"We really had to get to the root and heart of the history of the systems that have caused barriers that we're trying to dismantle."—Dr. Tremayne Clardy, Superintendent of Verona Area School District

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Ep 2 | 27m 46s

Racial inequalities have profound effects on education in Wisconsin, with access gaps, economic hardship and longstanding school segregation leading to disparities in outcomes among Black, Hispanic and white students. Educators serving diverse groups of students are working to champion reading, provide mentoring and expand learning opportunities in an effort to bring opportunities into balance.

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The following program is a PBS Wisconsin original production.

[gentle, dramatic music]

Reverend Greg Lewis:
We have to talk about that elephant in the room.

Reggie Jackson:
Racism has been a part of Wisconsin history since the beginning as a state.

Alex Lindenmeyer:
Gosh, as white folks, we have so much to learn.

[somber music]

Dr. Clark-Pujara:
History can help us understand why we are where we are.

[gentle music]

Funding for Wisconsin in Black & White is provided by Ira and Ineva Reilly Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment, DeAtley Family Foundation, Joe and Mary Ellyn Sensenbrenner, Lau and Bea Christensen, The Evjue Foundation, the charitable arm of The Capital Times, Madison College, National Guardian Life Insurance Company, UnityPoint Health – Meriter, donors to the Focus Fund for Journalism, and Friends of PBS Wisconsin.

– Hello, I’m PBS Wisconsin special projects journalist Murv.

In a series of special reports, we take an in-depth look at systemic racism here in Wisconsin.

Its history across the state is painfully complex and opens lots of old and new wounds.

In this episode of Wisconsin in Black & White, we took a look at the history of race and education in this state.

Educators and students weigh in on longtime challenges Black and brown students face in the classrooms throughout Wisconsin, and we hear about the work being done to increase opportunity and put all students on equal footing.

[children laughing]

[teacher sounds out letter ‘D’]


– Look at how Black students are doing.

It is… terrible.

[gentle, somber music]

– Whatever efforts there have been by the federal government to create integrated schools have not worked.

– Education is the conduit to freedom.

– We have a lot more work to do.


– We’re a microcosm of the nation.

– We want to create change.

A conversation about race and education in this state.

– It is a complex one.

We’ve never given full education access to everyone.

Author and retired University of Wisconsin Education Professor, Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, travels the world learning, teaching, and training people about education.

– It’s Thomas Jefferson who says, “Listen, we are not gonna be able to maintain a democracy unless the common folks are educated.”

– It goes all the way to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Dr. Clark-Pujara is a UW-Madison history professor, and also works with the Madison Organization, Nehemiah.

She’s an instructor in its Justified Anger “Black History for a New Day” course.

Nehemiah focuses on strengthening the African American community in Wisconsin.

The nine-week course teaches people about race, history, and justice.

She and Ladson-Billings help explain why the playing field of education began to take shape out of balance across the country, including here in Wisconsin.

Dr. Clark-Pujara:
The laws against teaching enslaved people to read actually come into play after the founding of the nation, in response to enslaved people doing things like forging fake passes.

Written by their owners, passes were required for slaves to leave the plantation for extra work or errands.

– When we’re talking about access to education, post-slavery, you just have cities, states, and counties not investing in the education of Black people, who are taxpayers.

They would have inferior school buildings, inferior materials, inferior books, or notebooks, right?

The teachers were paid less.

And so, it was an active disinvestment.

My father was functionally illiterate.

His family was poor, and he was sharecropping cotton most of his life, and his labor was essential to his family’s survival, and the school that he could attend was underfunded.

During the civil rights era, Milwaukee was the epicenter of protests, demanding compliance to end continued segregation in schools.

– We tend to think about the Civil Rights Movement, like the institution of slavery, as something that is uniquely Southern, and it was not.

While the US Supreme Court’s Brown versus the Board of Education ruling in the late 1950s ordered all US schools to desegregate, Milwaukee and other parts of the state, like much of the nation, didn’t do so for decades.

– The schools in Milwaukee are not in line with Brown versus the Board of Education until 1979.

Reggie Jackson:
The city of Milwaukee’s public school system decided, “Well, we’re gonna build new schools, but we’re gonna build them on the south side, which is primarily the white part of town, right?”

– The schools that Black people have access to were severely underfunded.

Ion Meyn:
What you saw in Black communities was a continual kind of decline in the tax base, and the ability to support public education in those communities.

A declining tax base due to declining property values in housing like this in Milwaukee.

– Housing policy is education policy.

