Testifying before the Legislature’s Task Force on Urban Education on Tuesday, Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent Darienne Driver stressed the importance of early childhood education, calling it crucial for children’s academic development, job prospects and outcomes in life.
And Driver called on lawmakers to increase funding that would allow MPS to expand the 3-year-old kindergarten program it bolstered two years ago to give students a head start on that path.
“Children who have high-quality preschool experiences are more likely to do better in school and find better jobs. And they are less likely to commit crimes,” Driver told lawmakers during a public hearing at MacDowell Montessori School on Milwaukee’s near-northwest side.
Investing in high-quality early childhood programs, she said, “yields substantial savings in education, child welfare and corrections.”
Driver was the first among several speakers to testify Tuesday before the committee launched by Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R-Rochester) last year to address the challenges and concerns of urban school districts around the state. In addition to early childhood education, the committee has been exploring a host of issues: teacher recruitment and retention, truancy, academic performance, graduation rates and access to technology.
At MacDowell, the committee also heard from several MPS partners active in its early childhood programs, including Danae Davis of Milwaukee Succeeds, Tim Coughlin of United Way of Greater Milwaukee & Waukesha County and Gabriel McGaughey of Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin.
Before the hearing, lawmakers toured two schools Driver called “shining stars” of the MPS system: MacDowell and Rogers Street Academy on the city’s south side. The Rogers Street tour included a look at a new center for science, technology, engineering and math at its adjacent Boys & Girls Club funded in part with a $100,000 gift from Rockwell Automation.
“It was wonderful,” said committee Chairman Jessie Rodriguez (R-Franklin), who called it an example of the kind of collaboration with businesses that can “really impact the outcome of students and the climate of schools.”
Rodriguez, who worked as a school choice advocate before her election, said she was interested in hearing not just about Milwaukee’s challenges, but also its successful programs that could be replicated elsewhere.
Among the programs Driver cited was the 3-year-old kindergarten that has been in the district since 1969 but was expanded significantly two years ago. It now has a waiting list of 1,000 students, she said.
The program, she said, is only partially funded. State funding at even half of the full-time equivalent rate per student, she said, would help serve another 1,800 students.
Full funding for MPS’ 4-year-old kindergarten program — now funded at 60% — would allow it to lower class sizes, improve teacher training and development, and provide more classroom resources, she said.
“We recognize that Milwaukee is one of the poorest cities in the country and we need help,” Driver said.
“We know, long term, if we’re going to have an impact in our city, we’re going to need more resources to … fully fund these programs.”
Davis, of the nonprofit Milwaukee Succeeds, also touted a new reading program aimed at boosting skills in kindergarten through second grade.
The tutor-intensive program is now in eight schools, she said, five of them in MPS. There are plans to expand it to 50 schools in the coming years.
“We believe this is a statewide model that can be implemented elsewhere,” she said.
Davis said Milwaukee Succeeds is also working with deans of education at area colleges to better prepare teachers to work in an urban setting.