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Faces of the achievement gap in Madison: The stories behind the statistics
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Credit:Ryan Inzana

In 2010, just five black and 13 Hispanic graduating seniors in the Madison Metropolitan School District were ready for college, according to data from the district and Urban League of Greater Madison. These statistics should make your heart race. If they don't, and you're white, you may be suffering from what anti-racism educator Tim Wise calls "the pathology of white privilege." If you do get it and don't take action, that is almost worse.

The issue affects all of us and fell a little harder into my lap than it does in most white middle-class families when my daughter told me last summer that I was going to have a biracial grandson. My response? "Not in this school district."

The dismal academic record of minorities has long been apparent to me, through my own experiences and the stories of others. But many people only hear about the statistics. To help humanize these numbers I asked students and parents who are most affected to share their stories so I could tell them along with mine. The experiences are anecdotal, but the facts speak for themselves.

My twin daughters went through the district, attending Hamilton Middle School and West High School. I watched one fly off the charts academically and the other slip through the cracks into what was, for us, the black hole of West High's special education system. It is where many minorities also end up.

Eventually my home became a regular spot for girls of all colors and sometimes their babies. It was an integration of races, cultures and social classes - culturally opposite lives streaming through my house in Shorewood Hills.

Few of the minorities came from middle-class families. I watched some go to college while others moved on to low-paying, backbreaking jobs (my daughter included). Many of the boys went to prison. One was even shot in my van. He's now the father of my grandson and determined, despite incomprehensible hurdles, to be the father he never had.

When my daughters reached the eighth grade, it became clear that one, though a hard-working and curious student, had trouble focusing on learning. A guidance counselor warned me that if she tested into special education, accountability and academic expectations would diminish. I wasn't convinced. When another counselor recommended testing, we went for it. As I suspected, my daughter was diagnosed with an auditory processing disorder that makes classroom lecture settings an auditory jumble. I was determined not to let her slip through the cracks.

The first time I met with her special ed teacher, she was upfront with me: I should keep my expectation for achievement low. She had a full caseload and few resources.

Wow, I thought, if I'm a hovering parent, what about kids without family support? What expectations were they held to?

Gradually my daughter disengaged from school. Her friendships shifted. She attached to underachieving white girls and minority girls who were smart, but whose aspirations differed from the middle- and upper-middle class girls her sister was friends with.

It wasn't long before I got to know many of the minority students at West High. It wasn't long before some of these kids were regulars at my home.

When I talked with my liberal, white, middle-class friends about my experiences - the effective academic challenges given one daughter and the ineffective tools for her sister - I was often met with compassion that lacked understanding. The system worked for their kids.

When the girls graduated, one with honors, the other by the skin of her teeth, my hopes lingered in limbo. One went to University of Wisconsin-Madison, the other to CNA certification and a low-wage job along with many minority single mothers. Under this scenario, I struggled to see how my daughter could help her biracial son, my perfect grandson, succeed in a district that I felt set up minorities for failure, even if she and the baby's father were involved in his education.

Enter the Urban League of Greater Madison's Kaleem Caire, a glimmer of hope.

Caire, at a minimum, can be thanked for putting a megaphone on the achievement gap with his proposal for Madison Prep, a single-sex charter school for minorities. It is quite possibly the reason schools Superintendent Dan Nerad quickly spun a proposal to spend $105.6 million over the next five years to address student achievement.

Caire thinks white, middle-class residents disengage from this topic because they don't feel it directly affects them. Maybe that explains why more non-minorities did not turn out for the school board vote that dashed the plan of Madison Prep but not the dream.

Kay Plantes, a Madison business consultant, says the entire community would benefit from investing in all kids.

"Our reputation as a community draws talent into Madison and that would increase," says Plantes. "Long-term social costs [e.g., prisons] would be lowered, while tax revenues would be higher as a more educated population earns a higher average income."

