There’s been no shortage of stories about dismal test scores in the Milwaukee Public Schools system. We’ve heard less about how it performs in helping students and families address personal and social problems. No other district in the state uses as many resources as MPS to address the non-academic needs of its students. Those needs are the subject of today’s installment of our series, Project Milwaukee: Barriers to Achievement in MPS.
Nearly 80 percent of MPS students get free meals at school because their families are impoverished. Some have been for two or more generations.
District Speech Teacher Colleen Haubner says long- term poverty affects children in other ways you might not expect, such as in the development of language skills.
“When we talk to our kids we say things like, ‘Don’t run in the street, you could get hit by a car, look both ways before you cross the street!’ Children in poverty don’t hear that. The parents are living in a survival kind of a mode and typically our kids hear things like, ‘Outa’ the street!’ When you don’t hear all that language that gives you context, you don’t learn how to predict, you don’t understand cause and effect, you don’t understand all of those skills that lead you to problem solving. Then there’s the stress poverty can inflict,” Haubner says.
Hopkins Street School Psychologist Amanda McEwen says MPS staff daily deal with the effects of homelessness.
“With the little ones you’ll see acting out and temper tantrums. In the middle school students you’ll see anger, and violence, and fighting. And a lot of it is that underlying anxiety, and often times, depression, resulting from situations where they don’t know where they’re going to get their next meal, they don’t know where they’re going to be sleeping, they don’t know who is going to be home when they get home,” she says.
McEwen says constant movement prevents children from forming friendships, which can lead to isolation or depression.
Violence Prevention Specialist, Beth Herman-Ukasick says Milwaukee has concentrations of poverty and household chaos, and those conditions hinder children from developing empathy.
“We also now know that high rates of poverty and violence affect childrens’ brains. And, long term stress, which kids in poverty and kids in violent situations will experience, actually changes the neurons in their frontal lobe, which are the things that control emotion, they help to control and regulate your behaviors, they help you problem solve,” Herman-Ukasick says.
Herman-Ukasick and the others we spoke with say the effects of poverty and violence can corrode the MPS mission of meeting the educational needs of its students.
The mood is lighthearted at Running Rebels community center, an old red brick building on 13th and Fond du Lac. There’s activity around a couple of pool tables and a big screen t-v. It’s quieter inside a small room on the second floor. That’s where teenagers gather for tutoring and help with homework.
Alvin, a 16 year old South Division High School student, says this is a different environment than he encounters in some neighborhoods.
“So called gang bangers, people “pistol playin’”, folks fighting,” Alvin says.
What’s “pistol playing,” I ask.
“That’s when you don’t shoot, you just show it and say what you’re going to do with it or whatever. But, you ain’t usin’ it,” he says.
Alvin is one of five young people I met at the center.
I asked them what made school challenging.
Most nodded in agreement, when 20 year old Deborah recalled her time at an MPS alternative high school.
“The fights in the classroom or just the overall distraction. You’ll get one person who is like the class clown and they really take precious time away from your education and they’re wasting the teacher’s time. It was an everyday thing. It was almost like it was normal,” she says.
Steve Dykstra is a Milwaukee psychologist who works with scores of area youngsters. He says the sheer volume of problems in MPS creates a spillover that can overwhelm.
“You can make the case that all of the students in MPS have those challenges because even if they don’t have them personally, they’re in a classroom with a large number of students who do. It’s one thing if you have a child in your school who’s suffering through that kind of stress and is under that kind of burden. It’s another thing if you have 30, or you have a hundred, or two hundred. Very quickly your personal and other resources can be stressed,” Dykstra says.
Dykstra says staff cannot do everything they want to help all kids, still, he’s hopeful. He has seen healthy change occur when students make a positive connection with other kids and adults.
That’s what’s happening for Washington High School 16 year old Makisha.
“Like, I got a best friend and this year I’ve been on the honor roll every since I’ve been in school. So, she’s pushed me a lot and helped me do my homework and stuff like that. It’s also the teachers and staff that really care and like you can talk to them about anything. Those are the staff that want to help motivate the kids to do better. They greet us with a warm, open, comfortable environment,” Makisha says.
The school specialists we spoke with say many MPS students possess marvelous resiliency, and there’s confidence that the district’s efforts to expand the protective environment for students will translate into higher achievement. Yet they grieve over the fact such changes are not happening soon enough.