Six months after violence shook Milwaukee’s Sherman Park neighborhood, it’s pretty much “business as usual” at a couple local schools. Leaders there aren’t sure if being at status quo is a good or a bad thing – or perhaps both.
Milwaukee College Prep operates two charter schools a few blocks from where a police officer shot and killed a man in August, and where unrest flared up afterward. It all happened days before kids would head back for a new school year, and MCP leaders anticipated the return with a mix of worry and excitement.
So, how has school been going?
Randy Brownlee is an eighth grader at MCP’s Lloyd Street campus. He lives around the corner from Sherman Park, where unrest erupted this summer. Randy says he had been playing there just three days earlier, and while hearing about his neighborhood on the news was disappointing, it did not surprise him.
“I thought it could have happened anywhere,” Randy reflects. “I’m not happy saying that, but to me, I’m just getting used to it. You hear a gunshot, ‘oh! Hope that person’s okay.’ It’s kind of becoming like…it’s a tradition or something.”
“For our students, it was business as usual, which is sad,” says Mark Ketterhagen, principal at Lloyd Street. “It’s not like marginalization and being discriminated against started last summer.”
Last we spoke in August, Ketterhagen and other leaders at MCP said they weren’t sure what to expect going into the new year. Would students be upset? Would the normally happy, upbeat tone in the buildings turn somber?
But for the most part, Ketterhagen says, things have not really changed.
“It does feel like a normal year. And that has caused me to reflect, should I feel guilty about that?” he wonders. “Should it not feel like a normal year? Are we not doing our job if it feels like a normal year? Are we not pushing the envelope enough or having enough conversations?”
MCP has always built in time for staff and students to talk about tough issues – such as at school-wide assemblies and restorative justice circles. Those tools still exist, but now conversations also occur spontaneously.
“I do feel that there was a little bit of a difference in the adult culture, around the accepting-ness [sic] to be open to the conversation,” says Olson, principal at MCP’s 38th Street campus. “Our teachers were more open to when kids wanted to have their voice heard. Teachers dug into that, and said, ‘Okay, we’re going to stop what we’re doing and open up the conversation.’
“Although we definitely need to make sure that our reading, writing and math is happening, character is just as important.”
Staff and students say they know things will inevitably happen beyond school walls. In fact recently, a shooting took place just a few blocks from the Lloyd Street playground – right after kids had been dismissed.
Principal Maggy Olson says no matter what goes on outside, staff will work to make school a safe place.
“I can’t control what the kids are bringing in. But when they come through my doors, I can control every moment of that day: how many smiles we’re giving, how many high fives, what joy is going to look like, how many minutes we’re going to focus on different things,” Olson lists. “At the end of the day, we can only control that.”
It seems as though school is a pretty great place for eighth grader Randy Brownlee and his classmate, D’Jakya Graves-Smith. The kids say what happened in Sherman Park may have affected their lives at home, but not their education.