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

Milwaukee's Educational Leaders Work On Cultural Sensitivity Ahead of New School Year

Rachel Morello
Facilitator Alex Kautza (far left) sits in on a group discussion with Milwaukee-area instructors at a summer Schools That Can Milwaukee training session.

With just a few weeks left in the summer, teachers are asking themselves what needs to be done to get ready for the upcoming school year.

And preparations are not just about classroom supplies, or lesson plans.

Many Milwaukee-based educators have spent the summer thinking about race and cultural differences. They say they want to break down barriers between their staff and students.

Earlier this week, a group of about 100 principals, deans of students and other school leaders gathered at Alverno College’s Sister Joel Read Center for a summer training session led by the local nonprofit Schools That Can Milwaukee. The topic at hand: “culturally relevant school leadership.”

Say what? Here’s how facilitator Alex Kautza explains the group’s mission…

“We’re trying to make sure that kids of color in Milwaukee actually receive a just education in the classroom,” Kautza says. “[We’re] making sure the mindsets of the folks that work with our kids are right, that the kids feel affirmed, that they feel joyful in their education, they’re getting what they deserve.”

A lot of what’s happening in these sessions is reflection on the part of Milwaukee’s educational leaders, that they hope leads to action – specifically, more productive interactions between school staff and students.

“What we’re really talking about is what we think is good teaching, and that is actually recognizing that the students are that are standing before you, and then incorporating who they are into their own learning,” says Rashida Evans, chief program officer for Schools That Can.

"We have a lot of leaders who are white, and most of the students who we serveare black or Latino students...That doesn't mean they can't be effective with those students. It just means recognizing there may be some biases that show up"

Evans says the point of all this reflection is to help folks working in schools reign in their own personal histories and biases, so they can improve interactions with students and their families.

“We have a lot of leaders in the network who are white, and most of the students who we serve in the network are black or Latino students,” she adds. “That doesn’t mean they can’t be effective with those students. It just means recognizing there may be some biases that show up, or just some thoughts that they’re not even aware of.”

The goal, is not necessarily a matter of delivering content differently to students of color versus their white peers. Rather, it’s about managing classrooms with an awareness of the different perspectives in the room – on the part of students, as well as teachers and parents.  

“Simply because your perspective is one, doesn’t make it better than mine or yours or anyone else’s. It’s just different,” says Janice Carter, principal at MPS’ Marvin Pratt Elementary.

Ninety-nine percent of Carter’s students are African-American, but her staff is much more racially mixed.

Credit Rachel Morello
Participants created "tweets" to display their thoughts on how Milwaukee classrooms could operate better.

“You have to come together and come up with a way to make it, you know, best for everybody,” Carter says. “Everybody’s story is valid…we can’t discount anyone’s story. But it’s how do you bring that to your classroom, how does that show up, and how do you make sure that doesn’t interfere with you giving the best possible education.”

Principal Carter says she hopes to take the lessons she learns here, back to her staff. She has been in situations in the past, where strategies of setting aside her own feelings and biases could have been good problem-solving tools -- for example, helping teachers and students who come from different Milwaukee neighborhoods to understand that neither’s situation is necessarily better or worse than the other’s.

Like Carter, many of the leaders here say they know their schools aren’t unique in their quest to bring cultural sensitivity to the classroom. And that’s one reason why they say they’ll keep in touch: to continue sharing best practices and strategies with one another.

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