Milwaukee: A Case Study

A look at this Midwestern urban district shows both the promises and challenges of sustaining a movement for multicultural, anti-racist education.

By Curtis Lawrence

Late last spring, about a dozen Milwaukee teenagers sat with a reporter to discuss multiculturalism and anti-racist education.The students were from Riverside University High School, oftentouted as the district's most multiracial and academically successful.But when they were asked to assess multicultural and anti-racisteducation, their responses may have stunned some familiar withthe district.

Despite several dedicated teachers, the students said multiculturalor anti-racist education wasn't happening at Riverside.

"We don't get anything but a European aspect," said Benjamin Engel,a native of Ghana, who last year was the president of Riverside'sStudent Council.

Hannah Nolan-Spohn, a white student who last year was a sophomoreat Riverside, also noted that contemporary issues - especiallythose about race - don't get a lot of air-time. "In most classes,there are not serious discussions about current events," Nolan-Spohnsaid. "The teacher is more concerned about the lesson plan."

This is not what parents, administrators, teachers, and communityactivists had in mind 10 years ago when they ignited a movementto infuse a multicultural and anti-racist philosophy throughoutthe Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). In a unique step by a majorurban school district, MPS established districtwide learning goals,the first of which stated that students would "project anti-racist,anti-biased attitudes" and participate in a multicultural curriculum.

The initiative was intended to go beyond what some teachers calla "food-facts curriculum," a shallow overview of cultures anddiet that sometimes passes for multicultural education. Instead,they wanted the Milwaukee students to view their world with acritical multicultural eye - whether through challenging a bookwhere Native Americans are stereotyped or analyzing how AfricanAmericans and Latinos are portrayed on the nightly news. The districtprovided funding, staffing, and a strong professional developmentcomponent to implement its ambitious goals.

But due to a variety of factors - a changing political climate,shifts in district leadership and vision, budget cuts, a movetoward decentralization, and an increased emphasis on standardsand testing - Milwaukee's multicultural movement has devolvedinto what can be described as "pockets of multiculturalism." Theonce popular initiative is now kept alive primarily by a smallgroup of teachers and administrators.

Milwaukee's decade of experimentation with multiculturalism providesa case study of both the promises and challenges of providinga multicultural curriculum in urban school districts.

Las t April, teachers and administrators met at a forum on thetopic sponsored by Rethinking Schools and hosted by the Helen Bader Foundation, a Milwaukee-based organizationwith a strong interest in education. Those attending were askedhow they thought multicultural and anti-racist education had faredin Milwaukee in the previous three to five years. Eleven answeredit had declined a lot, five said it had declined a little or stayedthe same, and two responded it had improved a little.

To understand how the teachers and staff arrived at their assessments,one must first go to the roots of a movement many once hoped wouldput Milwaukee permanently on the map as an innovator in multiculturaleducation.


Part of what makes the Milwaukee experience noteworthy is thatthe push for multicultural education came from both teachers andparents at the grassroots level and from top administrators inthe district's central office. Further, the school board supportedthe effort.

"We felt that as the world was changing, Milwaukee was changing,and the school district was changing. We wanted to make sure ourchildren weren't getting left behind in connection to the largersociety," said Joyce Mallory, a former school board member.

At the grassroots level, a key role was played by district-funded,teacher-led councils, which allowed classroom teachers from acrossthe city to network and share best practices. A particularly importantrole was played by the Multicultural Curriculum Council, whichgrew out of an in-service in January 1989 by Asa G. Hilliard III,a noted author on issues of race and education, who is now a professorof urban education at Georgia State University.

Although there is no one date that marks the beginning of themulticultural movement in Milwaukee, many point to that in-serviceby Hilliard as a key event. Then-Superintendent Robert Peterkinsupported the move for multiculturalism and initiated two yearsof meetings and brainstorming sessions by teachers, parents, administrators,and community leaders on developing the district's curriculumgoals.

In the 1991-92 school year, the Milwaukee district adopted itsK-12 Teaching and Learning Initiatives. The first goal stated:"Students will project anti-racist, anti-biased attitudes throughtheir participation in a multilingual, multi-ethnic, culturallydiverse curriculum."

The significance of the K-12 Teaching and Learning Initiativeswent beyond their content, however. For the first time, teachersfelt that multiculturalism and anti-racist curriculum could bemore than just something discussed in the hallways by small groupsof teachers. Now, it was a policy developed with significant teacherand parent input and backed by the district.

"It [the need for multicultural education] was broadly laid out,the money was there and it was totally supported from the topdown," said Linda Kreft, a staff development specialist who runsthe MPS Resource Center and who at the time was a classroom teacher."Because of that, you had big support from the schools."