A win-win, it would seem, if not from a moral standpoint, then an economically sustainable one.

Fact: Research suggests that arresting students at school actually increases the likelihood that they will commit future offenses.
[Source: National Council of La Raza]

Alejandro Rivera was playing tag at recess in January. "A group of kids started to make trouble so we called a teacher," recalls the fifth-grader, who attends Leopold Elementary.

"She stopped them, but when I crossed the street after school they were waiting and started hitting me," says Alejandro. He was knocked to the ground and, according to his mother, was "very hurt, almost strangled."

Alejandro isn't the kind of kid who looks for trouble. Someday, he says, he'd like to be engineer.

Alejandro's mother, Micaela, who speaks through an interpreter, says she immediately returned to school with her son but was told by the principal and a social worker that it was a police matter since the incident happened across the street from the school.

A week after the fight, Alejandro and the boy who started the trouble were approached in the lunchroom by two police officers. The boys went with the officers to the downtown police station and were fingerprinted and photographed. Afterward, Alejandro was returned to school and told to go back to class. Micaela was never called.

Incredulous that her son - the victim of the bullying incident - had been treated like a criminal, and that she had not been notified, Micaela returned to Leopold for answers. Again school officials told her that it was out of their hands and that they were not required to contact her since the police removed the children. It wasn't until she called Centro Hispano, a Dane County service agency for Latinos, that school officials apologized. Subsequently, the Madison Police Department issued Micaela a letter stating that Alejandro's information would be taken out of the department system (that is still pending).

"I left feeling very angry and offended," says Micaela, a hard-working mother who came to the United States from Mexico to provide a better life for herself and her family. "I feel that because I'm Latina, they didn't give me the attention that I needed."

At this point Alejandro appears to have weathered the event. But his mother's concern goes beyond her son.

"I fear that all minority children subjected to unfair treatment may end up disengaging from school with broken spirits and motivation," she says. "This is the reason I wanted Alejandro's story told."

Fact: In 2009-10, just 12% of black and 28% of Hispanic female graduating seniors completed two or more advanced literature courses with a grade of C or better compared to 50% of white and 54% of Asian females.
[Source: MMSD and Urban League of Greater Madison]

Taylor Kilgore is black, but nothing in her voice gives that away. A junior at La Follette High School, she's an academic achiever who takes Advanced Placement classes. For this, she says, some other black students have accused her of acting white.

In her extracurricular time, Taylor works as a Simpson Street Free Press writer and holds a job at Culver's. Her long-term goal is to attend Marquette University. She says she doesn't understand why her black friends avoid AP classes.

"I see a pattern of mainly white and a few Asian students in my honors classes," says Taylor. "With my friends anyway, black students don't choose honors classes, they go straight to regular classes. Maybe they feel like they're not smart enough."

Taylor also wonders whether teachers do enough to encourage black students to take honors classes.

Either way, Taylor says her black friends seem to accept the norm and just "go with the flow."

That's one reason she would like to see a school in the model of Madison Prep.

"I see an all-minority school as working a lot like all-black colleges do for the minorities who like to be around the same race. These schools work to eliminate ill-perceived biases of intelligence among races."

Fact: In 2010, just 48% of black students and 57% of Hispanic students graduated from Madison's public high schools compared to 87% of white and 82% of Asian students.
[Source: Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction]

"Some teachers disrespected me," says Jonathan Vazquez, a 17-year-old Mexican immigrant explaining why he now attends an alternative special education program - Vocationally Integrated Pathway - at the Goodman Community Center.

Jonathan, who moved to Madison from Mexico when he was 4, says he has long felt racially profiled in the city's public schools. He says he had a general sense that teachers at Lowell Elementary, O'Keeffe Middle School and East High School looked at him suspiciously. And he and other minority students felt that one teacher in particular at East had it out for them.

Jonathan says this teacher had him removed from class once because his eyes were bloodshot.