You go to the schools in your neighborhood, and we tend to fund schools through property taxes.

Better than 60% of Black and brown kids still go to segregated schools.

Schools in the Milwaukee metro area are more segregated for Black and white students than any other metro area of the country.

That’s comparing Milwaukee schools to those in the surrounding counties of Ozaukee, Washington, and Waukesha.

– Whatever efforts there have been by the federal government to create integrated schools have not worked.

– There are many white children who go to all-white districts, and nobody says, “Oh, this is a segregated district.”

They say, “This is a good district.”

If you look at performance, Black and brown kids continue to lag.

Those students test below white students in math, in the early grades, and it’s not just math.

– It speeds over a hundred miles an hour.

If there’s one indicator of how students will perform… – Woman: Reading proficiency is important across the races.

…It’s their ability to read by 3rd grade, and state assessments show that just one year later in the 4th grade, reading scores for Black and Hispanic students also lag.

– The most revolutionary thing we could do is teach these kids how to read.


[leaf blower humming]

But educators across Wisconsin are working to reverse these trends.

At One City grade school in Madison, the focus on reading is key.

– Yeah!

It kind of continues on.

3rd grade teacher, Kirsty Blattner teaches reading skills at this public charter where more than 80% of the students are Black, Hispanic, or multiracial.

Blattner is passionate about making sure her students embrace reading.

Kirsty Blattner:
I have a deep passion for helping scholars that are struggling academically.

If you have a scholar that doesn’t feel confident and comfortable with reading, then they’ll find other ways to sort of mask that.

Because no one wants to be seen as not knowing.

Instead of, “I can’t do this, I can’t do this yet.”

Instead of, “I’m not good at this.”

“What are you good at?

Would you like to be good at this?”

Sara Shaw:
America has trouble talking about race, period.

Sara Shaw researches education for a nonprofit think tank out of Milwaukee, called the Wisconsin Policy Forum.

– There’s a trope in literacy circles that before 3rd grade, students are learning how to read.

And after 3rd grade, students are reading to be able to learn.

Think of how many of your daily activities become more difficult.

Everything from reading street signs, to menus, to engaging in the legal system, or going to the doctor’s office.

– Education is the conduit to freedom.

From grade school achievement to high school where one superintendent can boast the benefits of a diverse student body.

Tremayne Clardy:
We’re approximately 35% students of color here in the Verona Area School District.

We celebrate diversity here in the Verona Area School District, and we understand that a diverse clientele in the students that we serve allows us to be a better district.

Inside the district’s signature $150 million high school, Verona Area school superintendent Dr. Tremayne Clardy is straightforward about his commitment and obligation to create equity for all students in his district, especially those that are Black and brown.

– It is our responsibility to move barriers but never, never lowering expectations.

While recent statewide data shows a gap in the graduation rates of Black and brown students compared to white students, Dr. Clardy and other educators believe the difference in achievement has less to do with performance, and more to do with something else.

– It’s opportunity.

It’s definitely not skill.

It’s not intellect.

There’s not any other internal barrier on behalf of our Black and brown students.

It is purely about access.

Opportunity and access are why this school has windows in place of walls, and wide-open common spaces.

– We are modeling, you know, other students seeing that collaborative process.

We set up our furniture that way.

We set up the classroom structure that day, because you know the power of peer-to-peer interaction, and what that means to strengthening education.

What is that thing that’s in you?

Meet guidance counselor Carri Hale.

– There’s no typical day in the world of a high school counselor.

In the spirit of strengthening education, in 2018, the district sent her, and every other teacher to the Nehemiah Justified Anger “Black History for a New Day” course.

– We really had to get to the root and heart of the history of the systems that have caused barriers that we’re trying to dismantle.

For Carri Hale… – It just fed me.

…the course has been life changing.

– It’s just grown in me over the years, and I realized at that time, there was so much I didn’t know.

It benefits me as an educator so that when I’m working with a student who doesn’t look like me or their family speaks another language, whatever it might be, that I can respect them and value them, and see them, and honor them for who they are in this space we’re in.

Gerald Montgomery:
Well, I definitely struggled trying to figure out who I was, just like everybody else.

Senior Gerald Montgomery says attending this diverse high school has made him more culturally aware than ever.

– When I came here, it was kind of like a cultural shock, seeing not too many faces looking like me.

It’s one of the reasons Gerald got involved with the school’s Black student union group… – It’s just more of, like, celebrating Black culture.

…which anyone can join.

– The first BSU year, it was, like, small, like, 10 people, when I was a freshman, and now it’s like 80.