Cynthia Ellwood, then an English teacher at South Division HighSchool recruited by the central administration to help implementthe K-12 learning initiatives at a districtwide level, echoedthat view. "Everywhere throughout the system there was a commitmentto multiculturalism, and it came from the top," said Ellwood."There was a message out there that I think is lacking these daysabout how important this was."

With backing from Deborah McGriff, deputy superintendent at thetime, Ellwood used funding provided by the school board to providebooks and other instructional materials as well as in-servicetraining and workshops with experts in the field. She also broughta teacher's sensitivity to her new position and insisted thatteachers remain in the driver's seat so that the program wouldnot become another top-down initiative.

"I knew, as a teacher, that the answers were there among the teachers,"said Ellwood, who is now principal of the Hartford UniversityAvenue School for Urban Explorations. "They understood what itwould take better than those in central office."

Kathy Swope, former co-chair of the Multicultural Curriculum Councilwho now is the Performance Assessment Coordinator for MPS, saidthat the "teacher-driven" component of the councils was crucialto effectively infusing multiculturalism throughout the district."That was important because of the ownership, the level of commitmentand the credibility of the work that was done by the councils."

While the Multicultural Curriculum Council started with 12 to18 schools, by 1995 the number of schools involved had jumpedto 100, or about two-thirds of the district's schools. Councilmembers were responsible for attending meetings and workshops,then returning to spread the word among other teachers and staffat their schools. Goals of the council included training its membersto be advocates for multicultural education, introducing teachersto national consultants, and putting a variety of resources intoteachers' hands.

In addition to the Multicultural Curriculum Council, the districthad a number of other teacher-led councils, including the WholeLanguage Council, Early Childhood Council, and Humanities Council.Most of the councils also focused on providing staff developmentto promote multiculturalism.


One of the issues that immediately came to the fore was how todefine multicultural education. "We were talking more about multiculturaleducation and there were a lot of different views about what thatmeant," said Steven Baruch, a retired MPS administrator who workedfor the district's human relations unit at the time.

Many on the Multicultural Curriculum Council argued for a perspectivethat went beyond merely acknowledging the different cultures withinMPS. Kreft said that "by and large we held the definition thatit was an education and reform movement - a philosophical viewpointmeeting the needs of students in a culturally diverse population."

Swope was especially concerned that issues of power and race beaddressed directly. "Multicultural education is not just includingperspectives and insights and information from various culturesor groups," said Swope. "It's an ongoing process that empowersstudents to view the world from multiple perspectives and to understandthe ongoing dynamics of this rapidly changing world."

"The anti-racist component is included when you talk about empoweringstudents to make changes in the world, to make critical judgmentsabout justice and equity, and not to be complacent about the statusquo or about historical omissions and distortions," Swope said.

There was also the concern that multiculturalism not be viewedin a vacuum, but rather be seen as a thread running through allof the teacher-led councils. The Humanities Council, for example,sponsored an in-service session where teachers instructed theirpeers on innovative ways to teach novels by non-white authors.

In 1994, MPS teachers and staff, working with the MulticulturalCurriculum Council, wrote an implementation guide for multiculturaland anti-racist education. The guide gave detailed steps on howto implement a multicultural curriculum and examples of how toinvolve students in the concept.

"In addition to staff development, we were able to provide actualmaterials," Swope said. "If a school wanted to infuse more multiculturalisminto their mathematics curriculum, for example, someone from thecouncil would provide sample lessons, strategies, and specificresources to help with that objective."

While the councils made an impact, even supporters of the initiativesay it was far from perfect. Implementing the number-one goalof the K-12 initiative was no easy task.

"We felt that a lot of exciting things would happen and a lotof them did," Baruch said. "But as far as systemic reform, maybewe were trying to do too much in too many places."

Paulette Copeland, a 24-year-MPS veteran who now heads the MilwaukeeTeachers Education Association, said the councils "were hopingthat every school would put [multicultural, anti-racist curriculum]into their education plan and actually promote it, but it didnot actually work. Schools wrote it out, but it was just a plan.There were no checks to see if you were actually carrying outyour plan."


In the spring of 1996, during the district's budget process, theK-12 curriculum councils took a major hit when their budgets wereeliminated.

"When the funding for the councils was no longer provided, thevehicle that allowed teachers from across the district to cometogether and to struggle with issues and to pool their knowledgewas no longer there," Swope said.

"It was really a massive blow to all of the councils and to theteachers," added Kreft. "We could no longer have funds for anything- no money for speakers. And we no longer had funding to developany kind of publications."