"She said I smelled like drugs, looked under the influence and was harassing a female classmate, who was actually my friend."

As it turned out, the bloodshot eyes that led him to the nurse's office for drug-use analysis were actually symptoms of high blood pressure, for which he is now being treated.

"After that, I never listened to her in class, wouldn't do anything she told me to do," says Jonathan. "My ESL teacher helped get me out of that class and into a study hall for younger kids, where I worked by myself and continued to get good grades."

He says the vocational program at Goodman suits him in a way the conventional classroom never did.

"Here they will help me get a job. They're caring, loving and kind, very generous people," says Jonathan.

His advice to others like him: "Bad things happen, but you got to keep succeeding from bad to good grades."

Fact: Nearly 39% of all black boys in middle school are enrolled in special education.
[Source: Madison Metropolitan School District]

"It's too bad teachers don't tap into the natural rhythms that children of color have," says Jackie Hunt, a single mother who first fostered and then adopted two of her seven children who tested into special education. Neither belonged there, according to Jackie.

Her son tested in because of a stutter and her daughter for still unknown reasons, she says.

Jackie, who was once homeless but is about to get her bachelor's degree from Upper Iowa University, pulled her son out of the program. But she wasn't as assertive when it came to her daughter, who was older.

"By the time I knew how to advocate for my children it was too late for my daughter," says Jackie. "She had been labeled. But I worked hard to get my son out. I didn't want that label on him, and neither did he."

Jackie stayed involved in both children's schooling, insisting they get the education they deserved. Without her presence, she says, neither would have been held accountable to work to their full capacity.

"My daughter's special ed teacher had us on a goose chase - couldn't get her into the right classes. And when she did the teachers were discouraging. They didn't have an expectation for her to make the grade," says Jackie. "She just needed to show up. This was really hard for me because I know that she's a gifted girl, but they didn't have the patience or take the time to know how she learned. But we pushed her through anyway, and she graduated."

Does Jackie feel race was a factor?

"Of course I do," she says. "I'm able to watch because of my involvement in the community and who I am as a parent. I volunteered in my kids' classroom. I was always present at school. I ran a youth group for a number of years so I saw that there was no big expectation of children of color to achieve."

Fact: In 2009-2010, over 21% of black students enrolled in the Madison school district were suspended compared to 3.2% white non-Hispanic students.
[Source: Wisc Dept of Public Instruction]

A 2008 West High graduate, Damien Smith was described by his principal there as the most charismatic student ever to come through her office. He entered West his senior year after being expelled from Verona High School for circumstances about which he still maintains his innocence.

He was so committed to getting his high school diploma that he signed up, of his own volition, for West High's "Credit Recovery and Increasing Skills" program. He also wanted his mother to have his diploma to hang on her wall.

Yet, says Damien, with disappointment in his voice, he wasn't allowed to attend West High's graduation because of his expulsion from Verona.

Damien did not have an easy upbringing. He was raised without a father and grew up on Allied Drive with a loving but chronically ill mother. He was frequently put into foster care, handed between family members and often separated from his four brothers, to whom he remains close. He earned A's and B's despite this instability.

Yet, other than a basketball coach who tried to keep him out of trouble, Damien says few others encouraged him to succeed.

"I was a good academic student. I was on honor roll several times, too," says Damien. "Yet my teachers would expect less from me because I was black. But really, I was probably doing better than most of the white kids in my class."

Instead of going on to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee after high school as he had planned, Damien made bad decisions that landed him in prison for two years.

Damien says if someone had believed in him, or been pulling for him, he might have stayed out of trouble.

When asked how he feels about the Madison Prep minority school concept, Damien says: "I think it's a good idea so black students know that they aren't being treated differently because of the color of their skin."

With a newborn son - my grandson - Damien hopes to continue attending Madison College for business management, be the dad he never had, and raise his son to know that educational success is every child's right. Even here in Madison.

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