Conciousness plus technology: An Educational Resurrection”
At Transition High School (THS), these quotes are posted on walls amongst a host of African centered and hip-hop cultural images that bring incredible life to the school’s atmosphere.
These quotes describe what is clearly an exciting, wholistic approach to educating formerly incarcerated, expelled, and chronically truant students in Milwaukee Public Schools.
Located at 27th and North Avenue, Transition High School (THS) opened in March of 2007 as an initiative of the Milwaukee Public Schools’ Department of School Innovation. With an initial focus on the utilization of online learning and experiential (adventure) learning,
THS quickly expanded to include a strong emphasis on a culturally responsive pedagogy. Serving a population that is 99% Africa American, the THS school culture is centered on tenets of “Restoration of Consciousness” (ROC), and overarching school theme created by Derrick (Baba) Rogers, the principal of THS.
“Our belief is the youth of African descent–who meet the criteria to enroll in THS–have had what should have been a healthy and wholistic ‘educational’ journey interrupted and insidiously side-tracked by a process of ‘schooling’ that has lulled them to sleep and led them to the brink of self-destruction.”
Rogers explained that under conventional education practices, children like those at THS have for too long been expected to “adapt to schooling as an experience of routine without meaning, and activity (lessons) without a liberating manifest purpose.”
Upon entering THS, it is abundantly clear that the school fosters a warm, nurturing family and community atmosphere derived from a very intentional African cultural foundation.
All staff and student meetings and workshops are arranged in circles to promote a sense of interdependence, unity, and collective action. Students are taught and expected to greet elders in an appropriate manner and to accord respect to each other in all interactions.
“We attempt to retain and practice the best of our cultural conventions,” Rogers added. “Be they ancient African or more contemporarily out of Mississippi.”
THS has woven three strands of learning together: Online learning, experiential learning, and socio-cultural awareness. All three strands are evident in the students “Personalized Education Plan” (PEP) which is developed during the enrollment process with Dr. Marcus Arrington, the school’s assistant principal and Transition Specialist.
“The goal is for students to have a rich, restorative learning experience for a ‘season’ here at THS,” Dr. Arrington said, adding the students eventually move on to another setting to continue their educational experience. “We want their transitional experience here to be memorable, fruitful, and transformative.”
THS’s hybrid online education framework allows all student coursework to be facilitated by certified MPS teachers utilizing online vendors such as Class.com and Apex Learning.
For the students enrolling in MPS after extended absences, the online methods allow students to begin coursework at the start of a particular subject on the day they enroll. Students also work at their own pace, which offers an opportunity for them to accelerate quickly to optimize credit recovery.
Also, the independent nature of online work has the added benefit of redeeming time in the school day so students have more opportunities to participate in socio-cultural programming that enrich their learning.
When asked why this hybrid model works, THS student Cullen Mitchell stated: “I get to work at my own pace, because I wouldn’t be able to get it done. I don’t have to wait for a classroom full of kids to raise their hands and then wait for the teacher to come and help me. There are less distractions here and I can focus more and get more done.”
THS also involves many of its’ students in experiential (adventure) learning activities through activities with New Vision Wilderness. Through camping, skiing, canoeing, and a host of other activities, students are provided opportunities to develop leadership and teamwork skills, confront their strengths and weaknesses, and connect their learning to actual life experiences. Said Principal Rogers: “Getting out to the wilderness, off the asphalt and away from the aroma of the ‘Black and Mild’s’(cigars) for a day or two offers our youth a chance for some authentic self-examination and an abbreviated and therapeutic rites of passage ‘experience’.”
THS has nurtured solid community connections with culturally conscious organizations and individuals including: Urban Underground, Ambassadors for Peace, Lil’ Johnny Productions, Flood the Hood With Dreams, and Fidel Verdin. As a part of a daily curriculum, these groups provide workshops to students in areas such as spoken word therapy, urban life skills, youth restorative justice, activism training, critical media literacy, conflict resolution and the connections between hip-hop culture and education.
One student, Vedell Jones said: “This type of learning gives me more education on Black History, as well as educates me on the importance of my voice and vote, and talks about the economy and how it affects me.”
According to Rogers, “carefully infusing these elements into our school culture affords opportunities for students to explore African cultural values, post modern sensibilities, and hip-hop evolution, all of which impact our children’s world view.”
As evidence of the effect of their non-traditional approach, THS had seen some notable positive outcomes in the three years since it opened. The attendance rate is currently 83% (student average attendance rate is 55% before enrolling at THS), the recidivism rate within one year is 25% (86% average across MPS), and have suspended only 18 students since 2008. In addition, THS has managed to graduate 100 students over the past two years, many of whom had previously given up on any notion of ever receiving a high school diploma.
“We are definitely still a work in progress, but it’s really been a blessing to have some liberated space here at THS to try something different,” said Rogers. “It’s worth the effort for those of our youth who, it seems, considered disposable in our suspect society. The rapper Too Short used to talk about ‘survivin’ the game.’ But we want these babies to do more than that; we want them to thrive and control their own destiny.”
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