expedite their entrance into the workforce, Parker said.

The school’s leaders have long-term plans to add on to its existing building at 4030 N. 29th St. to accommodate more students and house career and college partnerships within the school’s walls. The school currently serves 330 students and envisions growing to 500.

But the school faces significant headwinds as leaders seek to expand its career-readiness programs, grow its enrollment and fund an eventual building expansion.

Parker cited state and federal funding allocations, which provide charter schools like Dr. Howard Fuller College Academy roughly $4,500 less per student than Milwaukee Public Schools, as an inhibitor of its growth. Many charter and private voucher school leaders within the city say funding disparities prevent them from being able to expand and serve more students.

Financial limitations have narrowed the school’s teacher candidate pool to those who are largely new to the profession, with first-year teachers making up 20% of its faculty.

“Students who need the most academically, socially, social-emotionally are receiving the expertise of some genuinely invested people who don’t have a whole lot of experience doing this work,” she said. “So, you can imagine, the outcomes aren’t always the best no matter how well the intention.”

A national teacher shortage that is only projected to grow in the coming years has also put the school in a difficult position, limiting its ability to teach the very subject areas that could inspire students to pursue high-demand careers.

“We don’t have (enough) educators who can dedicate themselves to shepherding students through career pathways. … So, we rely on community members to volunteer their time,” Parker said. “It takes a lot longer for our students to get what other students easily get every day. There’s a lack of access and therefore a lack of equity.”

The path forward for the school hinges on its ability to grow, Parker said. More students would lead to more funding, which would allow the school to grow its building and offer more career- and college-related services for students.

That could mean bringing its partner organization in-house, including PEARLS for Teen Girls, College Possible and STRYV365, as well as building out simulation space for the school’s health career pathway program and a dedicated engineering lab.

“Once we are able to grow to 500, we will have more resources and the physical space will give us resources our students need to move around and learn in a way that most kids are able to experience,” Parker said.

In the meantime, the school is seeking more corporate partners to engage with students in a variety of ways, from delivering career talks to providing job shadow opportunities to offering mentorship.

Spending time in schools and providing apprenticeships, internships and other career-readiness training to Milwaukee high school students should be a key part of businesses’ recruitment strategy, particularly as the region sets targets for more representation of people of color in its workforce and managerial ranks, Nettles said.

Michelle Nettles
Michelle Nettles

“Our employers have to look outside of their historical paradigms, and they have to change their views,” Nettles said. “They have to take off their glasses. They have to sit on these boards. They have to get more active. They have to understand the disparity. They can’t just drive through it on (Interstate) 43 or on 94. They have to stop along the way and experience it in order to be able to harness the gifts that it offers.”

Dr. Howard Fuller Collegiate Academy’s roughly 20 existing partners range in size from small businesses to large corporations. Northwestern Mutual helped fund the school’s Project Lead the Way teacher and curriculum, and its actuaries annually visit the school for a career-oriented “Math Day.” The goal is to teach students about what it looks like to apply math lessons in a corporate setting.

Smaller, locally owned companies have also stepped up to expose students to potential careers, Parker said.

Freshman Jada Benson recently had the opportunity to tour LocoMotion Dance Company’s Walker’s Point studio. A dancer with aspirations of owning her own studio some day, Benson spent the day learning about the history of the business and pitched in tidying up the studio and organizing uniforms.

She left with a detailed business plan laying out the steps it will take to reach her goal.

“Yes, this is what I really want to do,” Benson said of starting her own business. “But it’s going to be hard.”

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