Former Milwaukee School Board President Mary Bills said the districtwas under intense pressure to reduce property taxes and to lookfor programs to trim and cut. Although Bills had supported thecouncils, she felt she had no choice but to vote in favor of thecuts. "I think it was just easy pickings to be honest," Billssaid in a recent interview. "It didn't have anything to do withthe merit."

At the same time, then-Superintendent Howard Fuller favored radicallydecentralizing many districtwide supports and services. The Curriculumand Instruction division at central office became a major targetof the budget cutters. Council activities slowed dramaticallywhen funding was cut for basic operating expenses, and for substitutes- who had made it possible for teachers to leave their classroomsand participate in in-service programs. Teachers who wanted tocontinue to participate in the councils had to do so on theirown time.

Ellwood said the defunding "made a huge dent in the effect ofthe council. It became a smaller group of people supporting acommon goal as opposed to a group of leaders who had resourcesto spend in supporting the whole district's agenda."

The Multicultural Curriculum Council continued meeting into 1998,Kreft said. "But we really found it very difficult to get speakersbecause everyone wanted a stipend and we had just more or lessrun out of steam."

Another contributing factor to the demise of the councils wasthe district's emphasis on the School-To-Work program, an initiativewith strong support from central office. Funds that once wentto the councils were directed to School-to-Work training and in-servicesessions. Standards and testing also were getting attention atthe local, state, and national levels.

"The emphasis changed over time and when people suddenly foundthat multicultural and anti-racist education were no longer atcenter stage. ... There was a redefinition of what was the mostimportant goal," said Baruch. "Everybody was talking about thestandards, and the emphasis was now on how to raise test scores.You could see it happening and that's where the money startedto go and that's where the emphasis went."


The assessment of multiculturalism by Riverside students is importantbecause Riverside is described in the district's accountabilityreport as "one of Milwaukee Public Schools' most successful highschools." It is also known for its multiracial student body -the school is 50 percent African Americans, 25 percent whites,15 percent Latinos, and 7 percent Asians. Native Americans andthose defined as "other" account for 3 percent.

When the students talked about the lack of emphasis on multiculturaland anti-racist education at the school, one of the exceptionsthey mentioned frequently was English teacher Ashanti Hamilton,a 27-year-old African American teacher who is a Riverside alumnus.

Hamilton began the 1998-99 school year covering the routine curriculum- authors such as Ernest Hemmingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, andStephen Crane. In the second half of the year, Hamilton decidedto take the curriculum in another direction. "One of the firstthings we did was to have a discussion about what racism was,how it manifested itself, and how each of us has our own differentset of prejudices," he said.

Hamilton introduced the discussion by showing a 1993 episode fromthe NBC news program, "Dateline NBC." The program, "True Colors,"followed two men, one African-American and one white, and chronicledtheir experiences trying to rent an apartment, purchase a car,hail a taxi, and secure a hotel room. The program, which documentedthe second-class treatment received by the African-American man,sparked discussion and emotion among his students.

Included in discussions in the weeks after the video was shownwas talk of lynches, the treatment of Native Americans, and thepersecution of Jews and other people during Hitler's Holocaust.

Discussions also included the Asian and Hispanic experiences andwhat it means to be bilingual in the United States. Hamilton alsomade sure he included positive examples of white Americans includingabolitionists and Milwaukee's own Father James Groppi, the lateCatholic priest and civil rights activist.

For some of the students, the frank and open discussions wereoverwhelming, Hamilton said. "It was heart- wrenching," Hamiltonsaid. "There were tears and everything."

Some of the white students "started to feel a little uncomfortablebecause they wanted to truly believe they were not like theirparents," Hamilton said. There was also an uncomfortable feelingamong some African-American students who felt compelled to defendtheir white classmates during some of the heated discussions.

Hamilton had braced himself for calls and visits from parents,and they came.

"They complained that they didn't consider this traditional Americanliterature," he said. When he explained the concept of his classto Riverside Principal Mary Ann Zapala, "she said 'fine,'" Hamiltonrecalled and that she gave him her full support.

Contrary to what some parents thought, Hamilton saw multiculturaland anti-racist education as a crucial part of the skills hisstudents would need to succeed in life and not at all out of linewith his responsibility as an English teacher. "One of the majorpurposes of literature, of language, of writing - everything thisclass is supposed to be about - is to cross barriers," Hamiltonsaid. "I felt like I would have done my white students a disserviceif I didn't put a mirror up to them. I would have done a disserviceto my ethnic, minority students if I did not validate their Americanexperience. And I would have really done myself a disservice ifI didn't teach them from a personal perspective."