And just seeing like that group of Black folks around me, I feel like that really helps keeping, like, that balance of me going through school and everyday life.

Gerald says he plans to go to college.

If he goes to a University of Wisconsin school, he’ll be one of a few Black students doing so.

Enrollment numbers show that in 1975, just 2.5% of students were Black.

Nearly 50 years later, their numbers in 2022 still make up just 2.9% of enrollment law.

While Professor Ion Meyn believes the numbers should mirror the demographics of the nation’s Black population of about 14%.

– If that gets to 3%, is that progress?


We’re not close to progress.

We’re not close to even reckoning with our problem.

The UW System lists diversity as a core value, and its five-year plan calls for boosting African American enrollment to 15% by 2028.

Dr. Equan Burrows:
College is a aspiration that is not afforded to all.

It’s our honor to serve and be one of the only majority-minority institutions in the state of Wisconsin.

Dr. Equan Burrows is the dean of students at Milwaukee Area Technical College, where more than half the full-time student population are minorities.

– It’s important that we level that playing field.

Look forward to being the mentors.

Dr. Burrows runs a mentoring program with about a hundred Black male students called the Men of Color Initiative.

– The goals are to educate and empower students.

The program hopes to give students like Jeremiah Crawford a better chance to finish college and keep pace with other students who eventually gain their bachelor’s degree.

Just kind of depends on…

I’ve always wanted to go to college.

My home life was a shambles.

It was rough having a father on drugs.

If that wasn’t enough.

Jeremiah Crawford:
High school was a point where I started to retreat into myself.

Jeremiah has something else that makes learning and life more difficult.

My sickle cell stood in the way.

He copes with the blood disorder sickle cell anemia.

– The last thing that you wanna do is pick up a book, and my illness would just take over.

The Men of Color give us an opportunity to meet, and share our emotions and our feelings, and struggles we’re having.

When it comes to reading… – It’s a skill that a lot of people are missing in this day and age.

Jeremiah knows its importance.

Every day he says he does… – About an hour to two hours of reading.

I would set an alarm for 15 minutes.

Read, stop reading, take a break.

He agrees with experts like Dr. Ladson-Billings who say, reading about things you like organically leads to more reading.

– If you like self-help books, you should look for that.

If you want to learn how to work on a car, you should read those type of books.

– I think that’s really good; I liked it.

Hitting the books is often new for a population that schools can leave behind.

People whose incarceration cut learning short.

An innovative program hopes to change that.

– There are many, many justifications for higher education in prison.

– You opened up a really important conversation.

This college classroom is inside a prison.

Odyssey Beyond Bars conducts this college-level English composition course at Racine Correctional and three other prisons across the state, on behalf of the University of Wisconsin.

It transforms how they look at their lives.

Virtually all of our students have reported to us at the end of the class that the experience in Odyssey has made them want to take more college classes.

There are people in prison who look around and think, “I don’t ever want to be back here again, “and I want to do something about my life that ensures that I don’t.”

– I gave the, quote commencement speech at Oakwood Correctional Center.

Each time, Dr. Ladson-Billing says, she’d ask one question.

– “Raise your hand if you were ever suspended?”

I’ve never had less than 100% of the hands go up.

[gentle poignant music]

Suspensions and expulsions from high school can lead to what has been called, “the school-to-prison pipeline,” and at the very least, disrupt graduation, and college attainment.

– Now the prisons are having to go back and say, “Listen, let’s make sure you get the education you should have gotten.”

If fixing the opportunity gap for Black and brown students is a puzzle, another important piece of it is the shortage of minority teachers.

– They talked about how my dad would move out, and how me and my sister… – Our students want and deserve to see someone that looks like them.

For his part, Superintendent Clardy is proud of his efforts in his district to diversify its staff with people like Kabby Hong, Teacher of the Year.

– And then, if you look at this paragraph.

For so many kids of color, they’ve never had a teacher of color.

A lot of the university programs are not diverse.

So if your feeder pool of teacher applicants is not diverse, then, of course, you’re not gonna have a diverse teaching workforce.

In 2020, researchers at the Wisconsin Policy Forum took an extensive look into the racial diversity of Wisconsin teachers, and the student-to-teacher pipeline.

The takeaway… – I want you to… – Sara: [exhaling] We have a lot more work to do.

Shaw says, ideally… – That the diversity of the student body would be reflected in the diversity of the teacher population.

While almost one third of students in Wisconsin are students of color, only about 6% of their teachers are, and many don’t stay.

