Mike Soika’s coal miner grandfather was killed in a West Virginia mine disaster. The mining company evicted his widow and their five children and cut off their credit at the company store. They survived on union benefits and her work as a night-shift janitor, with Soika’s father, the eldest, helping to raise his younger brothers and sisters.
The legacy of this injustice, together with the Catholic values Soika was raised with, planted in him a keen sense of right and wrong and led him to a life dedicated to social justice. In June, Soika became the first director of Milwaukee Succeeds, the year-old community partnership for education reform launched by the Greater Milwaukee Foundation and housed in its offices.
He has had a 30-year career working in nonprofit and government management, including serving as chief of staff to former Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist.
“I joined VISTA after I graduated college. When I learned that you could get paid to be a community organizer, I thought, ‘Whoa, that’s for me.’ It’s truly part of the fabric of who I am,” Soika said.
Soika found a job as a neighborhood-based community organizer in Rhode Island and then in Connecticut and Massachusetts. He led a community organization in Indianapolis to national recognition for its crime fighting initiatives. In 1982, a job at Environmental Decade brought him to Milwaukee, and two years later he began directing the Archdiocese of Milwaukee’s social justice advocacy efforts.
Soika spent the last seven years as vice president of social responsibility and mission impact at the YMCA of Metropolitan Milwaukee.
Modeled on a Cincinnati initiative called Strive Partnership, Milwaukee Succeeds aims to improve educational outcomes for all Milwaukee children, from cradle to career.
Soika was co-chair of Milwaukee Succeeds’ first operations team. In that volunteer role, he “was a great resource from the beginning and he was up to speed on Milwaukee Succeeds,” said Rob Guilbert, Greater Milwaukee Foundation vice president for marketing and communication.
Education is one of the most fundamental problems facing Milwaukee, Soika said, and Milwaukee Succeeds might be the best hope to make the big changes that are needed. He said the skills he has developed working toward systemic change at large institutions and small neighborhood organizations would benefit this effort.
Soika thinks Milwaukee Succeeds’ biggest challenge is the variety of school options that exist here.
“It’s no secret that it’s been fairly contentious. There are people who are ardent MPS supporters, and there are people whose mission in life is to make sure MPS goes out of business. That’s a struggle here in this city and it’s a struggle for [Milwaukee Succeeds] because we support all schools and all kids,” Soika said.
In its first year, Milwaukee Succeeds has forged a leadership council comprising representatives from more than 40 educational, business, philanthropic, religious, healthcare, government and social service organizations.
The mix of people who are actively engaged in the initiative excites Soika. “Milwaukee Succeeds seems to be the one place where the people around all factions come to the table and leave their swords at the door,” he said, quoting Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce President Tim Sheehy.
Because Milwaukee — “a school system that only educates 69 percent of the kids” — may have the worst educational outcomes in the nation, with the possible exception of New Orleans, Soika thinks the stakeholders may be ready to put maximum effort into the initiative.
During its first year, Milwaukee Succeeds established four main goals and the criteria it will use to measure progress in its Students’ Road Map to Success. Goals are for all children to be prepared to enter school; to graduate prepared for meaningful work and/or college; to utilize post-secondary education or training to advance their opportunities beyond high school and prepare for a successful career; and are healthy, supported socially and emotionally, and contribute responsibly to the success of the Milwaukee community.
Milwaukee Succeeds advocates a “continuous improvement process” utilizing facilitators or “coaches” from GE, Rockwell Automation and other corporations, to work with “collaborative action networks,” Soika said. “Those are really where the big changes happen.”
Most of the coaches are “black belts” in the Six Sigma corporate quality improvement strategy. The Six Sigma philosophy is that “you can improve any process as long as you are dealing with the people who are most intimately involved and you are data driven. And it’s the data that makes the difference,” Soika said.
During network meetings, coaches follow a detailed problem-solving and consensus-building process that concludes with a review of progress made. Finally, the team, whose members are education, healthcare or other service providers, considers who else should be invited to the next meeting.
Six networks are now operating. The original three networks are focusing on helping third-graders succeed academically by promoting literacy in the home, schools and after-school programs.
The newer three networks will work to ensure that all children are prepared to enter school by increasing the number of preschoolers who go to high-quality day care and making sure they are healthy when they come to kindergarten. Two have already met, and the health network will meet for the first time in September.
Milwaukee Succeeds expects to publish its first baseline report, from which all future progress will be measured, by late fall. That report will be updated annually, Soika said.
Eventually, the networks will distill the potential solutions down to “one practice that makes sense, that makes a difference” and everyone will adopt it and agree to measure how well it is working. “And then,” Soika said, “we’re going to use the continuous improvement process to tweak it as we go along.”
Soika sees the network model as “democracy at its core. You get people who are practitioners. You tap into their expertise. You do it in a way that is empowering and inclusive, and you use the strength of the collective to achieve your goal.”