Chuck Cooney, a Riverside history teacher and a 22-year MPS veteran,says Hamilton will be sorely missed this school year. Hamiltonhas decided to pursue a law degree and will not return to Riverside.

Cooney is another example of how teachers have been able to interjectmulticultural, anti-racist material into the curriculum despitea decrease in the emphasis on multiculturalism from central office.

In the early 1990s, for instance, Cooney taught his students aboutthe Fugitive Slave Act. Included in the lesson was the story ofSherman M. Booth, a Wisconsin abolitionist who organized a contingentof 5,000 abolitionists to rescue an escaped slave named JoshuaGlover from a Milwaukee jail.

Booth was arrested and jailed several times for violating theFugitive Slave Act. President James Buchanan finally pardonedhim in 1861, and a Milwaukee street was named in his honor.

Cooney recalls telling one of his classes the story. "This kid,I don't remember his name, raises his hand and says, 'Why isn'tthere a street named after that slave dude?' I never thought ofthat question," Cooney said.

Cooney, though, continued to raise the same question with hisstudents every year and in 1994, one of his classes mounted asuccessful campaign to rename a Milwaukee street after Glover.

But teachers can't be expected to interject such projects intothe curriculum without training or without encouragement fromthe administration, Cooney said. "They won't just do it unlessthey're prodded."

Cooney cited two other barriers to multicultural education. "Alot more of this kind of teaching would happen if teachers wouldhave the chance during the day to talk to one another," he said.And like many other teachers throughout the district, Cooney citesthe pressure on teachers to improve test scores. "I've never feltas much pressure to teach to a test as I have in the last fiveyears."

The pressures of testing and little time for preparation and developingnew curriculum are also felt at the middle school and elementarylevels, according to Milwaukee teachers.

Brenda Harvey came to Milwaukee five years ago and worked as afifth-grade teacher at Hartford and, most recently, as an administratorat Garden Homes Elementary.

"I came here from Raleigh, N.C., and I was really impressed withthe number-one teaching goal," said Harvey referring to the statedemphasis on a multilingual, multi-ethnic, culturally diverse curriculum."I came here with a lot of high hopes."

Harvey said she never thought the interjection of race and cultureinto her classroom was at conflict with her duty to prepare herstudents academically. "Certainly, I expected them to know mathand the scientific processÉ," Harvey said. "I also expected themto know what it means to be a functioning, educated person inan urban setting."

"Both as a teacher and as an administrator, I believe in demandingexcellence," Harvey said. "I don't have a problem with the useof standards to achieve excellence. But when we look at most ofthe standards, we find that they are reflective of a narrow, white,mono-ethnic perspective. The standards that are used in most casesare not indicators of meaningful learning."

At issue, Harvey said, is the degree of force with which standardsare being pushed to the forefront at the expense of multiculturalism."The passion is placed into standards and accountability," shesaid adding that during her last year at Hartford, she felt "thestandards piece breathing down my back the most."

School Board President Bruce Thompson, first elected in April1997, said until he sees actual proof that a multicultural curriculumhelps prepare students academically, he will continue the emphasison standards, accountability, and testing.

"I haven't seen any examination of how effective it is," Thompsonsaid, adding that he is concerned that such an emphasis "can takeaway from the kind of skills students will need to succeed inmainstream society." He also voiced concern that students would"get shortchanged on literature that's part of our overall culture."

Thompson said it's hard to have candid discussions about racefor fear of "saying the wrong things. The problem is that thereare so many dangers of talking about it. It's very hard to [ask],'Why do we have this performance gap?'"


But no matter how painful, it's critical that race be talked aboutrather than ignored, said Mallory, the former school board memberwho is now the director of Start Smart, an organization that focuseson promoting awareness around early childhood issues.

"If adults don't talk about race in Milwaukee, how can we createa community where everyone is valued?" asked Mallory.

"To think that doing well on a test is all the skills young peopleare going to need is foolhardy," she said. "If you look at oneof the primary skills employers want people to have, it's theability to get along with people from different backgrounds anddifferent orientations."

Mallory said that the school board she served on did not wantmulticultural and anti-racist education to come at the expenseof the rest of the curriculum. But rather it was to be woven into bolster the rigor of what was being taught.

"I didn't see it as fluff then, and I don't see it as fluff now,"said Mallory. "Personally if I had a child in the MPS today, Iwould still see it as important, particularly for children ofcolor. Racism and all those other 'isms' haven't gone away."

Fall 2000