Uptown: Home-grown school aims to beat odds

Uplift opened its doors in September, but its story is more than a tale of a new school. It’s about grassroots might in a neighborhood where there’s a shift in the housing and bank accounts of those moving in. It’s about political struggle in an area with a reputation as a bastion for working-class families; protection and support for those who are down, for a minute, but not out; and assistance for those who are new to the city and the country. And from an educational standpoint, it’s about pushing the limits of Chicago Public Schools’ most ambitious reform effort.

Old ‘Boys Tech’ tries new ways

In its early days, Boys Tech, as it was known then, specialized in a brand of vocational education that fed students directly into waiting jobs in one of the city’s many blue-collar industries. The nature of work has changed, however, so the school itself is retooling.

“It used to be that we had the large industries where there were jobs available,” explains Chuck Howard, who coordinates the school-to-work program at Milwaukee Tech. “Then the economy changed, and the industry jobs moved out of the area.”

Milwaukee wants all schools in program

And at Milwaukee Trade and Technical High School, students in the print shop work daily on state-of-the-art equipment in class before leaving for part-time jobs, where they are paid to further learn the printing trade.

These activities are more than lures to interest students in school or introduce them to jobs. Rather, they are part of a districtwide program aimed at reforming curriculum and instruction from kindergarten through high school. Called School-to-Work: Learning for Life, the program was launched in 1993 by then-Supt. Howard Fuller, who wanted to boost academic achievement and college attendance while, at the same time, preparing students to be competitive in the job market.

Failed alternative school reignites voucher debate

In 1994, Exito lost its alternative-schools contract with the Milwaukee Board of Education because of numerous contract violations, including the falsifying of attendance data and teacher certification documents.

Despite that, the state accepted Exito for the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, which allows students to attend private non-sectarian schools at the state’s expense. However, the school’s reincarnation was short lived. In early February, the school closed amid allegations of questionable finances and exaggerated enrollment numbers, leaving more than 100 students scrambling to find spaces elsewhere, including public schools.

Evaluation too late to save some schools

The board’s action sparked heated debate over how the alternative schools should be monitored and evaluated. Some community activists charged that the schools were under attack because they served African-American students. In the end, the School Board backed off, renewing contracts with two of the three schools.