A concerted effort among Milwaukee’s three urban public education institutions to boost high school graduation rates and increase college enrollment and retention has shown some early indicators of success over the past two years. But leaders agree more work needs to be done to meet the region’s workforce needs.
Milwaukee Public Schools, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and Milwaukee Area Technical College banded together in 2016 to launch “M-cubed,” an educational initiative inspired by conversations among the institution’s three then newly-installed leaders: UWM chancellor Mark Mone, MATC president Vicki Martin and former MPS superintendent Darienne Driver.
“We thought, ‘What could happen if we worked closely together and leveraged the talent and resources of our three institutions together?” Martin said. “That became the beginning of M-cubed.”
Since then, the three organizations, which collectively represent 130,000 students in the city, have been working to reduce barriers that prevent students’ success in K-12 and beyond. Keith Posley has taken over MPS’ prong of the partnership since he was named superintendent in 2018.
M-cubed has targeted several areas, including: increasing Free Application for Federal Student Aid completion to improve college affordability; better educating parents and students to prepare for high school and post-secondary success; and aligning math, science and English curricula among the institutions.
The two-year results, released in January, indicate progress on some fronts:
MPS’ four-year graduation rate increased from 58.2 percent in 2015 to 62.2 percent in 2017, the most recent available data. Leaders are targeting 72 percent for 2019-’20.
The FASFA completion rate grew from 60.8 percent in 2016 to 74.6 percent in 2018, with a target of 80 percent for 2019-’20.
The rate of MPS graduates enrolling in postsecondary education within one year rose from 44.2 percent in 2015 to 46.2 percent in 2017, with a target of 60 percent for 2019-’20.
Boosting college retention
But when it comes to one-year retention of MPS graduates enrolling at UWM, the numbers have remained stagnant. And for those enrolling at MATC, the numbers are heading in the opposite direction of what leaders want to see.
MATC’s retention rate among MPS graduates dropped from 49 percent in 2015-’16 to 44 percent in 2017-’18. UWM’s retention rate remained at 65 percent both years.
The reasons vary, but some stem from a lack of resources that reduce barriers for students to continue their education. Martin said MATC has become aware of the need for more robust wraparound services at the college.
“We thought we had a lot of wraparound services, but we realized it wasn’t enough,” Martin said. “We had to really expand those and that’s something we’re really focusing our energy on.”
In 2017, the college launched a new student resource center, which includes driver’s license recovery, FoodShare and bus transportation services, along with energy and rent assistance and a Hunger Task Force food bank.
The college this year also expanded MATC Promise, a program that provides free tuition to high school graduates who meet certain requirements. Now, the program is available to students 24 years and older who are living in the MATC district and have already completed some college credits.
A big push of M-cubed is for more students to leave high school with college credits already completed through dual enrollment, another strategy for keeping down college costs. It also helps students, particularly those who are the first in their family to pursue college, get a feel for the rigor and expectations of college.
“The concept of exposure and getting people ready to go to college and thinking, ‘I can go to college,’ is all part of why we want more college offerings to be offered in that dual environment in high school,” Mone said.
MPS also wants to continue growing its partnerships with businesses for trade apprenticeship programs. The district has existing programs with We Energies and Harley-Davidson Inc. to train students in the trades. Last year, 80 students completed apprenticeships. This year, participation is at 150 students, Posley said.
“The demand is there and it is our goal to meet that supply,” he said.
Other strategies for increasing college retention, Posley said, include offering more mentors for students, providing more college tours and summer classes on college campuses for high school students, and offering more counseling for college students to help them choose a career path.
‘Digging in together’
The M-cubed collaboration made sense for three institutions that already regularly intersect. MATC is the largest two-year feeder to UWM. MPS is the largest feeder to MATC.
The three intuitions have worked to align their curriculum in the core areas of English, math and science with the goal of ensuring a smoother transition for students from one system to another. Hundreds of educators from MATC, MPS and UWM have participated in combined professional development sessions over the past two years to get on the same page.
“What we’ve found is how we teach math really affects students’ success; math is such an important pathway,” Mone said. “If we don’t have a good understanding across our institutions about what students need to be prepared for, we’re not going to have very much success because students will either be underprepared or they will be prepared in a different style of math.”
While each institution has its own unique challenges, Posley said it makes sense for them to work on those challenges in tandem.
“We’re not talking about big problems; we’re digging in together and solving them together,” Posley said. “Because the same academic issues that a child will have in elementary, middle and high school, if they aren’t corrected, will be the same in college.”
Urgent workforce needs have prompted what some higher education leaders say are unprecedented levels of collaboration in the region’s education sector. Last year, higher education institutions throughout the seven-county Milwaukee region formed the Higher Education Regional Alliance, with the goals of raising the region’s college completion rate, increasing program innovation and better connecting employers with the talent coming out of the colleges.
With new employers entering the region and the state experiencing low unemployment, Martin said it’s important to ensure all benefit from those new opportunities.
“The more education you get, the better jobs you get,” Martin said. “…Given our community and the issues we’re facing, being the most segregated and all other issues we’re facing with poverty, we really believe education is the solution to get them out of poverty. And we really believe by working together it sends a strong message to all of our students about how important lifelong learning is.”