Universal exits from schools in Milwaukee

April 22, 2017 GMT

In 2013, Universal Companies, the non-profit education and community development firm co-founded by Kenny Gamble, expanded its charter schools outside of Philadelphia to Milwaukee, some 850 miles away.

But by early this month, all three of the Universal schools were returned to Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS), for management and operations. Two campuses were turned over in November and the latest, Universal Academy for the College Bound (UACB), reverted to MPS’ control effective April 7.

A Milwaukee television station, WTMJ-TV, reported on Thursday that students from the Academy for the College Bound school “returned from spring break to find their entire school had changed.”

It said the change had taken “a toll on students” during the week, with Milwaukee Police officers having responded “four times to the school in as many days for reports of fights between students and fights between students and staff.”

The change followed a letter, dated March 9 to MPS Superintendent Darienne Driver from Universal Company’s Superintendent of Schools and Senior Executive Vice President of Education Penny Nixon, stating, “We believe that we have had a productive and positive partnership with the Milwaukee Public Schools in our efforts to provide a high quality education to the students of UACB.

“Despite our efforts, we believe that it would be in the best interest of the students and families of UACB to transition the management of operations to MPS,” the letter continued. “We are confident that MPS will maintain an academically sound, operationally efficient, safe and stable climate to continue to increase student achievement for our scholars.”

Universal Companies said it was proud of the work it started at UACB and believe they made a positive impact on the scholars and the community.

“Our decision to transition UACB to Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) was solely based on our belief that we could not implement the Community School Model with fidelity and without additional supports,” said Universal Companies in a statement emailed to The Tribune. “Universal worked closely with MPS to ensure that the transition was seamless as possible.”

Universal Companies (UC), which has eight campuses in the city, expanded to Milwaukee when Greg Thornton, a Philadelphia native was serving as MPS superintendent. UC is a non-profit education management and development company formed under songwriter Kenneth Gamble and his wife Faatimah. In totality, the company said it was serving 5,000 students in charter schools, including those formerly in Milwaukee.

Regarding the initial two campus closures last year, Rahim Islam, president and CEO of Universal Companies, said the company was exiting “because the schools need more support than what a private nonprofit is able to achieve at this time,” according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The paper also reported Universal has approximately $4.4 million in total revenue and $4.9 million in expenses, based upon federal non-profit filings in 2014. Also, student proficiency in English and math at Universal’s Milwaukee campuses were lackluster.

Amy Mizialko, vice president of Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, in a phone interview complained, “This is the third community of students and families that have been abandoned by the Universal Charter team and it’s really unconscionable. We need stabilizing to put our students and families who are already under stress and challenges. To have their school life changed in such a way is very much unnecessary and a bi-product of treating education like a business.”

Meanwhile in Philadelphia, at Universal Audrenried Charter High School, at 3301 Tasker St., auditors found the school had suffered a substantial operating cost, a deficiency in net assets and it “creates an uncertainty about the school’s ability to continue as a growing concern,” based on the Charter Schools Office 2016 evaluation. Also, some of Universal’s schools missed the mark on the state’s academic growth index.

“I can’t think of any reason you would pull out mid-year,” said Will J. Jordan, an associate professor of urban education at Temple University. “Unless you want to avoid some accountability.”

Some of the staff at the Milwaukee campuses were not certified, therefore some turnover was made.

“Universal did not require certified teachers for those who were employed by them, but the district does,” said Denise Callaway, director of communications and outreach for MPS. “We made every effort to find people who had qualifications. Some of them had been employees of Universal and they had to go through the hiring process for us, but we made it easier for them. We wanted to make sure that there continues to be a level of stability at the school.”

Jordan said termination of teachers in the middle of the school year is problematic.

“Those administrators or staff won’t be picked up again until mid-September,” he said. “They could be unemployed for six months and all of the kids are sort of left in the lurch.”

The cost for MPS to fund staff and operations for the most recent Universal campus that closed in Wisconsin is $994,000, for the remainder of the school year.

Callaway said MPS’s focus has not been on cost, but on the responsibility of students and their families by ensuring that there is no break in the educational services they receive. MPS said Universal’s curriculum had to meet its district standards, but MPS is using its own modules.

In Philadelphia, approximately 70,000 students are in brick and mortar and in online charter schools compared to about 134,000 public district schools.

“In Philadelphia, charter schools are here to stay in the foreseeable future,” Jordan added. “There are some that are worrisome, but others that are models.”