A Vision for a New Downtown School (part 3 of a series)

As Milwaukee continues to grow its downtown population with Millennials, we simply must start planning and implementing a cohesive strategy to retain those residents as they move into the next stages of their lifecycle. Notably, we must ensure they have housing that works for their growing families, and we must ensure there is an educational option that meets their needs.

The Milwaukee Public School System has a good number of success stories. It also has more than its share of issues (see this, and this, and this, and …). The growth of charter and voucher schools is, most simply, controversial. Some reports suggest they are successful. Others cry foul. I know that certain charter schools, like Milwaukee College Prep, are doing wonderful things.

Generally, I believe there are a variety of strategies that could help to buttress the system, but I am deeply concerned in the ability of the public system to meet the evolving needs of the next generation of parents.

Consider the state of public schools in downtown and near-downtown Milwaukee (defined by north of Greenfield Ave, south of Edgewood, east of I-43). There are 4 elementary and middle schools east of the river: Hartford Avenue, Maryland Avenue Montessori, Cass Street, and the Lincoln Center of the Arts. To the south and to the west of the river there are Vieau School and Golda Meir.

The most highly rated public high school in Milwaukee is the widely acclaimed Rufus King High School. It’s approximately 3 miles from downtown. Number 2 is Ronald Reagan High School, approximately 8 miles away. Neither is fairly considered a downtown school.

Can the schools listed above solve the educational needs of all present and future downtown dwellers? Or even the needs of those folks who live within the city but not downtown? They cannot. It’s not that they aren’t good schools. Many of them are. But I know of scores of families who have left the City of Milwaukee simply in order to solve for schools. They didn’t leave because they wanted a new lifestyle. They left simply, and solely, because they could not find an educational option for their children that matched their expectations and their lifestyle: public school didn’t work, and they didn’t want a parochial education, and the financial and/or commuting investment in distant private schools didn’t work.

If our aspirational vision for Milwaukee includes a vibrant downtown that includes young people, families, and singles and empty nesters (and it should), then we must create a system of downtown schools that can retain, and attract, families. And I believe we need a downtown private school to help that process. If we don’t establish that educational base, we face the very real prospect that today’s downtown boom could become tomorrow’s bust. The time is now to create the plan.

There are incredible examples of high levels of leadership and action surrounding MPS and the numerous voucher and charter schools that are being created to solve for the educational needs of our urban population. That work must continue. There are terrific organizations like Milwaukee Succeeds that are establishing objectives and action plans to help marshal Milwaukee’s resources toward improving the performance of our schools. Schools That Can, KIPP, Montessori, Waldorf: all have merit and all can provide for educational needs. But there will always be deep challenges when operating within the framework of governmental funding.

In order to provide for the spectrum of current and future city of Milwaukee residents, we simply must also provide privately funded schooling that helps retain and attract families to our city. This requires dedicated action and leadership, and the private market must coalesce to achieve it.

The plan presented here is not intended to be specific enough to simply implement. Rather, the objective of this plan is to initiate a conversation about the prospects for a private school. It is a call for action from the community — both current and future stakeholders. The Millennials must be part of this conversation, and must activate around it, for it is their children for whom we are planning.

The Vision

The Milwaukee Educational Academy (“MEA”) will be a private, secular academy offering grades 6–12 with grades K-5 to follow through expansion. Inspired by Phillips Exeter Academy (“PEA”) in Exeter, NH, MEA will incorporate the use of the Harkness Method (see here for long description) and will offer an International Baccalaureate diploma option.

[A public school partnership, creating a corollary school modeled similarly to Noble Academy in Chicago, would create the opportunity for MPS to move in-step with the private market in establishing new and dynamic educational options for city residents. However, this will require significant investment and time from MPS, which could meaningfully impact the implementation of MEA. The partnership opportunities would be substantial, and may allow for increased efficiencies in the creation and preservation of facilities, etc.]

The school will be located in an area defined by Edgewood to the north, Greenfield Avenue to the south, I-43 to the west, and Lake Michigan to the east. The facilities can incorporate a conversion of an existing building or buildings, as well as new construction. Playing fields and other outdoor spaces may be provided off-site through partnership with another institution.

