Once a high school dropout, grad inspires MPS students to achieve

James Sokolowski works hard to get more students to go to college. It’s a role he embraces more than two decades after he dropped out of high school at age 16.

Sokolowski manages the MEarly College program, which allows Milwaukee Public Schools high school students to earn college credit at UWM and Milwaukee Area Technical College. M(pronounced M-cubed) is a multifaceted collaboration of those three organizations, and among its many goals are boosting student achievement and closing the equity gap in educational attainment.

Sokolowski’s story has the power to motivate students. He returned to school to get a GED diploma and eventually graduated magna cum laude from UWM in 2007 with bachelor’s degrees in Africology as well as educational policy and community studies. He earned a master’s degree in sociology from UWM two years later.

Along the way, he fought to overcome financial hardship and wrestled with personal issues. He’s open about such struggles with his students because so many of them are experiencing similar things.

“If I wouldn’t have gone the path that I went,” he says, “I couldn’t connect to students in the way that I do.”

Sokolowski benefitted from UWM’s McNair Program, which is designed to increase the number of students from disadvantaged or underrepresented backgrounds in graduate studies.

“That program really changed my life,” Sokolowski says. “I was a good student, but that program really put me on a trajectory to be a scholar.”

He’s worked at MPS since 2012, with a particular focus on promoting college awareness and readiness, making him a natural fit for the MEarly College program. And sometimes, students get a glimpse of the former hip-hop musician’s other talents.

At a May 2019 celebration for the program’s inaugural 32 graduates – attended by UWM Chancellor Mark Mone, MPS Superintendent Keith Posley and MATC President Vicki Martin – Sokolowski closed the ceremony by performing a spoken-word piece titled “GED to Graduate Degrees.” Both he and his students earned rousing ovations.

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