This week, Milwaukee Public Schools is observing Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action, which draws attention to issues of racial equity in education.
Students of color have been through a lot this past year. The COVID pandemic shuttered schools and devastated communities. There was also a resurgence in the movement for racial justice, after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
WUWM asked Milwaukee students and teachers to reflect on 2020 and look ahead to the changes they want to see when it comes to improving schools for students of color.
MPS first grade teacher Angela Harris says the past year has been traumatic for her students, who haven't been in classrooms since March.
“Students not only have suffered the loss of having a normal school experience, but some of our students have experienced the loss of family members because of COVID-19,” Harris says. “Also we’ve seen an uptick in crimes and murders in our community, so our students are going to come back with that trauma as well. And then on top of that, all of the racial justice issues that we’ve seen not just across our country but in our own state.”
Another MPS teacher, Raeven Chappelle, can tell that this past year has taken a toll on her fifth graders’ mental health.
“I have one student in particular that did an entire 180 this year,” Chapelle says. “The student started out the year participating all the time, always sharing new ideas. And then, all of a sudden, that student who had almost perfect attendance, stopped coming for a few days. And then when they came back, they never turned their camera on, never turned their microphone on.”
Chappelle and Harris say when students return to classrooms, schools need to be healing spaces and teachers need to be equipped to support students’ social and emotional learning.
MPS high school student Nico Schudson, who is Hispanic, says his mental health has worsened during the pandemic. When he returns to Reagan High School, he wants counselors to actively reach out to students.
“I mean, I’ve always been told you can come schedule office hours whenever. But I’m not even really sure how I can schedule office hours with them. I think there’s some convoluted way on the website,” Schudson says. “Other than that, I don’t really see my support system very much in the school setting.”
In addition to bolstering mental health services in schools, MPS students don’t want return to punitive environments.
Vincent High School student Kris English spoke during a Black Lives Matter at School panel about how his MPS school compares to his former school in another state.
“When I came back to Milwaukee, I had to walk through metal detectors — it was depressing coming to school every day,” English said. “’Cause it was like no joy in coming to school. You get treated like prisoners. If you talk out of turn one time, you get sent to principal, kicked out of school.”
MPS disproportionately disciplines Black male students — the district has been under a federal civil rights order to address those disparities.
Dr. Monique Liston is president of Milwaukee education consulting firm Ubuntu Research & Evaluation. She says even in the virtual environment, schools have been overly punitive.
“It really floored me when we found out that people were getting suspensions over Zoom,” Liston says. “Like how is that possible?”
Liston says despite the resurgence of the racial justice movement this past summer, she doesn’t think local schools have committed to radical change for Black and brown students. She says education systems have left these students behind for decades, and 2020 was no different.
“Over the last 60 years, we’ve seen how students of color have been left behind intentionally by the educational system, and we see the impact of it,” Liston says. “And I think this year’s gonna be no different. I think some people are putting the idea in our head that this year’s gonna be way worse. But when you’ve already been forgotten, what does it mean to be forgotten again?”
Milwaukee Public Schools has pledged to put equity at the forefront of its work. The school board last summer ended a contract for school resource officers, and has increased funding for ethnic studies and school counselors. The district says it’s also expanding restorative justice training for staff.
Educators and students say they’ll be watching and working to hold the district accountable.
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