– Teachers of color who come into the workforce are leaving at a faster rate than our white teachers.

– Okay?

Many educators say a diverse teaching staff positively impacts all students in a lot of different ways.

– We see positive impacts across everything from student motivation to strong student-teacher relationships, to absenteeism, graduation rates and going on to college.

– When you look at the educational inequities, I think it is just intrinsically tied to the inequities that are in society, but it’s gonna take policy changes– not just talk.

– For his part, Verona Superintendent Clardy is moving beyond talking and taking action.

– I’m not a worrier; I’m a doer.

And so we’re about doing the work.

– We continue our reporting on race and education in the state of Wisconsin here from the campus of the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

Here to continue the conversation, we’re joined by Dr. Alex Gee from the Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership and Development.

Mr. Kaleem Caire, Superintendent of One City Schools here in Madison, and Dr. Courtney Bell, who is the director of the Wisconsin Center for Educational Research.

As I’ve traveled and talked to folks across the state about this issue, I get the sense that it’s a very touchy subject.

Is there something to that?

– Race is a touchy subject in the United States.

I think, when we think about systemic racism, which exists in education, we think about these sort of interlocking layers of systems and policies, right?

So, you only need to think about how do we draw the district boundary, and the way that interacts with the neighborhoods, the neighborhood attendance zone, the teachers the school can attract, the outcomes that then wind up in that neighborhood, that those are interlocking systems.

So, it is contentious, I think partly because people do care, but the persistent inequalities are hard to look at in this state, in particular.

– Dr. Gee, why are people afraid to talk about this?

– Because I think it’s difficult to face up to the culpability.

We like to quote statistics, but we don’t really want to look at our ownership in the problem or why we’ve allowed it to persist.

In educational services systems, we want to fight against racism, but when we don’t properly address it, the educational systems themselves become breeding grounds for racism.

And I think we just like to pass the buck to someone else without taking full responsibility.

– I think they’re both absolutely spot on, but I also think that we have divorced ourselves from the problem.

That it is not only something that I’m embarrassed or don’t want to be culpable in, but it’s been persistent for so long, and if I know about it, I’m tired of hearing of it, and so, it brings me down.

I’ve heard people say that, like, “I can’t focus on the problem ’cause it just brings me down.

“‘Cause it’s like we’ve not solved it, it’s not gonna be solved.”

And so, I think there’s a lot of hopelessness.

I also think that we also live in a state that, by and large, has been privileged for a very long time, particularly in the area where we are in Madison.

And so, when you’re privileged, and things are going okay, and you don’t have to focus on the issue, you act like it doesn’t exist.

– But this lack of success that we’re seeing, is it more to blame on the teachers, or is it more to blame on students?

– I think there’s enough blame to go around, actually.

But I think, if we ignore the systemic issues, and only point fingers to the parents, the students, teachers, not look at the larger issue, I think we continue just to kick the can down the road.

And so, I think we have to look at really how we got here.

I think what makes it even more difficult is that education has been deemed the great equalizer.

Education is what brings you into the mainstream, and it keeps you from being discriminated against.

It keeps you from being poor.

And when that system that’s meant to elevate us is keeping certain people down it’s the antithesis to what we think of when we think about education.

And then, we have to really begin to ask ourselves real tough questions.

But we’re trying to educate children in a system, in a world, in a reality where there’s so much brokenness and pain, and disregard for who they are, their pain, and their culture.

So, I think we really need an overhaul in how we even look at what education means for us.

– And we know a lot of times we find solutions looking at other communities, other school districts, things like that.

Dr. Bell, we know you work across the world, the country, looking at different ways people do research to solve these kinds of issues.

Is there any district out there anywhere that’s doing things well in terms of addressing these issues with Black and brown students falling behind?

– You know there are success cases.

My colleague Gudiel R. Crosthwaite is the superintendent in Lynwood Unified, which is in LA.

They have community-based schools.

They have colleagues of color, professionals of color in those school buildings.

Not only colleagues of color, but some.

They are committed.

They believe that all those kids can learn.

They have tons of AP courses in those high schools.

They are starting with early Pre-K. And so, they hold them tight, and they treat them with dignity, and those families with dignity the whole way up.

– Now Kaleem, you’ve built a pretty unique environment in One City.

What are some of the things that you’re doing that you feel like other districts can learn from?

– Well, there’s quite a few things.

First and foremost, it’s the number of our young people that are coming to us who are so far behind academically.

