About 100 supporters gathered outside North Division High School on the first day of school, cheering and waving signs as students entered the building. Parents, community members and others came to show support for the students, and for the once-proud school that has struggled academically for many years. They hope a new principal, new teachers and a specialized curriculum will spark a new beginning for the 105-year-old high school.
“There is an awesome group of resources in place to support North Division students and families,” said Sharon Adams, program director at Walnut Way Conservation Corp. and a member of the North Division Advisory Council (NDAC). “Principal (Stanley) McWilliams, teachers, medical and community service providers, North Division alumni, corporate, educational and civic leaders are working to give students a welcome that sends a message of hope and great expectation.”
Despite its poor academic performance as an MPS high school and as a potpourri of smaller charter schools during the last three decades, educators and community leaders are optimistic that, this time, the school can reclaim its proud heritage. Among the notable African American leaders who graduated from North Division are 4th District Congressman Gwen Moore; Dr. Howard Fuller, community activist, former MPS superintendent and school choice advocate; and Vel Phillips, the first African American woman to graduate from UW-Madison Law School, and the first African American and first woman to become Wisconsin Secretary of State.
“I want it to be known that this is a new era of excellence for this school,” said Dr. Rogers Onick, project manager at North Division. “We tried so many things that didn’t work, and we are extremely hopeful North will be recognized in a few more years as a school of excellence.”
Now a specialty MPS charter school in business, entrepreneurship and media, North Division promises to offer a rigorous curriculum with a focus on project-based learning. Teachers will use state-of-the-art interactive software to teach computer technologies, media communications and literacy in math, reading and writing. Independent studies and group projects as well as three-week student immersion internships during junior year also will be available. Advanced Placement courses will be offered to students in grades 11 and 12, and high school seniors will be required to present a portfolio to graduate.
Beginning in the second semester of this school year, North Division also will offer students a curriculum developed by Milwaukee Area Technical College eligible for college credit, and Radio Milwaukee staff will teach students to use broadcasting equipment.
Rise and fall
In the mid- to late 1970s, a group of dedicated alumni and community members began to fight for more resources for the school, according to Mikel Holt, an alumnus and NDAC member. Fighting an effort to close it down, supporters convinced MPS in 1979 to carry out a major renovation of the building. New classrooms, a swimming pool and even a dental lab were installed.
In 1976, a U.S. District Court judge ordered the Milwaukee Public School system to desegregate the schools. Desegregation was unsuccessful at North Division and the school began to decline precipitously. “It never recovered,” said Holt.
In 2004, the original North Division was closed, and three new charter schools opened in the facility. All the schools in the building struggled academically. In fact, Milwaukee African American Immersion High School (MAAI) was identified by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction as the lowest-performing school in the state in January 2010. At the end of the last school year, MAAI was closed, along with the other remaining charter school, Genesis. Students from both schools are now enrolled in the new North Division.
The new North Division grew out of a plan developed by the North Division Advisory Council, a group of community leaders and alumni created to make formal recommendations to MPS on how to improve the school.
The council’s proposal outlined goals, standards and a new vision for the school through 2020. Some of the highlights of the plan were to promote discipline and structure; develop thinkers who have the skills to address global issues; and serve as an anchor institution for the surrounding community. The proposal was submitted to MPS in January 2010.
In spring 2010, the school board hired Quorum Architects, Inc. to develop a master plan for a newly designed campus. The plan, which was submitted to MPS a year ago, includes lighted doors, a promenade, amphitheater, new field, greenhouse and tot lot. It would expand the campus into the Franklin Square Playground, an MPS property, and would be bordered by W. Center Street, N. 10th Street, W. Clarke Street and N. Teutonia Avenue.
“We designed it in a way that could be done in phases; that’s the beauty of a master plan. It could be done in 5, 10, 15 years,” said Una Van Duvall, a consultant to Quorum Architects. Currently, MPS is seeking funding for the project, according to Dennis Queen, regional executive for Metro Region high schools.
As a part of its reform plan, MPS issued a national request for proposal (RFP) from an organization that could turn North Division around. Mosaica Turnaround Partners, a for-profit management organization based in Atlanta, Ga., was one of two that responded.
At the end of last school year, MPS began negotiations with Mosaica to manage North Division as a “non-instrumentality” charter school. This would have allowed Mosaica to hire and fire teachers (certified or not) at its discretion. The board then reversed that decision, and made the new North Division an MPS “instrumentality” charter school, meaning teachers will belong to the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association (MTEA). Mosaica will serve a lesser role providing professional development for faculty and administrators. Three team members have relocated to Milwaukee, and will be paid by the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.
In the meantime, the MPS board hired Onick, the retired longtime principal of Samuel Morse Middle School, to spearhead the turnaround at North Division. Onick had been named “Principal of the Year” by the National Alliance of Black School Educators (NABSE), and received an Excellence in Education Award from MPS during his years as principal.
Onick explained that if Mosaica had been given the contract “there would have been no MPS staff whatsoever. The school board wouldn’t have been involved in decision-making, and Mosaica would have run (North Division) as its own.”
“We believe it’s in the best interest of the students to have certified teachers,” added Sid Hatch, executive director of MTEA.
Onick will manage the $1.8 million School Improvement Grant (SIG) from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. The grant will be used for professional development for the principal and teachers; supplemental staff, including reading and math intervention teachers; parent and family involvement; student support and materials; and community partnerships, among other activities.
The majority of council members are satisfied with North Division’s plan, according to Myron Hood, chair of NDAC. He pointed to successful MPS high schools such as Riverside, Rufus King and Ronald Reagan as positive examples of instrumentality schools, adding North Division teachers will be held accountable for meeting high standards.
Principal McWilliams, who has been an MPS administrator for the past 20 years, said he plans to bring excitement, enthusiasm and pride back to North Division. “I’m not going to let this school fail,” he added.
Holt said he is cautiously optimistic that the new North Division will succeed, adding, “If you could turn around North, you could turn around MPS.”