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  • Writer's pictureEmily Berry

Big wins, missed opportunities

This post first appeared on my original site Nov. 15, 2017

Tuesday night's board meeting featured some incredible highs and lows. I would be remiss in not mentioning a couple of really cool things happening in the district, but honestly, I can't stop thinking about the flip side of that -- ugly racial prejudice and our district's failure to partner with the village by sharing ownership of a new Equity and Human Relations Council.

An incredible gift

First, the good stuff: the luckiest and best educational institutions have endowments and endowed scholarships. These are big gifts that are set aside as investments -- big enough that the annual interest income will produce income for the institution and fund a scholarship or simply fund ongoing operations. It's great for many reasons, but first because it means development staff doesn't have to return to the same well for donations every year -- they have a steady guaranteed income. I think because we have a district Director of Advancement whose job is in part to raise funds for the district (as well as some loyal alumni), the district has actually made this happen:

The family of Mike Spector, an alumni, public education advocate and prominent attorney who passed away in 2014, has decided to give the school district an endowed one-year scholarship for an SHS student in need who will attend a public university in Wisconsin. It will also help fund student travel for kids who otherwise would not be able to go on off-campus trips, and last but not least pay for young men to participate in the African American Male Initiative, giving young black men a preview of college to encourage them to pursue higher education. The family will donate in payments over 17 years, then the endowment will be self-supporting itself. Wow. This is amazing. What a gift. The endowment will be formally accepted at a ceremony next month, and Mr. Knight said he's working to encourage others to follow the Spectors' example. I hope they do. I don't like the idea of the district relying on private funding to operate its core mission and ongoing expenses, but to help kids go to college, travel with their classmates and visit colleges, I think it makes absolute sense.

The second amazing thing I wanted to share is a teaching fellowship for Design Thinking. This fellowship is sponsored by the Shorewood SEED Foundation, and again, is precisely the kind of thing I think private money is best suited to fund. All Shorewood teachers had access to an introduction to Design Thinking, then eight Shorewood teachers will participate in a series of workshops with UWM with the help of Shorewood resident and parent Ilya Avdeev, who happens to be a mechanical engineering faculty member, and an expert in design thinking and innovation. Dr. Avdeev explained that teaching teachers has a ripple effect, because teachers teach other teachers and also their students. This is super cool and I can't wait to see what the teacher participants create as a result. It's planned as a pilot and if valuable, could be improved, expanded and/or repeated.

As great as those things are, I feel weird cheerleading for this stuff, because I left the meeting feeling shame for our community.

Dealing with race, struggling with governance

Two things sort of dovetailed in an unfortunate way at this meeting -- first, an incident described by a parent whose child apparently experienced an example of either extreme ignorance, prejudice or a pretty remarkable misunderstanding. This incident came up an hour or so before the board took up the question of whether and how to share ownership of an Equity and Human Relations Council proposed by the Village Board of Trustees.

The proposed council would, among other things, track and record incidents of bias and prejudice reported across the community. Unfortunately those types of incidents have come frequently from students and families at our schools, like the one that came up not long into the meeting, during the first public comments period.

The "colored club"

About 20 minutes into the meeting, Dr. ReShunda Stephens (edited to correct the spelling of her name), a mother, a Shorewood resident and an alumna of Shorewood High School, spoke during the first public comments. She said she had already spoken to Superintendent Bryan Davis about a troubling incident where her daughter's teacher had made a comment about the student "joining the colored club."

She said thanked Dr. Davis for responding, but then said "after much reflection, although I appreciate your efforts, please know I remain troubled, and believe your response, though acknowledgement, did not fully address the scope and core of my anxiety."

She said she planned to offer "key points of light and reason" in a statement to the district the next day.

Board members looked deadly serious and maybe embarrassed. Dr. Shah said, "I appreciate you coming and talking to us personally about this and I'm interested to know more about this, I look forward to reading what you have to say about this and we will respond to you."

I don't have all the information of course, but I am trying to practice something simple lately: believing people when they say they were harmed or discriminated against.

I have a hard time imagining how this reference to a "colored club" was a misunderstanding, and even if it was, it clearly was painful for the student and her family. If this incident was an isolated misunderstanding, that would make it an anomaly in a long series of incidents, misunderstandings and bias at our schools.

Our struggle to improve

Our district has invested a lot of teachers' time and a lot of money on professional development around race, both this year and last. That work is making a difference for some teachers and students. At the last meeting, Atwater's reading specialist and a Lake Bluff teacher spoke to the board about how seeing testing data broken down by race has changed their teaching, helped them see and try to counter their own biases, and help them choose interventions to help the students put at a disadvantage by bias. I give huge credit to the board, specifically Dr. Shah, for asking to always see this data broken down by race so that the district can track what is sometimes called the "achievement gap" or the "educational debt" -- the disparity between white students and students of color when it comes to grades, test scores and other achievements.

All of this is commendable. I do think those efforts are really fully backed by the board and it seems like many district teachers are taking the work to heart.

How the board missed a chance to listen and connect

The progress made so far is part of why the board's failure to be a real partner in a village-wide Equity and Human Relations Council is so disappointing.

