'Do you wanna change the world? Do you wanna go to college? Well that starts today.'
The hottest hip-hop show in Milwaukee is not in an arena or underground club. It's held weekly in the hallway of a former elementary school.
But tickets are hard, err, impossible to come by unless you're a student at Milwaukee Excellence, a new charter school on the city's north side.
The headliner? Founder and principal Maurice Thomas.
It's not easy to be a black kid in Wisconsin. That's why Maurice Thomas launched Milwaukee Excellence to serve kids in the city's urban core.
The graduation rate for black kids in Milwaukee Public Schools is just over 58%, a wide margin away from the overall graduation rate for the state, which sits at 88% — one of the highest in the nation.
The 2013 National Assessment of Education Progress showed eighth-grade reading scores for black kids in Wisconsin were the worst in any state and any ethnic group. That's tough data to overcome, but impossible is nothing.
Thomas, a Milwaukee native and former Teach for America Teacher of the Year, knows exactly what students of color in Milwaukee are up against. Now, his team of founding educators are in place to help the next generation of leaders step up to the challenge.
"Do you wanna change the world? Do you wanna go to college?," he asked the students on the first day of school. "Well, that starts today."
Greater Milwaukee is one of the most segregated regions in the country.
The difference in resources and outcomes for students just a few miles apart is stark.
Take for instance the 53217 zip code, home to Whitefish Bay, Wisconsin, with an average household income of $95,965. Whitefish Bay High boasts an average ACT score of 25.75, one of the highest in the state. While just nine minutes away, at 24th and Hampton in the Milwaukee zip of 53209, the average household income is $33,119 and the average ACT at King International High School is 19.8.
Thomas wants to bring the resources, robust curriculum, and achievement to his home turf.
"That school is only nine minutes away from where we are. It's only nine minutes. We can close a nine-minute gap," Thomas said. "For us, it's about what does it take? How do we create the conditions to have the very best school in the state be in our neighborhood?"
That's why Milwaukee Excellence is not your average school.
The school day is longer. Students have double the reading and math time, including a daily block to work on computer science. They're served breakfast, lunch, and two healthy snacks. They have recess and a physical activity period each day. There's daily time devoted to art, music, or chess. In their ninth grade year, Thomas hopes to take the entire class to South Africa. And since Milwaukee Excellence is a charter school, there's no tuition for parents and families to worry about.
This is not business as usual, and it can't be. The need is too great. The stakes are too high.
"We can have all those things here, in this place, and why not?" he said. "And it can be run by a black school leader, with black kids, and be the very best."
He knows the key to getting the job done is engagement. And that's where the rap comes in.
Every morning, after breakfast and 30 minutes of silent reading, the students and teachers gather in the hallway, grouped into their five advisories (sort of like homerooms) named after elite universities. There, Thomas delivers lessons on the school's core values (focus, integrity, respect, self-determination, and team), updates, and general announcements.
He started delivering the lessons and updates as a "traditional" principal would, but the messages weren't sticking for his 92 sixth-graders.
"I said, you know, I'm gonna put myself out there. We always encourage our students to raise their hand and be a risk-taker and speak loud and proud, and I'm gonna model for them what that means while shouting them out."
So Thomas started delivering Tuesday's words of advice in the form of an original hip-hop song. He incorporates their names, their teachers, and other Easter eggs to keep the kids' attention. Without fail, students are singing along by the end of each one.
And each week he delivers the Excellence Cup, an award that goes to the advisory with the most merits for making the right decisions. The traveling trophy comes complete with a Steve Urkel doll stuck on top, which is supposed to resemble Mr. Thomas.
Rapping, dancing, making fun of himself ... Thomas will do anything to engage and invest in his students.
And so far, it's working. Recently, the Excellence Cup went to the Howard Bison, an advisory with a group of boys that had a hard time adjusting to the rules and culture of their new school. But with the help of their teachers and Thomas, they're learning the ropes and boosting their confidence.
Each year, Milwaukee Excellence will add a grade, growing with the students. Maurice Thomas will grow too.
He's a young school leader, but he's buoyed by passion, talent, great colleagues, and a sense of purpose. It's the hardest thing he's done, but judging from the faces of his students, it's already worth it.
Can't get enough of Milwaukee Excellence? Sing along to Maurice Thomas' latest jam on homework.