Milwaukee students bring their Black Lives Matter activism back to the classroom
“It’s something students are definitely going to want to talk about when they come back to school,” Samantha Garrett told me while schools were closed for the summer in Milwaukee, and the community was grappling with the uncertainty of how the district would reopen amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the “it” Garrett referred to in this case was not the disease. It was the other big story that continued to dominate news throughout the summer—the wave after wave of protests for Black lives that have drawn an estimated 15-26 million Americans out into streets across the country.
“Thousands of high school students have participated in demonstrations against police killings of unarmed Black people,” Education Week reports. “Some students are demanding that their school districts adopt anti-racist curricula.” Consequently, educators, from policymakers to practitioners, are scrambling to reinvent curricula and instruction to be more culturally relevant to nonwhite students.
As in other big cities, Milwaukee has been the site of ongoing protests. Only 11 percent of the students in Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) are white—54 percent are Black, and 27 percent are Hispanic. MPS, Wisconsin’s largest school system with about 75,000 students, has the highest concentration of households living in poverty and some of the most visible economic inequity and racial segregation.
Garrett, as lead coordinator of the community school program at James Madison Academic Campus high school, or JMAC, as it is called by students and staff, has been a point person, along with the principal, in transitioning her school to remote learning during the crisis and now in preparing to start a new school year that begins with online learning and is then expected to transition to in-person instruction.
But as the growing contagion thrust her colleagues into emergency schooling, Garrett was aware her students were being swept up into what was going on in the city streets.
JMAC is 91 percent Black, and Garrett knew JMAC students were going to Black Lives Matter protests. A student who served on the school’s Youth Council messaged her from a protest and said the issues driving people into the streets were something he and his fellow students would want to talk about in ethnic studies classes when schools resume instruction. Garrett expects students will “want a space where they can talk about the whitewashing of their curriculum,” whether those conversations happen virtually or in the school building.
Garrett is not alone in expecting Milwaukee students to bring their Black Lives Matter activism into the classroom to question not only the disproportionate harm done to Black people by police but also the problems of systemic racism in their own schooling.
“We have to talk about these issues, especially with younger kids who have a lot of unanswered questions,” Glenn Carson told me. Carson is both the community school coordinator at Hopkins Lloyd Community School and the lead K-8 community school coordinator at United Way of Greater Milwaukee and Waukesha County. He fears that during the protests young students might have become confused by the many differing opinions they heard from parents, friends, and media sources about the legacy of slavery and the history of racial injustice in America.
“Teachers can’t prepare for all the many questions students are going to have,” he said, “but they can be prepared to answer with the facts.”
Major news outlets have reported how Black Lives Matter protests in many cities have caused school districts to reexamine police presence in their schools. Many big city districts, including Milwaukee, have canceled or pulled back contracts with local police, and some are considering moving money from school police officers to fund more counselors.
But experienced educators expect the effects of the Black Lives Matter movement in schools to go way beyond police contracts.
“When we’re talking about funding counselors, not cops, that’s a segue into talking about changing priorities in schools,” said Jesse Hagopian.
Hagopian, a teacher at Garfield High School in Seattle, Washington, book editor, and editor for the social justice periodical Rethinking Schools, believes schools facing the challenges of COVID-19 should not overlook the challenges of teaching during one of the largest protest movements in the nation’s history.
“I’ve never seen a movement of this scale and intensity with this many young people coming together and demanding change,” said Hagopian. “We’ve already seen progress from the youth-led movement to remove police officers from schools. I sense we have reached a tipping point with so many young people refusing to live in a racist society.”
If Hagopian’s speculation is correct, and he’s hardly alone, more schools should anticipate how they will address an anti-racist agenda in their curricula and instruction.
Garrett, Carson, and other Milwaukee educators think their schools already have a head start in preparing for the changing priorities in schools because they follow a school model that is generally referred to as community schools.
The approach takes a more holistic view of education, including addressing the factors outside of schools that affect learning, including many of the very same factors that the movement for Black lives is animating in the streets.
It’s a radical departure for a city that has been called “the birthplace of school choice.”
A Positive Alternative to School Choice
Milwaukee has been the nation’s longest-running experiment with school choice, starting 30 years ago when Milwaukee became the first city in the nation to introduce school vouchers that allow parents to transfer their children to private schools at taxpayer expense.
