How One School Near Sherman Park Plans To Help Students Process Violence

Aug 19, 2016

Families across Milwaukee are reeling from news of violence on the city’s north side.

A fatal police shooting last weekend has led to unrest in Milwaukee’s Sherman Park neighborhood. Protesters were involved in looting, setting several businesses on fire and injuring a number of officers. The events have put Milwaukee in the national spotlight.

It's all happening just days before students head back for a new school year. 

Two of the schools within Milwaukee College Prep, a network of four MPS charter schools, are located within blocks of where violence erupted last week. 

"We have a lot of families that live right across the street from Sherman Park, teachers also who live in that neighborhood," says principal Maggy Olson. "We checked on [our kids] just to make sure they're making the right choices. But there is a right to be angry right now."

Olson and other members of the MCP leadership team are already talking about what to expect when school starts next week, and how best to help students process everything that’s going on.

The conversation around violence already started last school year, when similar police-involved shootings occurred in other cities like Baltimore, Md. and San Bernadino, Cali. Middle school Dean of Students Linetta Davis says she's seen teachers and administrators open up dialogues with students. 

"Just giving them the opportunity to voice their concerns or their fears, or even ask questions," Davis explains. "A lot of them are afraid. It hadn't gotten to the point of anger yet, and I think that's something that has developed over the summer."

Logistically, MCP has a couple of tools built into the school day to allow students to express themselves in productive ways. Elementary students participate in a school-wide assembly every morning. Middle schoolers have a similar "daily circle" they run themselves, plus time scheduled into the school day for "proactivity lessons" - restorative justice and similar programs.

​Staff say they also hope students will talk things out during social studies classes, where lessons about history lend themselves to discussions about current events. 

And this year, staff are refocusing their energy on productive exchange, too. As new teachers finish training and veteran teachers return to school, MCP leaders are putting an emphasis on listening. 

"We have a diverse leadership team and group of teachers," says principal Mark Ketterhagen. "It's really important as our teachers come back, that we're focusing on hearing each other and really getting in tune with what others might think instead of just trying to advance one singular point of view. And then helping our students do that."

"In that way, I believe we'll be models for our students," Davis agrees. "They can't believe that we can all just get along if we're not doing that."

In spite of the recent turmoil nearby -- or perhaps, because of it -- Ketterhagen says he can't wait to get staff and students back in the building for the new school year. 

"I think we process things like this together," he says. "It's really hard for me to know that things like this are happening in our city and we don't have our kids coming in tomorrow."

"I know that our students see the news and feel characterized by that. It's so hard to see them feel that way," Ketterhagen adds. "Our students are part of what's good, they're not part of the problem. And they're looking to us for guidance on how to be part of positive, constructive change."

"What has transpired over the summer just puts more of a sense of urgency on what we're already doing," Davis says. "It makes the work a little more intentional."

Students return to all four MCP campuses for the first day of school next week Thursday.