Doesn’t matter the grade level that they’re at, but it’s even more depressing when they come to you in 9th and 10th grade and who have a… We have a third of our kids are at the– somewhere between 1st and 4th grade level in math and reading.

It’s like you just pass them along to 9th and 10th grade without intervening to address their real core challenges.

First six to eight weeks, we get to know our kids.

Then we pivot ’cause we see where they’re at.

We test ’em, we look at what they’re, how they interact in school, how they show up as students every day.

And two hours in the morning students are in math.

Two hours in the afternoon, they’re in language arts, and it’s not just instruction all day.

The first part of that is instruction at their level.

And then we bring in tutors that we’ve trained.

We’ve trained over 50 tutors to come in, and work with them one-on-one, no more than one-on-two to help them to get up to grade levels.

So we have a personalized learning environment for them so we can move them forward.

So we won’t be passing kids in our school forward to 9th and 10th grade who aren’t ready to be there.

– Dr. Gee, you’ve got one superpower I’m gonna give you to fix this problem.

What are you gonna do with it?

– We’ve got to really embed the importance of helping students to… and I’ll speak specifically to our work with African American children with really understanding and appreciating the culture.

You know, if we were to go back in time 60 years ago, we would not be having this conversation.

Black people were going to historically Black colleges and universities.

Building historically Black colleges and universities, building churches and businesses, highly successful educationally with integration.

And one of my mentors, and she probably has mentored all of us, Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings has always said, “But, Alex, remember, with integration, 30,000 Black teachers lost their jobs ’cause they did not, they were not integrated.”

That’s right.

– Black students were, Black teachers weren’t, and many of them became domestics.

And so, we have to understand that this is somewhat new.

Because again, 60 years ago, we weren’t saying, “How do we educate our Black children?”

We were probably asking, “How do we vote?”

But Black children were becoming dentists and doctors and nurses and professors, and then something happened.

So my superpower would be, let’s get them in places where teachers can relate to them, understand them, celebrate them, and where they see themselves in textbooks.

I came to Madison advanced in 2nd grade, but I had a Black teacher in 1st grade who told me I was gonna be the president of the United States.

She’s 102 years old, and we’re still pen pals.

We’re talking is if we have to fix Black children.

What we have to really ask ourselves is, “How are we breaking Black children?”

– So, we know most parts of Wisconsin have a very tiny population of students of color, if any at all.

So when you talk about the folks that sit at home right now, and say, “This has nothing to do with me.”

How do we get those folks to have a stake in this game to make things better?

– I’d like to go back to something that was said earlier about the function of education in, and I’ll say, a democracy.

This affects all of us, every single one of us, no matter what our racial background is, no matter where we live.

If we do not have democracy, that functions with civility, where people can consider issues of science in the public domain of policy around all manner of things: housing, power, you name it, all the things, social services, farm subsidies, whatever it may be.

We need an educated citizenry.

That’s what the country was founded on.

So for me, this is about all of us.

These are all of our children; this is our country.

– And I would say America’s at risk.

If you produce children who lack an interest, and passion to solve the big problems of today and tomorrow, who’s gonna be there to solve them?

We have to focus on education and make it, I believe, our number one priority in this country.

And if we want a country that’s not divided, we also have to have a education that unifies people rather than divides them.

And so if we do those things, we’ll succeed.

If not, you know, our demise is we already have signs of what it will look like.

– If we don’t learn how to work together, and work for and with, be educated by, and educating people who don’t look like us, we can’t fool ourselves in thinking that we’re ready for a global market, that we want to compete in the global market.

And so, we can’t boast of having world-class school districts or universities if we don’t know how to talk to people who are from our own state who look different.

And so, I think we have to own the broader problem.

Otherwise, we can’t boast in producing people who can compete internationally for jobs, or awards, or opportunities.

We’ll have to leave it there, Dr. Gee.

Thank you, sir.

– My pleasure.

– Kaleem Caire, thank you.

– Thank you.

– Dr. Courtney Bell, we appreciate you.

And we thank you folks at home for joining us as well.

[gentle, poignant music]

Funding for Wisconsin in Black & White is provided by Ira and Ineva Reilly Baldwin Wisconsin Idea Endowment, DeAtley Family Foundation, Joe and Mary Ellyn Sensenbrenner, Lau and Bea Christensen, The Evjue Foundation, the charitable arm of The Capital Times, Madison College, National Guardian Life Insurance Company, UnityPoint Health – Meriter, donors to the Focus Fund for Journalism, and Friends of PBS Wisconsin.

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