Viewpoints: Capturing our city’s economic growth potential hinges upon a well-supported MPS system

Wendell Willis
Wendell Willis

Last updated on February 23rd, 2022 at 11:08 am

MPS is Milwaukee. There is not one other institution you can look to that represents our city more authentically. MPS educates 70,000+ students who come from every background you can imagine. Students deserve no less than the best we have to offer when it comes to investing in their future. 82% of MPS students are economically disadvantaged, 20% are enrolled in special education, 15% speak English as their second language, and 89% identify as Black, Indigenous, and people of color. In recent years, MPS graduates have gone on to work for NASA, serve as elected officials, play for the NBA and NFL, star in movies and film, and even become one of America’s most famous businessmen.

Milwaukee business community take note: this is the immediate and long-term solution for your workforce challenges. Many MPS graduates can enter your company immediately upon graduation or become your future interns, project managers, nurses, coders, electricians, community organizers, executive directors, teachers, and CEOs. When you invest in MPS, you are building out your own talent pipeline. A pipeline that is not only well prepared for the career path they have selected, but is also prepared to operate effectively, compassionately, and seamlessly in an increasingly diverse workforce with a multitude of transferable skills.

As executive director of the MPS Foundation, an MPS alum, and a father of three MPS kids (two MPS graduates), I am intimately aware of the equity challenges facing our district – staff shortages, infrastructure issues, funding constraints, and most importantly, the compounding effects of systemic trauma due to poverty. Yet, in the face of those issues, we are tasked with educating and supporting, to the best of our ability, every student that comes through our doors. MPS does not have the ability, or the desire, to turn away students based on X, Y or Z criteria.

My time as chief operating officer for MPS also affords me unparalleled insight into some of the other unknown strengths and services provided by our district, such as:

  • 85 languages are spoken throughout MPS schools. MPS is home to language specialty schools that are not offered in many neighboring districts – 4 full Immersion and 21 bilingual or dual-language programs.
  • The district’s Hispanic/Latinx families have long been acknowledged, but recent arrivals also include Rohingya refugees fleeing the violence in Myanmar, and African immigrants such as Swahili-speaking Somalis and French-speaking Congolese families (some of whom attend the MPS French immersion school). There is also a growing number of immigrants from Central America.
  • MPS has eight Montessori schools, more than any other public school district in the country. The most recent addition is the Riley Dual Language (Spanish/English) Montessori school.
  • Since 2015, MPS has established 15 United Way “community schools” which include wrap-around health and social services and work with more than a dozen community organizations, from the 16th Street Health Clinic to the Milwaukee Urban League.
  • International Baccalaureate (IB) and Advanced Placement (AP) programs are offered in 25 of our high schools and middle schools, allowing students to earn college credit before they graduate. The District also has “dual enrollment” arrangements with Milwaukee Area Technical College and the University of Wisconsin-­­Milwaukee allowing students to get credit in a variety of disciplines, from nursing to mechanical HVAC systems.

Milwaukee Public Schools offers the greatest variety of choice in public education. You may not know, but MPS partners with educational leaders to provide charter school options within our portfolio of schools. As a result, parents and students can feel at ease with a myriad of educational choices that match their values and interests all towards attaining the best educational outcomes for their family.

Capturing our city’s economic growth potential hinges upon a well-funded and well-supported public school system. Families, communities, and businesses will not thrive without a great public school system.

In addition, investing in public education provides a greater return on investment than many other avenues, both immediate and long-term. A number of Milwaukee’s key business leaders have already made strategic investments: Culinary / Hospitality labs via Jennifer & Joe Bartolotta, STEM programming and a new lab in 2022 courtesy of Patricia Contreras at Rockwell, a new HVAC lab from George Oliver and Annemarie Scobey-Polacheck of JCI, the Sports Analytics Data Club from MKE Fellows / John Daniels, Julia Taylor’s stewardship of volunteer efforts within the GMC membership, and a student-run branch of Educators’ Credit Union within a high school.

The business leaders we work with acknowledge that many challenges we face as a district are rooted in larger, systemic problems faced by our city, but are willing to roll up their sleeves to ensure the equity our students deserve.

Is MPS perfect? No. Can it be? It can certainly get close, if every business and community leader joins in the work as others have. Then we can truly drive the economic engine of Wisconsin to deliver a region and state that is thriving for all.

Wendell Willis is executive director of the Milwaukee Public Schools Foundation. Before joining the foundation in 2018, he was chief operating officer of MPS. 

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This article is part of a BizTimes Media Business Cares special report on education in Milwaukee, examining the issues and challenges the community faces to increase the number of high-quality education seats in the city and to develop young talent and the city’s future workforce.

The report includes:

An overview from BizTimes Media co-owners Dan and Kate Meyer

An explanation of what the difference is between Milwaukee’s public, charter and private (voucher) schools, and how many students attend each.

These feature articles:

And, viewpoints from leaders of Milwaukee Public Schools, a Milwaukee charter school and a Milwaukee private (voucher) school:

Look for more education coverage in the coming days and weeks at BizTimes.com.

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