We will create an Exploratory Committee (the “Committee”) that will include current and future stakeholders in the community including citizens and corporate leadership. The Committee will identify and secure funding necessary to identify and contract with a national educational consultant who will perform a detailed analysis of the educational market, and to provide a plan of action for implementation.

Baseline Structural Assumptions for MEA

MEA should be an independent, co-educational school serving kindergarten through 12th grade. It should open with grades 6–12. Starting enrollment should target 580 total students with 60 students in each grade 6–8 and 100 students in each grade 9–12. With the addition of K-5 over time, the total student enrollment should reach 780 students.

The Student / Teacher ratio should target 18:1 in grades 6–8 and 15:1 in grades 9–12. The total teacher count should be ~40–50.

The curricular foundation for MEA will include an International Baccalaureate diploma option, and will include substantial reliance on the Harkness Plan. 25% — 50% of all classes in grades 6–8 should be Harkness, and 75% of all classes in the high school should be Harkness. MEA should establish partnerships with MIAD, MSOE, Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin — Milwaukee to develop curriculum.

[I strongly believe MEA should also incorporate significant ‘alternative’ educational platforms. See High Tech High in San Diego or even better see Most Likely to Succeed a documentary detailing the development of High Tech High. A mission that presents a stated dedication to preparation for life, as opposed to preparation for college, may prove to be the most far-sighted of all educational reforms.]

Tuition at MEA should be targeted against the competitive set. University School of Milwaukee is at the top end of the range with the high school currently at $23,000 per year and the elementary school at ~$20,000 per year. The parochial schools average approximately $12,000 per year for high school and approximately $6,000 per year for non-parishioners. MEA’s targeted tuition will be $6,000 — $8,000 for grades K-5, $7,000 — $9,000 for grades 6–8, and $12,000 — $14,000 for grades 9–12.

Milwaukee boasts an impressive community of post-secondary educational institutions. The University of Wisconsin — Milwaukee, Milwaukee School of Engineering, Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, Marquette University, and Milwaukee Area Technical College offer individually impressive educational opportunities. No school in Milwaukee currently taps those collective educational resources.

MEA should endeavor to lever the proximity and community connections to those institutions. Curriculum should be developed contemplating shared resources: both human and physical. The institutions can look to MEA as a feeder for their future student population. Together with those institutions, MEA could help to create a culture of educational advancement that serves to define Milwaukee’s residential community.

The student body at MEA should be diverse. Enrollment may be targeted as follows:

  • 25% of the students will be from out-of-state, including foreign nationals, without tuition subsidy, and at an accelerated tuition of ~$17,500. There will be a dorm to house those students, with an annual room and board target of $750 per month per student.
  • 15% of the students will be MPS students with an average need-based tuition subsidy of 75%.
  • 25% of the students will be MPS students with an average need-based tuition subsidy of 25%.
  • The remaining 35% will be local students with no need-based tuition reduction.

All students will be admitted based on an application process that will consider academic performance and potential as well as the student’s character and ability to participate and add to the MEA community. The students’ parents and/or guardians will be required to participate meaningfully in their children’s education.

The initial capitalization required to establish MEA will be substantial. Potential sources of funding will include:

  • Local philanthropy
  • Corporate endowed chairs in academic departments
  • Founding member fundraising including potential naming rights for the school and for the facilities
  • Corporate giving. (Consider: keeping families downtown means more satisfied employees and making Milwaukee more attractive makes out-of-state recruitment easier)
  • Grants from national and local foundations


I am incredibly bullish about Milwaukee. I love this city. But I am deeply concerned that our rapid evolution today is not fully considering how we can maintain the momentum we are building.

This article is intended as a call for action. Just as the Millennials are coalescing around issues like the streetcar, and supporting our food and beverage scene, and improving our entrepreneurial base, so too must they consider what simply must change in order to keep Milwaukee their home going forward. And, the non-Millennial stakeholders must become engaged to help ensure that Milwaukee becomes a city that provides for the full lifecycle of its residents — helping it to realize the Vision We Can All Share.