Public Policy Forum Blog

A public boarding school in Milwaukee?

Last week, the newly formed Wisconsin Coalition for a Public Boarding School publicly called for the creation of an urban public boarding school in Milwaukee. The proposal calls for the SEED Foundation, which has operated a school in Washington, D.C., since 1998 and plans to open another school in Baltimore this fall, to establish its next campus in Milwaukee.

The SEED schools embrace the unique model of an "urban public boarding school," premised on the belief that students in disadvantaged inner-city neighborhoods can achieve academic success if they are given a safe and supportive environment in which to study. Students are allowed to stay with their families at home on the weekends, but during the week they live on the SEED campus in a highly structured environment. Unlike elite boarding schools like Exeter and Andover, SEED schools are intentionally located as close as possible to the disadvantaged communities they aim to serve. Like the schools in Washington and Maryland, the tentative operating plan for the Milwaukee SEED school calls for a concentrated effort to raise funds from the business and philanthropic communities to cover construction and other startup costs. However, the school also plans to ask the state for about $30,000 per student in annual operating funds, triple the amount that MPS receives. Because it receives public funding, the school’s enrollment must be open to all students; when the school has too many applicants, it conducts a lottery to fill its seats – a highly emotional process that Thomas Friedman has described in the New York Times.

The basic idea behind the SEED school is that the primary obstacle standing between most inner-city students and academic success is family, neighborhood, and community circumstances. A substantial body of academic research seems to support this conclusion. Poverty, both at the family and the community level, presents significant challenges for students; a host of studies show that high housing mobility, poor nutrition, parents’ mental health problems, and other complications of poverty are all associated with lower student achievement. By removing children from their distressed communities and providing them with safe housing, quiet study space, and 24/7 support from adult teachers and tutors, SEED’s proponents argue, the boarding-school model can break the vicious cycle by which children inherit their parents’ poverty through low academic achievement.

Although no formal evaluation has been conducted, SEED’s Washington campus has had impressive results. Demographically, the odds are stacked against SEED students – the school’s student body last year was 73% low-income and 100% minority - but the school’s test scores are still better than D.C. averages. Each of the 21 students in SEED’s first graduating class went on to college; the class of 2004 racked up a long list of acceptances at top-tier schools like Cornell, Duke, Princeton, Stanford, and the University of Pennsylvania; . Certainly, if the Wisconsin school could replicate such results, it would be a tremendous boon to Milwaukee’s most underserved students.

But the existence of a school that offers unprecedented opportunities to children from Milwaukee’s poorest communities should not trick us into dismissing the need for policies that serve everyone in those communities. A SEED school may make a world of difference for hundreds of students who graduate from its program, but this is just a drop in the ocean compared to MPS’ enrollment of more than 87,000 students. By nature, it cannot be “taken to scale,” or adopted as a model by policymakers seeking to implement change across the public school system. Moreover, SEED’s approach, which begins enrolling students in the sixth grade, does little in the face of evidence that inequalities in test scores emerge even before children enter kindergarten, much less middle school. Promising as it may be, SEED is far from a system-wide solution to the mutually reinforcing problems of poverty and ineffective schooling that confront the most disadvantaged students, and we shouldn’t let its success stories distract us from the important task of rebuilding the communities from which SEED seeks to rescue its students.