Since then, the choice agenda has been greatly expanded. Now, Milwaukee families can choose to enroll their children in public schools operated by the district; in charter schools, managed either by the district or by a private organization; in private schools, religious or nonreligious; in virtual schools, operated either by the district or by a for-profit company; or in suburban schools outside the district—all with taxpayer dollars following the students.
According to a 2020 analysis by Urban Milwaukee, 54 percent of Milwaukee students attend traditional public schools, 32 percent use vouchers to attend private schools, and 14 percent are enrolled in charter schools, most of which are operated by private management.
All this choice was instituted for the sake of raising the educational attainment of Black and Latinx students. While certainly some families may have benefitted from the city’s complicated approach to school choice, the community as a whole has not improved its academic outcomes.
After nearly 30 years of choice, Milwaukee students are consistently behind their peers in other urban communities and aren’t catching up, according to results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), considered the gold standard in assessments. According to the most recent biennial NAEP, among the 27 nationwide urban districts included in the exams, fourth-graders in Milwaukee had the second-lowest scores in the nation for math and reading, behind Detroit. Milwaukee eighth-graders also bested only Detroit in math and scored above only Detroit and Cleveland in reading.
Further, the primacy of choice has resulted in creating a chronically disruptive system in which schools open and close at high rates and students churn in and out of schools that often do nothing to advance their education.
A study of Milwaukee’s school voucher program published in 2016 found that “41 percent of all private voucher schools operating in Milwaukee between 1991 and 2015 failed.”
Charter school failure rates have also been high. According to a 2020 analysis by the Network for Public Education, of the 119 charter “schools in the greater Milwaukee area that opened between 1998 and 2015, 72 (60 percent) failed by 2017.” Most of the failures—“57 percent (41 of 72)”—occurred in high-poverty areas (“census tracts with poverty rates that exceeded 30 percent”).
A 2018 analysis of the high rates of student transfers in the district conducted by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel found that “Milwaukee has one of the most open education landscapes among the nation’s largest cities, one built on the idea that parents—especially low-income parents—should be able to choose the best school for their child.” The analysis concluded, “The sheer volume of churn may be undermining the goal of enhanced school choice: higher academic performance.”
Studies have found that high rates of student churn in schools hurt not only the students who come and go, “but also those who remain enrolled,” according to a review of the research in Education Week. Instead of a system of choice and churn, for many years educators, teachers’ unions, and community organizers have proposed that community schools are a positive alternative that would prioritize stability and the real needs of students.
“Community schools offer an alternative that changes priorities in schools by including wraparound services for students, culturally responsive teaching, and bringing in the voices of people who are representative of the community,” Hagopian told me.
‘Exemplars in Responding to the Pandemic’
The push for community schools in Milwaukee goes back to 2013, according to Bob Peterson, when the state, compelled by the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law, was looking at options to address the 5,000 lowest-performing schools in the state, most of which were located in Milwaukee, that were threatened with being closed down if they did not improve.
Peterson, who was elected to the MPS school board as member-at-large in 2019, started working in Milwaukee Public Schools as a paraprofessional in 1977. He became a teacher in 1980, taught fifth grade for 30 years, and served as president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association from 2011 to 2015.
In 2013, the school board was more conservative than it is today, Peterson explained, but there was so little success with the agenda imposed by NCLB, which was enacted in 2002, that board members agreed there was a need for trying a different approach. With the support of the local teachers’ union and local United Way, the board was persuaded to turn some of the Milwaukee schools that faced closure into community schools.
Also, Peterson said, the board learned the effort would hardly break the bank—only $100,000 per school, mostly to pay for startup expenses and the community school coordinator, who would remain an employee of United Way. In 2020, there are 12 community schools in the Milwaukee district, including JMAC and Hopkins Lloyd.
“Our 12 community schools were the exemplars in responding to the pandemic,” according to Peterson, because they were already organized with onsite coordinators, counselors, nurses, and social workers, and they already had formed existing partnerships with other care agencies in the community to bring their collective resources to serve the needs of families in crisis.
Because community schools so often feature the onsite coordination of health, social, and other wraparound services, the model will likely be an easier sell during a pandemic. But other principles that are foundational to community schools make the model perhaps even more responsive to the Black Lives Matter protest movement.
“People always want to start the conversation about community schools with the wraparound services,” Ingrid Walker-Henry told me. Walker-Henry is an organizer for the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association and is on temporary release to work for the union after teaching in Milwaukee since 2000. “Those things are huge,” she said, but what matters more are the model’s reliance on shared leadership, equity, and culturally relevant practice.
