Written by Jamaal Smith
I remember growing up how much I enjoyed going to school every day. I can still remember my third grade teacher, Señora Rivera, greeting us every morning as we walked in the classroom at 55th Street School (now known as Milwaukee Spanish Immersion). I remember Mr. Stawicki taking the classroom by storm at Samuel Morse Middle School when he introduced “The Great PHEOC,” a character he made a reality when we were discussing the scientific method in science class. Finally, I will always be indebted to Mrs. O’Keefe-Boetcher, who helped me through difficult times emotionally during my senior year at John Marshall High School and pushed me to become a strong writer. There were many more experiences that I could name, but the common denominator of these experiences is that they occurred in Milwaukee Public Schools.
Like many MPS students, I did not grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth. I was raised in the 53206 zip code and looked poverty, violence, crime, disenfranchisement, and resource deprivation in the face every day. However, the feeling I had when I walked through the doors of each MPS school I attended will always be cherished and appreciated. These types of feelings and experiences are what Dr. Demond Means, Mequon-Theinsville Schools Superintendent and the Takeover plan, would deny nearly 80,000 students across the city of Milwaukee, with nearly 90 percent of the affected population being students of color. In a city labeled the most segregated in the United States, any policy that exacerbates inequality contributes to worsening segregation.
In addition to being the most segregated city, Milwaukee is one of the poorest cities in the nation with the highest rate of Black male incarceration, Black-White achievement gap, Black male unemployment, and Black female evictions across the state. With over 80 percent of the students within Milwaukee Public Schools living in poverty, they are forced to deal with the strenuous difficulties of instability, malnourishment, and neglect. And let’s not forget the rising homicide rate that has left many students traumatized and in need of care. Students feel lost and hopeless with no direction. For many, MPS schools have become a safe haven to be free of their precarious home environment.
In spite of these circumstances, County Executive Chris Abele and his school takeover Czar, Demond Means, have decided to go along with the plans of conservative, suburban state legislators with a history of introducing racist legislation. Their plan will gut Milwaukee Public Schools, the largest school district in the state of Wisconsin, by converting it to the same type of takeover district that has produced disastrous results in cities like Detroit and New Orleans.
Chris Abele claimed during his campaign for county executive that he wanted to focus on the racial disparities that exist throughout Milwaukee County. Well, this attack on the future of students of color was a prime opportunity to do so. There is growing demand in Milwaukee for the implementation of the Community Schools model, with all of the holistic level benefits that it would provide for students and their families. Abele has mentioned to me personally how much he “loved” Community Schools. If that be the case, then why have we seen no effort from Abele to fight for the Community Schools model, to use it to transform MPS like it has transformed public schools in Cincinnati, OH, where the graduation rate has gone from 59 percent to 82 percent since its conversion to Community Schools? Why, when we have this proven model, are students of color treated like lab rats in failed school privatization experiments?
Let’s be clear, Means’ proposal to partner with the Chicago-based Acadamy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL) is alarming. If we follow down the same path as Chicago Public Schools, AUSL will remove our quality, licensed educators and replace them with young, inexperienced, unlicensed, unqualified babysitters who are not prepared to deal with the despair caused by socioeconomic ills prevalent in Milwaukee.
If Abele and Means are as concerned as they claim to be about our children, then they need to focus on models that have been proven to work, instead of gutting our public school system for the sake of another failed experiment. Until our elected officials begin to prioritize our children instead of their relationships with right-wing ideologues, our movement will continue to grow in militancy. Right now, students, parents, educators, and our allies are preparing to do whatever it takes to defend our schools.
Here’s what you can do right now to help.