While it’s fairly common for a group of people to dream about improvements to a large public system, like education, it’s not common for people to follow through on those dreams and found a school. However, that’s exactly what a group of six women from the Highlands has done by collaborating to develop Pathways High, a UW-Milwaukee authorized public charter high school opening August 28 at 336 W. Walnut Street in downtown Milwaukee. Inspired by their work with students in the Destination Imagination program and the documentary, Most Likely to Succeed, Amber Regan and Julia Burns submitted their concept for a personalized, project based learning high school to the XQ Super School Project, a $10M multi-phased grant challenge, in November 2015.
As a regional public high school, Pathways High is diverse by design, intending to attract racially, culturally and socioeconomically diverse students from Milwaukee county and the four surrounding counties. The inaugural class of students includes freshman through seniors from the city of Milwaukee and suburbs as far away as Cedarburg and Sussex as well as nearer suburbs like Wauwatosa.
In the early phases of the school’s development, Amber and Julia were joined by Highlands’ neighbors Mary Cook, Jody Lowe, Elizabeth Meyer and Rosemary Wirth. Several of the women are longtime residents of the Highlands (17 - 25 years). “We have known each other socially through our children, book clubs and other activities over the years,” commented Julia. “It’s inspiring to work with so many accomplished women whom I’m also privileged to call my friends.” Each woman has contributed their expertise to Pathways High. Mary is an HR leader at WE Energies and chairs the HR committee of the Pathways High Governing Board. Elizabeth Meyer is the founder and president of Fund Development Corp. and a Pathways High Board officer. Rosemary is a veteran teacher and Jody, president of the Lowe Group, has provided media training and messaging advice.
All six women are passionate about Pathways High’s mission to provide personalized, real world education that prepares diverse students for career and life in the rapidly changing 21st century. “I think a high school like Pathways High is very much needed in our community to maximize the talents of our youth and build Milwaukee's future,” Elizabeth stated. According to Rosemary, “As an educator for the past 30 years I had seen changes to the education system but none as potentially impactful as what Julia and Amber were proposing. I had grown so frustrated with the excessive amount of standardized testing taking place in schools that I felt I needed to get involved in the Pathways High movement to, if nothing else, learn how education could be improved for students.”
Julia’s oldest son, Jack, and Amber’s oldest two children, Declan and Delaney, will be in the inaugural class at Pathways High this fall. “Developing a school that would enable all students to pursue their unique talents across science, engineering, business and the arts was very important to us,” commented Amber. “I’ve seen both my own children as well as others’ children thrive in a project based environment because they can pursue their passions. Too often students who don’t conform to the traditional school model become disengaged and marginalized. Our community can’t afford to squander the many talents of our youth simply because they don’t fit the industrial school model developed over 130 years ago.”
“There’s an unfortunate irony with secondary education,” stated Julia. “We live in a rapidly changing world, where innovation occurs at an accelerating pace, however the majority of people largely tolerate the status quo in the education system that is supposed to prepare our youth for success in this diverse and dynamic world. We need more high schools that mirror the real world and engage students in real work, providing students opportunities to earn credentials such as college coursework and industry certifications earlier in their educational careers.”
Most of the women initially engaged with Pathways High due to the XQ Super School Project. Mary stated, “I thought it was a really innovative and exciting exercise to imagine a new high school concept. By the time the contest was over, I had really bought into the need in our community and the idea that this school could really happen and have an impact.” Jody commented, “When Julia and Amber undertook the project to apply for an XQ Super School grant, I became involved and was hoping for that our school district could see the great potential to help our schools evolve to serve the needs of a changing economy. Although it did not work out in our Wauwatosa community, it spurred me on to become part of the Pathways High project.
I continue to advocate for Julia and Amber’s leadership of this school.”
It’s evident that the camaraderie amongst the six women has been a driving force behind their success. Elizabeth stated, “Pathways High has a terrific team and it's even more fun to work with neighbors and see their terrific talents and passion to build a transformative school.” According to Rosemary, “Collaborating on the development of Pathways High enabled me to get to know my neighbors better and realize we all want something better for our children and together we can work toward that goal. My respect for Amber and Julia’s accomplishments is so great that it can't be quantified. Their hard work, vision, and unwavering determination is an inspiration to our entire community. I'm thrilled to have a front row seat to watch their dream become reality.”
Amber and Julia enthusiastically concurred, “The most rewarding part of this journey continues to be meeting incredibly talented and passionate people, both adults and students. As part of our ongoing research, we are traveling across the state and country talking to people who are pioneers in innovating education. Their work inspires us to continuously refine and improve Pathways High and we’re proud to say it all started right here with a group of friends and neighbors from the Highlands!”