Public Policy Forum Blog

Clarke Street School program targets achievement gap

A new program at Milwaukee’s Clarke Street School, announced last week, will provide 80 first- and second-graders with extra help through elementary, middle and high school and a guarantee that they will be able to afford college. The I Have a Dream Foundation effort builds on a quarter-century of the foundation’s experience in similar programming in 29 cities. Early intervention tuition assistance programs are unique among education interventions for their combination of early, long-term support and the promise of eventual tuition funding. In some cases, programs similar to the I Have a Dream model have not been successful, revealing some lessons learned along the way. For example:

1. Start early, stay invested

After Minneapolis/St. Paul's Destination 2010 program's disappointing evaluation results, St. Paul’s then-superintendant commented, “You can’t ever start too early. Third grade – what if we had started even earlier?” (2/19/07 Pioneer Press article via LexisNexis).

Starting interventions early makes sense if the goal is to close or prevent the achievement gap; however, maintaining such an investment over the long-term is costly and can be difficult given changing politics and funding. For instance, in 1988 the New York Scholarship and Partnership Program experienced severe cuts and the program's students who had enrolled with promises of tuition help were suddenly out of luck (Coons and Petrick, 1992).

2. Emphasize the right incentive for success

The Twin Cities’ Destination 2010 program shows that it takes much more than some afterschool tutoring and a promise of tuition assistance to bolster struggling students. Five years into the program, tests scores showed that long-term monetary incentives were doing little to change students’ lives in the short-term, with program students performing worse in some testing areas than the comparison group.

The I Have a Dream model to be used by Milwaukee’s Clarke Street School program emphasizes relationships over tuition funding. The program will place a family outreach coordinator in the school to address poverty-related problems and family stability issues, ensuring that students and families receive extensive support. The intent is to make the program more than just a promise of eventual funding at the finish line.

3. Understand student barriers to success

The Twin Cities’ Destination 2010 program’s administrators thought they had a handle on the roots of the achievement gap, until their program enrollment was decimated by high student mobility.

Of the original 450 students who could have joined Destination 2010, 368 signed up. Five years later, only 215 students remained – fewer than half of the initial group. According to the program manager, 80% of those who left the program went "off the radar" (6/3/06 Pioneer Press article via LexisNexis). In addition, students who were initially from seven schools in 2000-01 had fanned out to 71 schools by 2002-03. It was common for many students to attend up to three schools in a single year, an obvious problem when trying to keep up with homework and learning. The program concluded, “We believe that lack of safe and affordable housing is at the heart of the mobility issue.”

The I Have a Dream Foundation model considers the impacts of mobility. The foundation’s website explains that often, students who are sponsored together at the same elementary school will attend different middle and high schools but will gather together for I Have a Dream programming at a local organization. This is important, as Milwaukee is no different from any other low-income, urban district with regard to mobility.

In 2006-07, Clarke Street School had a 13% mobility rate within the school year, with a 61% stability rate. This predicts that, of the 80 first- and second-graders in the new I Have a Dream program, 13% will be at a different school before the year’s end, and 39% will switch schools at the year’s end.

4. Protect program sustainability

As much as possible, it is important to insulate early intervention tuition assistance programs from the ebb and flow of budget politics. The worst case scenario would be to promise tuition to young students who later find no money available. A more common danger is that tight budgets serve to undercut program effectiveness. For instance, in the Twin Cities, school budget cuts resulted in higher teacher turnover, effecting continuity of teachers fluent in the program philosophy. State budgets cuts then reduced the availability of area after-school and tutoring programs – programs that were a key Destination 2010 intervention element to help kids stay on track (9/27/04 Pioneer Press article via LexisNexis). For long-term intervention programs, it is especially important to design a program that can make accomodations when faced with inevitable cuts in other areas.


Among early intervention tuition assistance programs, the I Had a Dream Foundation model has significant merit. However, when examining all types of interventions that target the achievement gap, many studies have suggested that investments in high-quality early childhood education interventions for children under age 5 have the highest long-term payoffs.

For the 80 first and second-grade children at Clarke Street School, this privately-funded program may have a huge impact if the lessons above are heeded. For the rest of the children in the district, and the infants and toddlers who will eventually be MPS students, large scale early intervention will need to take other forms.