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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

New MPS Department To Focus On Supporting Black & Latina Girls, LGBTQ+ Students

Rally on the MPS budget
Emily Files
Bay View High School student Soleil Harvey speaks at a rally on the MPS budget held by Leaders Igniting Transformation, a student advocacy group. LIT supported the creation of a department to uplift Black and Latina girls, modeled after an existing department focused on boys.

As part of its budget for next year, the Milwaukee Public Schools Board voted to create a new department focused on Black and Latina girls, gender nonconforming students and LGBTQ+ students.

It’s modeled on MPS’s Department of Black and Latino Male Achievement, which has been around since 2017 and provides mentoring and classes for male students of color.

Daymian Thurmond is a student at Riverside University High School who participates in mentoring through the Black and Latino Male Achievement office. He says it’s given him emotional support that was missing before.

"They have us come out of school and we’ll have a good talk about the Black and Latino problems we’ve been going through, you know, just a brotherhood talking about and expressing ourselves," Thurmond says.

In education systems throughout the U.S., boys of color face disproportionate discipline, drop out at higher rates and struggle more academically.

In 2014, President Barack Obama launched the My Brother’s Keeper initiative to improve outcomes for Black and brown boys. In 2017, MPS created its Department of Black and Latino Male Achievement with similar goals.

Newly-elected MPS board member Jilly Gokalgandhi says girls of color tend to be left out of the conversation. She refers to Kimberlé Crenshaw, a prominent Black scholar who has studied the criminalization of Black girls.

"I think girls often are not the first priority generally speaking in our society," Gokalgandhi says. "Kimberlé Crenshaw had a really great response to then-President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper program. She said, 'Where are the girls? We can’t forget about our young girls.' If we think about human trafficking, and bullying, and inclusion in careers, our young girls are often left behind."

As a new school board member, one of Gokalgandhi’s first actions was the proposal to create a new department focused on improving outcomes for Black and Latina girls, gender nonconforming students and LGBTQ+ students.

"From an equity perspective, we have to address our young women," she says. "And not just our young women, but our LGBTQIA+ youth. We know that one in six young people will fall under that umbrella of identity. And then also our gender nonconforming students — we’ve seen an uptick of attacks on them and their identities. And so it’s really important that we’re addressing the varying needs of the varying populations of students within our district."

Gokalgandhi’s proposal was approved by the full school board. It uses about $440,000 in federal COVID relief money to hire a department director, coordinator and planning assistant next school year.

MPS Black and Latino Male Achievement Director Jeremiah Jackson applauds the new initiative.

"A lot of times when you look at the data, we understand the glaring issues and challenges that are facing our Black and brown males," Jackson says. "But sometimes you don’t even have to squint that hard, and it’s almost like it’s hiding in plain sight, what’s happening with our young women as well."

There’s evidence that students who participate in MPS’s Black and Latino Male programming have better school attendance and grades compared to their peers. Anecdotally, those students feel more connected at school.

"I mean it’s definitely not going to fall squarely on the Black and Latino Male Achievement department to solve all the issues that exist in the district," Jackson says. "But I do think we’ve had the opportunity to use the space as sort of like a laboratory or test site to figure out what can work well."

Gokalgandhi wants the department for girls to follow that model — as a testing ground for innovative ideas or new programs that could then be scaled up districtwide. Right now, it’s too early to say exactly what the work of the new department would look like.

Because the new initiative is paid for using temporary federal funds, there is the question of sustainability. But Gokalgandhi thinks the district will be able to raise money from other sources to keep it going.

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Emily is WUWM's education reporter.
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