Last updated on March 3rd, 2022 at 10:09 am
This interview is part of our ongoing focus on K-12 education in Milwaukee this month. Read more of our recent education coverage included in BizTimes Milwaukee’s Business Cares: Education series at biztimes.com/highqualityseats.
Michelle Nettles’ connection to Dr. Howard Fuller Collegiate Academy dates back to 2004. The public charter high school had just recently opened its doors, and Nettles was working on talent initiatives for Miller Brewing Company. Nettles, now chief people and culture officer of Milwaukee-based ManpowerGroup, joined the school’s board of directors in 2010 and became board chair in 2019. The college-focused school, founded by education reform advocate Dr. Howard Fuller and a group of area pastors, now serves 330 students in grades 9-12 at its campus located at the intersection of West Capitol Drive and North 29th Street. BizTimes Milwaukee associate editor Lauren Anderson recently spoke with Nettles about her involvement in the school, the challenges and opportunities of preparing Milwaukee students for the future workforce, and why the city’s schools need more engagement from business leaders. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
BizTimes: How and why did you first get involved with Dr. Howard Fuller Collegiate Academy?
Nettles: “(Around 2004), I was responsible for a project at Miller looking for talent, and one of the things that I saw was the absence of strong Black and brown talent. … The realities were the pipeline that was coming in through our K-12 system was insufficient for the demand that employers had. That was in 2004. Multiply that by we’re now in 2022 – that pipeline has only more cracks, more leaks than ever before.
“With the change in how work is done, with the role of technology in the work environment, the need for talent has only increased. And globally, there is a massive talent shortage at the moment. Cities like Milwaukee must step back and look at what is the talent that they have historically passed over and why have they passed over it? Some of that may be racism, but a lot of that is also because our education system has not kept up with the needs of the employer, the needs of the workforce, the needs of the global economy.
“A lot of organizations focus on A, B, and even C students. Our kids (at Dr. Howard Fuller Collegiate Academy) 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.”
“In the city of Milwaukee, when I think about initiatives like the MMAC Region of Choice … Milwaukee is going to have to do that from within. With the ability to work from anywhere, and given our weather, our difficultly in recruiting talent to the city will only persist. It will be incredibly tough. We have to figure out how to build that talent from within in order for Milwaukee to be a player in the broader state economy, the national economy and certainly the global economy.”
BizTimes: What in particular do you see lacking in the city’s schools when it comes to preparing the future workforce?
Nettles: “Pre-COVID, I would have said: Do we have enough Black and brown teachers? Secondly, I would have said: How often are we directing kids to STEM, and in particular Black and brown students and girls? Third: Are we making investments in equitable formats? What we are doing with kids who are in the Parental Choice Program versus kids who are in charter versus public school districts? That (funding) gap in and of itself says we are comfortable with a tiered approach. We are not comfortable with equalizing education in a way that will meet the demands of the future workforce.
“With COVID, I would say what we’ve seen is those areas have only accelerated in the gaps and issues, but now you layer on mental health, which was always a challenge for schools working in the inner city. Mental health of the students, mental health of the families, and mental health of the faculty of the staff – that has only been exacerbated. So now we need to invest heavily in mental health support.
“… We need to get more creative in how we educate and what we educate. The absence of arts, physical education, music … we stopped long ago investing in those, and now we know part of our mental health challenge is we’re not giving kids a broad enough spectrum to grow, to learn and develop.”
BizTimes: What do you see as the business community’s role in K-12 education in Milwaukee? Are there opportunities for businesses to fill in gaps related to workforce preparation?
Nettles: “I think it’s obviously writing checks. But it is also how are we providing apprenticeships, internships? How are we giving kids exposure to what … hard and soft skills are required for success in the workplace, and how those skills that they are learning … connect to a career and a career that sustains them or a career that pulls them out of poverty?
“Then there is a more systemic one, which gets into .. how critical do we see education as a building block for our companies? We are the ‘users’ of the education system. And when you are the ‘users’ of it, what is your responsibility as a corporate citizen to invest in it? That is dollars, that is internships, but it’s also time, it is mentoring, it’s being in the schools, but it’s also in your workplace proselytizing the importance of education.”
BizTimes: What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned through your involvement at the school?
Nettles: “My biggest learning (relates to) the social determinants of health – the economic, the mental, the physical health, the social, the educational gaps. The disparities are massive. With what our kids are facing at Dr. Howard Fuller Collegiate Academy, I recognize my own privilege of being in my grandmother’s house, even though my own mom was a teen mom, I knew I had a sense of stability. Many of our kids are homeless, and they don’t even know they’re homeless because they’re migrating from couch to couch to basement to friend’s room to cousin to aunt. I had a stable, warm place with food and a stable community. The disparities in our community are deep — really, really deep. And I hate to loosely use the word trauma, but our kids are enduring trauma.
“If they don’t have a Dr. Howard Fuller Collegiate Academy that says ‘I love you,’ I would not want a prison system to be the alternative, or I wouldn’t want death to be the alternative. So, my board service has really made me acutely aware of what the alternatives are and that when people don’t have a choice — and that starts with the zip code they live in or are born in. How are they able to manage to survive and thrive in that? I have no idea in the absence of education to help them find a bridge out of that scenario.”
BizTimes: What at DHFCA gives you optimism for the future?
Nettles: “We have two board members who were former students. To see their respective success is heartwarming and it’s very hopeful. We have a student who was prominently visible during Black Lives Matter in summer 2020 and on the heels of social unrest with George Floyd. She went off to college, finished at MATC and then went back to college. That persistence is something that I feel very good about that Dr. Fuller Collegiate Academy is doing — it’s helping kids build that sense of agency and therefore persistence and tenacity. … When I think about the city, if we can keep 50% of those students in the city and they can see there is an opportunity to grow here and their talents are welcome, I think we have a rich opportunity for Milwaukee as we think about our place in the national and global economy.”