By Ana Martinez-Ortiz
When Milwaukee Public Schools made the decision to switch from in-person learning to a virtual environment to slow the spread of coronavirus, the Milwaukee Public School Foundation was quick to offer support. It launched Connect Milwaukee and made sure every household had the tools it needed to ensure a successful school year.
That was Phase I and now the MPS Foundation is entering Phase II: providing tech support for families and teachers.
Wendell Willis, the executive director of the MPS Foundation, viewed Phase I as a success, especially considering it was something the Foundation had never done before. Once the pandemic hit, the Foundation was determined to make sure no student was left behind.
With support from the board and the community, the Foundation spent nearly $2 million on making sure students had their basic needs covered from food, to school supplies to internet connectivity.
“I was most proud that everybody got behind us,” Willis said.
When schools made the decision to go virtual, many families struggled to get a quality internet subscription service, Willis said. The Foundation lead the charge to get a service package for families that would offer coverage for 24 months. It also distributed laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots, a service it does daily, Willis said.
“Every student that needs a laptop or hotspot has one,” he said.
Sometimes a household needs a hotspot per student or the laptop breaks. If that happens, Willis said families should contact their schools to request additional hotspots or receive a replacement. He estimates that about 50 to 60 hotspots are distributed daily.
The units are inexpensive, he said, the cost comes from paying the broadband service.
To make Phase I a possibility, the MPS Foundation raised $1 million to match the District’s $1 million. So far, it’s raised $300,000 for Phase II. The end goal is $1 million.
With that money, the Foundation hopes to help the District in paying for online coaches, help desk support for teachers and students and training & certification for teachers. Right now, the MPS IT Department is made up of 2.5 full-time Online Learning Coaches.
The IT Department is expected to help 10,000 staff members (about 5,000 teachers), and 75,000 students. Those teachers are learning how to re-do their craft on the fly and connecting them with online coaches will enable them to do better, which in turn will help students, he said.
Phase II is about providing the backbone support for teachers, Willis said. Parents, teachers and students are dealing with new technology and they need that support so that they feel empowered and not frustrated, Willis said. Phase II has been harder than expected, Willis said, adding that the Foundation is emphasizing that this is a critical need. Beyond providing that much needed support, this is about getting students and teachers ready for the digital age.
The Foundation hopes to end the Phase II campaign by the end of the year, but it needs help in raising the necessary funds. To donate, people can go to mpsfdn.org.
“When you give to the MPS fund, your dollars go to work on day one,” Willi said. “We cannot leave our communities of color behind.”
Already the Foundation is encouraging the IT Department to start hiring. The cavalry is coming, Willis said.