“Those tenets force us to ask, ‘What does equity look like? How do we address the opportunity gaps in society?’” she said.
JMAC, for instance, did not always have a Youth Council or an ethnic studies program, much less any kind of protocol allowing Black students to influence curricula. But it was the school’s fidelity to the community schools model that brought those things about.
“It’s hard to imagine a movement toward community schools without the pedagogy of culturally relevant teaching,” Hagopian maintains.
“Our school’s Youth Council came about through our commitment to shared leadership,” said Garrett. “Its purpose is to give input on how best to serve students and in turn communicate important information from the school to the community. Also, members of the Youth Council help lead community conversations in the classroom.”
‘An Approach to Education That Gives Them a Purpose’
One of the priorities that rose to prominence due to the influence of youth councils was for the schools to create ethnic studies courses. Council members, according to Garrett, felt their curricula had been whitewashed, and they wanted a more robust recognition of Black history and Black narratives beyond slavery.
As the community schools coordinator, Garrett took it upon herself to make space for students to raise their demands publicly and organize with other students. Eventually, the students formed alliances with students from other Milwaukee high schools and took their demand for ethnic studies to the school board to obtain funding.
“I wanted them to learn that their age and gender don’t determine if they can have an opinion or not,” she told me. “I wanted them to understand that yes, you can and should certainly protest, but I wanted them to learn how the system worked and that eventually you need to sit with others at the same table and talk to them about what you want and why it matters.”
After their presentation, the board approved funding for community schools at JMAC and the Obama School of Career and Technical Education, which does not follow the community schools model. And in June 2020, despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, the district pledged to provide funding for up to 12 ethnic study positions in the next school year.
Expanding on their activism, the students also organized funding and facilities to invite Hagopian to Milwaukee for a day-long event in 2019, in which he taught a history lesson about the Black Panthers movement to students and talked with teachers and community members about the four tenets of Black Lives Matter at School movement.
“When kids see they are represented in the curriculum, they can start to realize that they can be part of a solution to transforming society,” Hagopian said in our phone conversation. “Culturally relevant curricula empowers students to be actors and not just victims. It’s an approach to education that gives them a purpose.”
‘A Transformational Model’
Some may question why a school district that is either last or next to last on measures of the National Assessment of Educational Progress is addressing culturally relevant teaching and attention to the whole child when academics are suffering. But Milwaukee educators bristle at that question.
“We can’t focus on basic academics when kids come to school hungry or they slept in a car the night before” because they’re homeless, Carson told me.
Refuting the idea that a focus on the whole child distracts from academics, he pointed to the steady progress Hopkins Lloyd has made on the state’s school rating system over the last three years, moving from a rating of “Fails to Meet Expectations,” with a score of 52.1 in 2016-2017, to a rating of “Meets Few Expectations,” with a score of 61 in 2018-2019, just two points shy of the “Meets Expectations” level.
“These results aren’t just about having more resources and additional staff,” he argued. “It’s also about having the mindset to address other issues [outside of school that affect student learning].”
“The community schools model has opened my eyes to education as a transformational model,” Carson told me, “in my case, moving from a school that’s struggling to one that’s doing better. The model is an alternative to closing schools, and instead rehabilitating struggling schools.”
Nevertheless, Milwaukee schools continue to be raised by school choice advocates as a success story for their cause, while they ignore public school innovations like community schools.
When U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos visited Milwaukee in 2019, she called it the “birthplace of education freedom,” and restated her support for a federally funded voucher program that “would provide $5 billion in federal tax credits for donors who contribute to state-designated” voucher programs. But advocates for community schools push back hard on the idea that more choice will address the needs of low-income communities of color like Milwaukee.
“Community schools have laid bare the lies of corporate education reformers who advocate for school choice,” Hagopian said. “They haven’t said a word about anti-racist pedagogy, and they never talk about making sure that every school has a nurse and a counselor because it doesn’t speak to their own self-interests.”
No doubt, Hagopian and Milwaukee educators I spoke with see the energy behind the Black Lives Matter movement not as a threat but as an opportunity to reject failed policies and embrace transformational ideas like community schools.
“We are in the midst of a social movement unlike anything we’ve seen since the 1960s,” Hagopian said, “and once again education is at the heart of the struggle.”