The Milwaukee public school system serves over 77,000 students from diverse backgrounds: 87 percent are students of color, 80 percent live in poverty, 20 percent receive specialized education services, and 10 percent are English-language learners. In one of the most segregated cities in the United States, decades of racially and socioeconomically inequitable practices have resulted in glaring opportunity gaps for our schools. District leaders, including myself, view addressing these gaps as our responsibility. Equity for all is everyone’s business.
As the superintendent of schools, I have helped the district take a hard look at how we allocate resources, including money, time, and human capital. Viewing all of our decisions through a lens of equity is critical. Last year, we created an equity commission, composed of educators, school psychologists, and community members, to oversee decisionmaking on education and operational practices.
We refuse to accept the data that show that our black and Latino young men consistently have the worst outcomes in our district. For example, only 14 percent of the district’s black male students and 28 percent of Latino male students meet readiness in English on the ACT, compared with 52 percent of their white counterparts. We committed to creating a department of black and Latino male achievement. A group of educators and school leaders will report to the office of the superintendent about how they plan to oversee academic-improvement programs and strategies.
We also implemented nondiscrimination and gender-inclusion policies, and adopted a safe-haven resolution to address the needs of students who are recent immigrants or undocumented.
But special commissions and offices can’t do the work alone.
That’s why we also prioritize partnerships to expand academic and extracurricular opportunities. For example, with help from the Council of the Great City Schools and College Board—a national coalition of urban public school systems of which I am chair-elect—and the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, we expanded Advanced Placement courses to every high school in the district, using online technology. Nearly all our high schools now offer five or more AP classes. As a result, more than 20 percent of public high school students are taking college-level coursework, such as AP and International Baccalaureate courses, this school year.
Equity in Milwaukee also means supporting our students after the school day ends. At the neighborhood level, our newest initiative, MPS C.A.R.E.S., coordinates resources in a community with one of the highest incarceration and unemployment rates in the country. We have a cross-functional team of schools, health-care providers, elected officials, and community partners that focuses on the well-being and enrichment of students, providing late-night and weekend recreational activities to more than 11,000 students across the district.
We cannot allow race, class, and gender to divide our schools any longer. We have a long way to go in Milwaukee, in our state, and as a nation. As district leaders, we must work with those at the state level to identify the issues that challenge all of our schools and prevent us from treating students fairly—and to produce solutions that will benefit all students. Milwaukee is my home, and our students and families are my neighbors. That is why we have approached these issues with such passion and tenacity.
A version of this article appeared in the May 30, 2017 edition of Education Week as A Collective-Impact Approach to Equity