In Milwaukee, protests against police brutality and racial injustice have been in full force for more than a month now. But in the city’s predominantly white suburbs, a quieter battle is being fought: alumni are organizing for equity in education.
Alumni from several school districts in southeastern Wisconsin have called on their old administrators for change, often via a letter of demands.
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Calling for Change
Cara Ladd, a 2009 graduate of Kettle Moraine High School, wrote one such letter that sports nearly 1,200 signatures from students, alumni, parents, faculty and community members of the Kettle Moraine School District.
“I just decided this was something that needed to happen,” says Ladd. “If I could make a longer-term impact or make a longer-term change that other people in my district, other alumni, parents and families, hopefully were behind, that would be more of an impact on helping make our little corner of the world more anti-racist.”
Ladd’s letter asks the district to create an anti-racist curriculum for all grade levels, diversity and inclusion training for all faculty, and for the district to share its plan with the Kettle Moraine community, both to increase accountability for the district and to inspire other districts to follow suit.
Having worked as a teacher in Chicago’s predominantly Black West Side for six years, Ladd, who is white, came to realize her own ignorance on issues of racism in schools. “I felt called to do something as someone who works in education, as someone who has taught students who know about these things, but it’s not really discussed in predominantly white communities nearly as often as it should be,” she says.
This is something siblings Chinyere and Kuma Okoro know all too well, having graduated from Brookfield Central High School in 2014 and 2016 respectively. Their letter to the Elmbrook School Board was co-written with 46 other Black alumni. It lists ways in which the district has failed its Black students and specific demands for change going forward.
“Education has been a core part of the institutional oppression of racial minorities for centuries; Elmbrook is not exempt from this history,” reads the letter. “Change is long overdue and it is time for the District to take swift action to ensure current and future students are provided with the academically rich and emotionally safe environment they deserve.”
Among the letter’s key demands are hiring and retaining Black teachers, transparency on race and discrimination data, and the implementation of an effective incident-reporting system for students. “When I experienced these instances of bias, I had no idea who or where to report it to,” says Kuma Okoro, something the Elmbrook alumni aim to fix for future students.
“Our goal in writing it was just to center the Black student experience and make sure that the experiences and perspectives of Black students were included in the conversation as Elmbrook hopefully starts to think about how they can make some reforms within the district,” says Chinyere Okoro.
Why write the letter now? “As we’ve seen throughout the country, these changes don’t happen unless people are pushing for it and people are calling for it. And I think right now we have a great opportunity, because as a country and as a world we’re examining the impact of racism and racial inequality across the board,” says Kuma Okoro.
Nearby in Waukesha, a letter of demands was spearheaded by some alumni of Waukesha South High School, including 2016 graduate Erik Franze. After beginning to draft the letter himself, Franze, who is white, reached out to some alumni of color to refine and finalize the message. “I wanted to just be a collective voice and especially amplify students of color going forward,” he says. “The ball’s just been rolling from there.”
Indeed it has: the letter has now garnered nearly 1,400 signatures from Waukesha School District alumni and affiliates. (Editor’s note: The author is one of those signed onto the Waukesha letter.)
“It is vital that graduates of the Waukesha School District leave with the knowledge, empathy, and skills to understand the realities of racial and social injustice in this country,” reads the letter, going on to ask the district to defund school resource officers, restructure its curriculum and commit to hiring and retaining faculty of color.
“Education is where people really can make a difference and change society for the better or worse. I think it can be tailored very much to suit those in power or to take away from those in power and make things more equitable,” says Franze.
A letter has been making the rounds in New Berlin, too, but the district’s alumni have taken their fight one step further by creating the Wisconsin School Anti-Racism Collective, a group for alumni and students of all Wisconsin school districts to connect and collaborate for anti-racism. Stephanie Tucker, an alumna of New Berlin West High School, is the Collective’s head of operations. She is a 2020 graduate, but wasn’t ready to leave the New Berlin School District behind just yet.
“I did not feel comfortable leaving a district with so many students of color that I knew closely, that were being exploited and weren’t cared about,” Tucker says. “I know what it feels like to participate in a school that has little to no care about your color, who does not see you for your color, simply because there are not enough of you.”
Every school district’s alumni’s requests are slightly different, but common demands include reforming curriculum to address issues of racism, holding students and faculty accountable for racist behavior, hiring and retaining more Black faculty, the removal or defunding of police in schools and addressing racism in teaching practices.
These letters and demands aren’t pulled from thin air — they’re based on the injustices alumni of color faced while they were in these school districts.
“Every single demand is based on student experiences. And I think that’s why when you look at the demands of Black student alumni, they’re very, very specific,” says Chinyere Okoro. The Okoros say that they and other Black students experienced racist incidents while enrolled in the Elmbrook School District, including being called the N-word, having their reports of racism ignored by administrators and simulating slavery in class.
“It’s inappropriate to the experiences of people who lived through [slavery], and students can understand the gravity of it without doing that,” Chinyere Okoro says. “Intentionality and context needs to go into teaching Black history — students cannot be picking cotton in class.”
