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Tanya McNeal, pictured here in a screenshot from the virtual graduation ceremony, called the M³ early college program a “life-changing” experience.

The latest class of Milwaukee Public Schools high school seniors to complete the M³ early college program was honored with a virtual ceremony, capping a year of growth for the trailblazing partnership involving Milwaukee’s three largest public education institutions.

M³ (pronounced M-Cubed) is a joint initiative among the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Milwaukee Area Technical College and Milwaukee Public Schools aimed at closing equity gaps and transforming the future of young people through the power of public education.

The partnership celebrated the 2019-20 early college program class of 54 MPS seniors, a 70% increase from last year’s inaugural class. The latest class is also the first to take two semesters’ worth of college courses after the program launched in the Spring 2019 semester.

The accomplishments are all the more impressive given how students had to navigate the challenges that arose from the COVID-19 pandemic, including the switch to full-time online instruction at MPS, UWM and MATC.

“Although we are not able to walk across the stage, every single last one of us will always be able to walk into our future with our heads held high and with renewed strength,” Tanya McNeal, a senior at Washington High School of Information Technology, said in a recorded address shown during the online ceremony on Thursday, May 21. The event can be viewed at the MPS YouTube channel.

The early college program, which is also called the M³ Pathways program, provides MPS seniors an opportunity to experience the rigors of college life by attending courses on the MATC and UWM campuses.

The 2019-20 class met in the fall and spring semesters, with students earning up to 20 transferable college credits in core courses including math, English and science, as well as electives including cultures and community and educational psychology.

“M³, as a public education network, is going to lift our city and nurture you as you develop into critical thinkers, strong leaders and the innovators who are going to help Milwaukee for decades to come,” UWM Chancellor Mark Mone told the students.

The MPS seniors put themselves in position to reduce their costs to attend college. Collectively, the 54 students representing 16 MPS high schools earned 887 college credits. The average cost per credit at most four-year institutions is $337, meaning the total value of the 887 credits earned amounts to nearly $300,000.

MPS Superintendent Keith Posley told the graduates that the cost savings amounted to an additional academic scholarship.

“This is an amazing accomplishment and one that carries value as you transition to full-time college,” Posley said. “While this accomplishment not only demonstrates your readiness for college, it also represents a monetary benefit.”

The pandemic presented a different kind of test after UWM, MATC and MPS moved their classes online. Vicki Martin, president of MATC, said it was OK for students to acknowledge the difficulties and disappointments of the last two months.

But, she added, “To see you come through so strong is a credit to your determination to succeed. … I am certain you possess the flexibility and adaption skills necessary to thrive in any college format. With so much uncertainty, I’m certain you have a bright future.”

The Pathways early college program is just one prong of the multifaceted M³ partnership, which seeks to close equity gaps by working to achieve goals in three areas: connecting learning across middle school, high school and college; successfully transitioning students to college; and driving college completion.

McNeal called the early college program a “life-changing” experience and urged MPS juniors to apply for next year’s class.

“I had the opportunity to take college courses, get college credit and have a college transcript while still being a senior in high school,” McNeal said. “That’s really a blessing.”

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