As background, the village board asked the school board if it would like to appoint citizen members to the proposed council. The village fills its citizen committee and commissions by recommendation and appointment. This is not a perfect process, but the committees bring recommendations to the full board of trustees, which keeps the trustees engaged with actual community members, and holds them accountable to those community members they represent. By contrast, when the district adopted coherent governance, it left behind the committee model. Generally speaking, all five board members are supposed to pay attention to all board business. As a result, when faced with the request to send representatives to the EHRC, the board spent a very long time at the table with the two village trustees wondering whether and how to appoint members to the proposed council. Every board member agreed that our community has a lot of work to do in addressing racial bias, but school board members seemed hesitant to sign on for doing that work if they couldn't measure it, as if it is a nail to be hammered.

Village trustees Ann McCaig and Davida Amenta were both at the meeting and tried to answer some of the school board members' questions. Citing what she has heard from people of color living in Shorewood, Tr. Amenta said she heard more reports of prejudice in the schools than elsewhere in the village. "My hope was that there could be ownership in this group from both boards.," she said. "One of the tasks (of the EHRC) is to do an annual report of harassment, anti-semitism, violence against lesbian, gay and transgender people -- these incidents happen in Shorewood every year, they could come here, let you know what's happening, come to the village board tell them what's happening. I think it's primarily an educational effort more than anything else."

The school board was wary.

With the exception of Pablo Muirhead, the board was uncomfortable with the idea of talking recommendations from citizen board members, potentially usurping the Superintendent and administrative leadership's authority over operations. The extra weird part was that Dr. Davis did not seem at all concerned that it would create a conflict for the district to work closely with the new council.

"The two (meaning the district work and the council's work) can complement each other," he said, but no one seemed to hear him.

In the end, the school board agreed only to send recommended council member candidates for the EHRC, and to send Dr. Davis to the council's meetings. It won't directly appoint members. So much for ownership.

Action, action, action.

I think this failure stemmed in part from the board's hesitance to commit to something that holds even an iota of ambiguity -- the single-minded focus on what is actionable and measurable. This hesitancy exposes the shortcomings of coherent governance when it comes to dealing with anything but standardized test scores.

Board Vice President Rodney Cain reliably has to most corporate-style approach to the board's work, and is often the first to sound the alarm when the board seems to be straying from its lane and getting into actual operations rather than its policy-setting role.

He seemed troubled by the idea of sending members to a board without some kind of protocol and rubric laid out in advance, something it could act on and report back to shareholders ... er, constituents:

"It's one thing to acknowledge it's a problem...but how do we know we're getting better, how do we know we're fixing it? For this to be valuable, and have an effect across the schools, we'd have to we'd have to figure out what it is that feeds back from the committee that we can incorporate into our practices and operations here and be able to measure it, acknowledge it and understand whether it's having an effect ... There's absolutely a need, there's a problem. But we have to figure out something to do something about it. I don't want to just leave it as 'it's an educational process."

That quote tells you so much about the way the school board operates. The intense focus on action, the affection for anything that can be measured and improved -- in theory it seems so healthy and logical. We all want to see action, right?

It's hard to argue with that, but I'll give it a try.

I might be in the minority, but I don't think that corporate model really works for government, especially at a local level. I think sometimes our elected officials should in fact just listen and wait for direction to emerge. Maybe the answer hasn't been thought of yet. Conversation and indeed, straight-up education are valuable even when there's nothing you can measure at the end of it. Shorewood is not done owning its bias and privilege, and even if we've gotten better, there's no reason to stop talking about it just because there's nothing new to measure or act on at the end of the dialogue.

"These are not new stories."

The shortage of real understanding of our community's lack of equity was brought into sharp relief by our state senator Lena Taylor, who spoke at the final public comment period. I recommend listening to her entire comment, starting at around 2 hrs 43 mins.

She urged the board to engage a little more deeply and appoint citizens with expertise to the EHRC, and then to listen to their recommendations.

"I think part of the issue is that you've not been able to see yourselves and your own privilege," she said. "It is not the first time I have heard about diversity issues in Shorewood High School."

And unfortunately, she said, the bias is not limited to the schools. She said she personally has been pulled over by Shorewood police -- first in high school, then in college, and even since being a legislator.

"These are not new stories," she said. "I encourage you in 2017 to no longer put your heads in the sand and to see it for what it is. It is challenging to represent a group of people that are so progressive, but in our most intimate place, where our children are, that things can be said and done and we not see ourselves."

I offered comment as well, and encouraged the board to do what Sen. Taylor recommended, and to not be afraid to participate in something that is "just" about education.

I was surprised the board members and Dr. Davis actually opened up their microphones and talked to me during my comments, which I don't recall ever happening since I started attending meetings.

Dr. Davis said he just wanted to make sure listening is followed by action: "Sometimes we admire the problem, even if we admit it, and then we don't move to legislation like Sen. Taylor could propose, or some policy and actions we could that we could do at a district level which we're starting to do through our school learning objectives and teacher goals. Those are specific actions our principals have taken based on listening to a lot of these stories and looking at our data," he said.

I respect that point of view -- I just think it's OK to take a lot of time listening and witnessing, measuring and reporting. Maybe it's OK to keep not so much "admiring" the problem, but taking its measure, describing and witnessing it. Those are not small things, in an age when truth is called into question every day at the highest levels of government. It is no small thing to say, "this happened. I believe you. We don't like that this happened, but we will own it."

I hesitate to bring this up, but it's relevant here: early in his tenure, Dr. Davis painted over a piece of art that called out Shorewood's prejudice. As a result, in my opinion, district leadership will never be done proving their willingness to hear, witness, record and report the truth of what happens to students of color and students from other underrepresented groups. It's going to be at least a generation before that elephant leaves the room, and in the meantime, listening is among the most powerful thing our leaders can do.

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