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  • Writer's pictureEmily Berry

"Please don't say 'this is a journey'"

Updated: Nov 19, 2018

Three of our five school board members are professors, so if there is one way to reach them, it is with an academic study of something. Months ago, the board asked a group of researchers to conduct a study of the experiences of African-American students and families at SHS and SIS. The researchers came to Tuesday night's board meeting to present their findings and answer questions from the school board.

Board President Paru Shah said the full study included some identifying information about students, so it will be released and posted publicly once that information is redacted. An executive summary is here, and once video of the meeting is posted, you can watch the researchers' presentation.

The top-line finding is that African-American students do not feel they belong in Shorewood Schools, and that lack of connection makes everything else in their lives -- including academic achievement -- more difficult.

Joan Blakey Ph.D, formerly of UWM and now Associate Dean of Academic Affairs at Tulane School of Social Work, and Gary Williams, Ph.D., founder and director of the Institute for Intercultural Research and professor at UWM's School of Education, presented their findings and recommendations to the board, offering timely concrete information to guide the district. Though the research was requested months before race became such a flash point in Shorewood, the district now has solid research and recommendations to guide its work as it responds and recovers from the racially-charged debate over the planned SHS staging of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Everything they said was in line with the kinds of things I heard African-American students, parents and alumni of SHS say online and in person following last month's controversy over the play. I encourage everyone to watch the video of the presentation, and I will post the full report here as soon as it is available. As outlined in the executive summary, the researchers recommended a few specific actions to help improve life for African-American students at Shorewood schools, primarily :

1) Develop, nurture and promote sense of belonging and inclusion among all students, teachers and staff.

2) Offer teacher training, support and resources around race and equity.

Dr. Williams said it's very important that the school offer safe spaces for African-American students where they can be themselves without necessary code-switching, where they don't have to explain themselves.

The researchers also emphasized how important it will be for Shorewood teachers to focus on building relationships with African-American students, and that Shorewood strive to offer culturally competent curriculum, rewarding the teachers who are best at integrating a range of experiences, cultures and perspectives into the subjects they teach.

Superintendent Bryan Davis said the district has taken a few steps already (though these were all announced prior to Tuesday night):

1) A teacher work group on equity, designed to help support teachers' work in this area and plan the next steps in the district's Raceworks professional development

2) A Student Equity Task Force, led by the Director of Curriculum Tim Joynt and SIS Dean of Students Ebony Grice and including students from a range of backgrounds -- this group will meet monthly and offer a place for teachers to take questions and concerns about equity for a range of underrepresented groups, including racial minorities.

3) A community forum on Equity to be held in January or February of 2019.

"This isn't something that's going to just sit on a shelf," Dr. Davis said.

It's clear that the work underway cannot happen quickly enough.

Reshunda Stephens, Ph.D., a Shorewood an African-American alumnae and teacher who has two children in Shorewood schools, spoke during the public comment period after the researchers. She urged the school board to take specific, concrete and rapid action, especially broadening curriculum to be more inclusive and culturally relevant. "Don't say 'it's a journey,'" she pleaded. "I've been on this journey a long time. Quite frankly, I am so tired of people telling us as a community, 'it takes time.' How much more time do you need?"

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