How Some Metro Milwaukee Schools Work To Bridge The Racial Divide

Mar 7, 2017

Metro Milwaukee has a segregation problem -- not least, within area schools. Over time, racial lines have been created here, dividing the area into distinct black, white and Latino neighborhoods. 

As a result, many local schools have also become segregated -- or re-segregated, according to researcher Marc Levine.

“The rate of black students attending what some education researchers call ‘near apartheid schools’ - 90 percent minority schools - in Milwaukee, is exactly the same as it was in the 1960s,” Levine says.

While many metro Milwaukee schools lack diversity, there are at least some attempts to broaden the conversation about culture, and bridge the racial divide.

How much does school integration matter?

Some say school integration shouldn't be the first priority in Milwaukee.

“I frankly am less concerned about the racial makeup of the school, than the quality of the learning environment,” says Howard Fuller.

"Many poor families, particularly living in the city of Milwaukee, they're just trying to find a quality school."

Fuller was once superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools. Now, he’s a school choice advocate, and he sits on the board of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, an organization that helps African-American, mostly low-income families pick the right school for their kids.

And Fuller says, the majority of the parents he works with have bigger concerns than a school’s racial diversity.  

“Many poor families, particularly living in the city of Milwaukee, they’re just trying to find a quality school,” he explains, “a school that is going to teach their kids how to read and write, and think, and analyze and compute, and give them some kind of chance of having a decent life.”

READ MORE: Measuring Black/White Segregation In Metro Milwaukee

Yet others in Milwaukee think schools must also address the big picture – students’ unique places in the world. So there are teachers in the city and the suburbs trying to make education about more than scholastics.

African-American immersion in MPS

It’s all about African rhythms on a late February afternoon at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School. Middle school musicians sit on chairs along one wall in the gym, pounding out fast-paced rhythms on their drums, while younger students sitting on the floor sway and bob.

Middle school students perform in the Black History Month program at Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School.
Credit Rachel Morello

Teachers don traditional African garb. Native flags line the walls, along with printed photos of icons like Prince, Miles Davis, and Barack Obama.

It’s all part of King’s Black History Month program. But the celebration hasn’t ended with February. King is an African-American immersion school – so black culture is a focus year-round.

“I think it’s our deliberate effort to promote and highlight the history and the heritage of persons of African descent,” explains King’s principal, Marcus Errington. “People don’t even know the contributions of minorities to helping to make Milwaukee a great place on a Great Lake.” 

Errington says King’s mission reflects its demographics. Ninety-seven percent of students here identify as black, and most come from the surrounding Harambee neighborhood, a predominantly black part of town.

That kind of ‘sameness’ is common in Milwaukee classrooms. For a variety of historic reasons, children tend to go to school with kids who look like them.

Errington says that shared culture makes it easy to focus inward, but does not erase the need for wider context.

“I do think that there’s room and even need for at least one space where more of the story can be told,” he says. “Any group needs to be grounded in a sense of self, but they also need to be open to learning about others.”

King Elementary students wear shirts that read, "My black is..." with positive descriptive words, like "beautiful," or "strong."
Credit Rachel Morello

'The most important thing is life perspective'

Learning about others is happening 14 miles south at Greendale Middle School.

Colleen Perry teaches eighth grade social studies at this predominantly white school. She says she recognizes the need to broaden lessons about America for her students.

“They’re in a majority white situation, so I think that is a disadvantage,” Perry explains. “But I also feel, I don’t want to study history without paying attention to who they are.”

The key, Perry says, is to focus on who students are, in addition to the triumphs and struggles of various ethnic and racial groups.

As part of a class project, teachers asked Greendale Middle School students to come up with a definition for the word 'race.'
Credit Rachel Morello

Greendale eighth graders regularly learn and talk about race. And it’s clear they’re aware of biases they might hold.

“Race can also differ on places you live in,” says a student named Glen, during a recent class discussion. “Here, the majority in Greendale is white. In America, it’s also white. And say, we go to a place where we’re not the majority. Then we’re viewed differently.”

“A lot of kids are waking up…to be the people they will be,” Perry says. “So I just feel like [jumping] on this moment with them, and help[ing] them to understand the world around them in a different way.”

Despite teaching different populations, educators in both Greendale and back at King Elementary cover the same core subject material – such as math and English – along with dropping a dose of culture into the curriculum.

School historian Jim Nelsen says it’s important to provide both. Nelsen wrote Educating Milwaukee, a book about the history of segregation in Milwaukee’s schools, and he insists education must be about more than producing academic achievers.

“Academics is really, certainly important, but I would say the most important thing is life perspective,” Nelsen muses. “Understanding how the world works, your place in it, how you can achieve more.”

Nelsen says ideally, students would learn together in mixed-race settings because that is the world they will enter, once they leave the confines of their schools. 

For more on this topic, explore our Project Milwaukee: Segregation Matters series.

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