Growing alumni group continues effort for change in the majority-white school district.
A group of nearly 1,400 current and former Waukesha School District students is continuing its fight for a more equitable and diverse school system in the overwhelmingly white Milwaukee suburb.
About 30 supporters of the effort attended a Waukesha School Board meeting Wednesday night, and 13 of them spoke in favor of hiring more educators of color, adding more diverse historical figures and artists to curricula, and removing police officers from the district’s buildings.
As protests against racial injustice and police brutality took hold throughout the nation last month, a group of district alumni started a fast-growing movement to foster a more equitable educational environment in Waukesha.
“The education the School District of Waukesha provides is a disservice to its students and community,” Mariela Sida, a rising senior at Waukesha South High School, told the board during the public comment period.
Sida, who said she is of Mexican descent, continued, “There aren’t any teachers who look like me, who can understand me, and who can teach me about being me.”
More and more people are recognizing the failings of white-centric education. Schools have historically focused on white authors, scientists, and thinkers, which can give young minds the impression that those are the only valuable voices in society.
Students are left to figure out later for themselves, or in college, details that challenge those beliefs as demonstrated by a recent, more informed approach to the life of Christopher Columbus that has led to statues being removed or considered for removal in dozens of cities including Columbus, Wisconsin.
Erik Franze, a 2016 South High graduate and one of the organizers of the alumni movement, told UpNorthNews he is displeased with the district’s response to the calls to improve the local schools. Local school officials have yet to offer an official response to the letter signed by 1,383 current and former students.
“Listening to us at a board meeting is great, but that’s kind of passive,” Franze said. “We need an active response to things in a concrete manner.”
Franze pointed to the recent visit of Vice President Mike Pence and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos as evidence that the School Board isn’t taking the alumni’s demands seriously.
The Waukesha School District hosted Pence and DeVos at the Waukesha STEM Academy Saratoga Campus for an event in which they promoted school voucher programs, which critics argue take money out of public schools and contribute to racial disparities in educational achievement.
“Overall I think things have been still handled inappropriately,” Franze said.
Elena Cramer, a 2016 South High graduate, told the board Wednesday she was “disgusted” by the district’s decision to host DeVos and Pence, even after the district issued a statement on June 8 saying it would support its students of color.
“This visit was evidence in direct conflict with that claim,” Cramer said.
There has been some semblance of progress, Franze said. He and other organizers of the original letter have met with some members of the School Board, he said, and they have been receptive to diversifying teaching staff and curricula.
What Franze expects to be the biggest sticking point is the removal from schools of police serving as school resource officers.
Research has shown that police presence does not provide any demonstrable safety benefits. School resource officers disproportionately discipline and arrest students of color, contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline and making students feel less safe at school.
Advocates call for more funding for counselors and social workers.
Kimberly Redding, a parent of Waukesha students, told the Waukesha board that police funding should go toward school counselors. She said her sons were struck with “dramatic trauma” when her husband unexpectedly died in 2010, and when she was subsequently diagnosed with breast cancer.
Redding said she was able to afford outside counseling for her children during that time, but added they would have only been able to turn to their teachers — not mental health professionals — if she was less financially stable.
“I’m asking you to consider funding for the children of families who do not have those resources when their children are in trauma,” Redding said. “They can’t learn when they’re grieving. They can’t learn when they’re afraid for their lives, or their parents’ lives.”
The board did not address any of the comments Wednesday, as the discussion was not on the agenda. Franze said he hopes to get a discussion on the agenda for the board’s next meeting.