At New Berlin West, Tucker took similar issue with her curriculum, citing that in history courses, slavery was barely addressed, and when it was, the horrors were sugarcoated. “I have a direct bloodline to slaves that were walking this earth, so that topic was extremely important to me,” she says. “Until [students] see Black people for what they were back then and see what it was like to call someone the N-word with such hatred on their tongue, there’s no way to stop it from furthering into higher education.”
Another memory Tucker shared from New Berlin West occurred earlier this year, when some students were flying Confederate flags in the student parking lot, she says, and the school’s administration allowed it. “I parked my car next to people who fly Confederate flags. It is extremely disturbing, and for somebody who is not as outspoken as me, I can imagine how terrifying it is to park your car next to somebody who truly believes in a Confederate state,” she says.
School Board Responses and Next Steps
These calls for action have been met with varying degrees of success. On the collaborative side, Ladd heard back from Kettle Moraine School District Superintendent Pat Deklotz three days after sending the letter and the two have spoken multiple times since.
“Like you, I see this as work that begins in kindergarten and continues through the 12th grade. It is work that crosses the boundaries of race and it requires the commitment to embrace a responsibility that never ends. There will always be a need to do more,” wrote Deklotz in response to the petition.
Ladd has also spoken at school board meetings and has meetings planned with more district administrators. Deklotz recently announced her retirement, but she told Ladd that she will help the next superintendent continue in the right direction. Overall, Ladd says the district seems receptive to the demands.
“I don’t expect things to be solved in one phone call or even in a year of phone calls. But I am excited that they’re being inclusive of our voices and listening in to their alumni and listening to the community support that was in the letter,” she says.
Other alumni haven’t felt so welcomed. Elmbrook Superintendent Mark Hansen released a statement on June 4, writing that “it is critically important to accept our school district’s role in ending racism, wherever it may occur.” However, the Okoros say that they have yet to receive any direct acknowledgement of their letter from the district. They also say that they did not receive a response to their initial request to be placed on the agenda for the school board’s July 14 meeting, and upon following up were told that the agenda had already been set.
The Okoros say a statement alone isn’t enough. “We’re really calling for the district to move from talking about these issues, but into action and asking to create a different culture in the school and an anti-racist culture in the school,” says Kuma Okoro.
“You put your time toward something you care about, and so, if they put time toward actually talking about it and discussing it, that would be a huge step,” says Chinyere Okoro.
When asked for comment, Elmbrook’s chief strategy officer Chris Thompson provided a statement signed by Board President Scott Wheeler and Superintendent Hansen which contained a list of action steps the district plans to undertake in the fall. This includes reviewing the social studies curriculum, expanding “Conversations Count” – an event series started at Brookfield East High School featuring conversations on racial issues – to all its middle and high schools and executing action plans to improve education equity for all students.
“We applaud the efforts undertaken by so many of our graduates who have reflected on their experiences in Elmbrook and want to make positive change for future graduates,” the statement says.
The statement makes no mention of accountability for the racism experienced by Black students nor of creating an incident-reporting system to prevent similar experiences in the future, two of the Elmbrook alumni’s principal demands.
In Waukesha, alumni said the response seemed positive at first. In a statement released on June 8, the Board of Education wrote that it was committing “to continue to work with our director of equity to ensure district-wide culturally responsive practices that will address equity in achievement, discipline, curriculum and policy.”
Franze says that alumni were meeting with some school board members and things were going “pretty well,” but he felt there was a “tonal shift” when the district hosted a meeting on June 23 with Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos at the Waukesha STEM Academy. Franze says the district’s apparent support of politicians with a platform of school privatization was alarming.
“The district, especially as a public one — that sends a scary message, almost a self-destructive message, when you’re allied with people who are complete enemies of public schools.” Franze and other alumni still have only heard from four out of nine school board members, but plan to continue making their platform known through speeches at school board meetings and social media campaigns.
When asked for comment on the alumni response, new Waukesha School District Superintendent James Sebert wrote in an email, “I have seen the letters and look forward to meeting with representatives from the group in the coming weeks.”
Tucker has decided to take her fight to the state level after what she describes as a “disappointing” response from the New Berlin School District. In a video meeting between Tucker, chief academic officer Kellie Sanders and Superintendent Joe Garza, Tucker says that Garza kept his camera and microphone off for the hour-long meeting while only Sanders answered her questions. “I was a little bit taken aback by that because she’s not the one that can make decisions — only he can.”
After this meeting, Sanders told Tucker that the district couldn’t take any action, so she stopped responding. “I felt that it was completely unnecessary to be having conversations at this level because it was not going anywhere,” Tucker says. Instead, she is currently working on a letter to Gov. Tony Evers calling for immunity for faculty that are afraid to report racism in Wisconsin schools, aiming to tackle anti-racist education reform from the top down. New Berlin School District Board of Education President Amy Crosby did not reply to Milwaukee Magazine’s request for comment.
The one thing every alumni response has in common? That there’s more work to be done, and alumni are ready to buckle down for the long haul, for themselves and for future generations of students.
“We still have multiple family members in the district and family members who will still continue to go to the district. I have a cousin who’s going to be a kindergartener,” says Chinyere Okoro. “I really hope that if Elmbrook decides to finally do this work, that he will be able to have a different experience than maybe I had.”