In 2000, the Milwaukee (Wis.) Public Schools (MPS) requested proposals for pilot programs for a high school to replace its failing North Division High School. At the time, Kathelyne Dye-Gallagher was a business teacher at Washington High School in Milwaukee. The district’s request ignited her desire to create a stronger system that would guide Milwaukee’s low-income students. In 2003, three smaller schools replaced North Division. Genesis High School of Business, Trade, Technology, Health and Human Services was among them, with Dye-Gallagher as principal. But the odds were against Genesis.
“My student body is 100 percent African- American, drawing from the poorest areas of Milwaukee,” says Dye-Gallagher, who runs the school with no assistant principal—or administrative assistant—and instead hires teachers who perform double duty as workshop coordinators and financial planners. “More than 80 percent are Title 1 eligible. The average household income is below $20,000. Fewer than half of my students’ parents graduated high school, and only 2 percent earned a college degree.”
In the school’s first year, only 20 freshmen out of 75 entered at grade level, causing Dye-Gallagher to rethink their curriculum and start from a place more aligned with her students’ levels of learning. “We started looking at what students were bringing to us,” she says, referring to social and emotional needs so great that the students couldn’t learn because they barely cared to go to school.
Dye-Gallagher contacted ScholarCentric, a K12 education publishing company that creates curricula for schools needing to increase student achievement and improve retention. Company representatives worked directly to apply their dropout prevention program Success Highways, which uses student assessment and evaluation to closely examine the psychology behind why kids don’t stay in school.
Map for Success
“Through meaningful discourse related to academics and life, teachers and students were beginning to build rapport, which translated to academic effort,” says Dye- Gallagher. But it also translated to an ease in discipline and a rise in attendance. In spring 2008, Dye-Gallagher graduated her first four-year graduating class; 82 percent of her original ninth-grade students earned a high school diploma, and many are now attending college. And in 2009 the school moved from charter status to becoming a comprehensive high school.
Today, Genesis is the only remaining school of the original three that replaced North Division. “One had the third worst student proficiency in the United States—0 percent in math and 2 percent in English—and the other wasn’t faring much better,” she says. Genesis was recently removed from the state’s academic watch list for the first time in five years thanks to its increase in scores: from 2006 to 2009, math proficiency rose from 9 percent to 42; reading jumped from 21 percent to 55.
“Failure is not an option” is Dye-Gallagher’s mantra for her kids’ success, so she has implemented programs to help below grade-level students catch up. “Intersession” is a six to eight week program where students may repeat any course they failed during the first of the school year’s three semesters.
Genesis freshmen who arrive two or more grade levels behind are assigned to the credit recovery program. Students must prove to be focused on completing course work and present no behavioral problems during their time in the building, which can extend to 5:45 p.m. And a third program—Genesis Night School—is available for students who are credit-deficient in core classes like math, science and English.
Jennifer Chase Esposito is a contributing writer for District Administration.