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Milwaukee was already failing students of color. Covid made it worse


School closures have been disruptive for students across the United States but, for many students of color in Milwaukee’s public school system, the immediate impacts have been downright alarming.

In the long run, educators fear, Covid and a long history of segregation and discrimination have formed a toxic cocktail that could reverberate for decades to come.

“It’s not only a question of how we get these kids back to where they would have been had the pandemic not occurred, but how do we get them back to where they should be?” said Dan Rossmiller of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards.

“And that, of course, was the preexisting problem.”

Virtual instruction has been the norm in Milwaukee public schools since March, when schoolhouse doors were first forced to close because of Covid. And in few places are the concerns about its impacts more acute than on Milwaukee’s north side, a majority-Black area in one of the most segregated cities in the nation. In the neighborhoods surrounding Martin Luther King Jr elementary, a school on the city’s near-north side, 55% of children live in poverty – nearly four times the state average for children in poverty.

Angela Harris, a 41-year-old teacher at the school, recalled the distress among students when she told them in the spring they wouldn’t be returning to the classroom.

She remembers rushing to the stockpile of snacks she kept in the classroom for hungry students and how she had loaded them into children’s backpacks so they’d have something to eat if food at home was scarce. She recalls one student in particular, wearing a green and black jacket donated by a local NBA star, and the way his face tightened in devastation at the news he might not see his teacher again.

“I can just visualize his face, in that coat, in that moment, asking me, ‘Mrs Harris, but what do I do if mommy is mean to me again?’ And me not knowing how to help him,” Harris said.

In the following weeks, as the school district scrambled to distribute Chromebooks and cobble together a plan for the remainder of the school year, Harris spent afternoons hand-delivering packets of homework print-outs to the doorsteps of the 20 students in her class.

Martin Luther King Jr elementary school in Milwaukee.
Martin Luther King Jr elementary school in Milwaukee. Photograph: Pat A Robinson/The Guardian

“I knew they needed the reassurance of seeing me, and I needed the reassurance, too. For some of them, the only time I could make sure they were OK was when they were with me,” she said.

With more than 92% of the schools’ students qualifying for subsidized lunch, Harris also put out a call for donations of food and toiletries and organized a roster of people willing to help deliver meals to families, securing 500 volunteers on the first day. By Harris’ count, the mutual aid group has delivered more than 1,000 hot meals to families in 10 different zip codes across the city.

Teaching, Harris said, last year looked more like social work, hunting for missing students and social workers to fill in the wraparound services schools provided. “Educators have always been rushing in to fill in these services. But this is a pretty tattered safety net,” said Amy Mizialko, president of Milwaukee’s teachers union.

‘They can’t overcome what they’ve missed’

The consequences of in-person school closures will be far-reaching, experts warn. Students may on average lose five to nine months of learning by July 2021, one study estimated. Students of color – who are less likely than white students to have internet access at home or access to live teachers – could fall six to 12 months behind. For those from economically disadvantaged families, who begin school already behind their better-off peers, the results are compounded.

“I’m simultaneously trying to keep children well and keep them believing in themselves while fighting against this system that has been set up against them,” said Harris, while sitting outside the Sherman Phoenix, an incubator for Black-owned businesses that grew out of the rubble of a bank burned during racial unrest in the city in 2016.

Harris lives nearby, just a 10 minute drive to MLK Jr, an African American immersion school where students are steeped in a culturally-affirming curriculum that’s heavy on Black arts, history and culture.

As the chairwoman of Milwaukee’s Black Educator Caucus, and a member of the Black Lives Matter at School national committee, Harris strives to instill within the students in her class, all of them Black, the confidence and social-emotional skills that can help them navigate systems that don’t seem built to serve them.

Students as young as five and six are sadly aware of the disparities that surround them, Harris said. She recalls once taking the class on a walking field trip to the nearby library, and how the students became visibly frightened just to pass by a police station. On the trip back to school, students fired questions at Harris about whether police existed to help or hurt them, she said. The day after the storming of the US Capitol earlier this month, Harris said, students talked about why police may have treated the rioters differently than the way they’ve seen police behave in the surrounding community.

Sherman Phoenix is an incubator for Black-owned businesses in Milwaukee.
Sherman Phoenix is an incubator for Black-owned businesses in Milwaukee. Photograph: Pat A Robinson/The Guardian

Milwaukee is one of the nation’s most segregated cities within a state that produces the country’s starkest racial disparities across the spectrum of wellbeing. Wisconsin’s Black children don’t just fare worse compared to their white peers; they face longer odds when compared to Black children raised anywhere else in the nation.

A 2014 report by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families found that white children in the state fare better than they do in most states – ranking 10th best on a list of indicators, from birth weight to graduation and employment. The state ranked dead last on its outcomes for Black children. The education gap between Wisconsin’s Black and white students is the largest in the nation, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics – numbers based largely on outcomes for Milwaukee school children.

Yet fifty years ago, Milwaukee was a city of great promise. Between 1915 and 1945, during the Great Migration that followed the first world war, the population of Black Milwaukeans boomed from 1,500 to about 10,000. Many of those new arrivals landed in an area known as Bronzeville, just south of MLK Jr, where Black businesses, jazz clubs and churches thrived until it was decimated by the construction of Interstate 43.

In the 1970s, at the zenith of industrial production, Black laborers found work at tanneries, manufacturing plants and breweries that could support families and offer a path to the middle class. At the time, the city’s Black unemployment was 22% lower than the national average, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel analysis found.

But as the forces of deindustrialization sent jobs from the city’s inner core to the suburbs and overseas, unemployment skyrocketed. By 2000, the city had the highest Black unemployment rate of any major US city.

The disparate impact of the cascade of economic and social policy shifts reinforced the segregation patterns established more than 80 years ago, when the federal government’s Home Owners’ Loan Corporation graded neighborhoods based on their perceived risk of investment – a practice later known as redlining – which blocked residents of color from accessing capital.

Those maps, created by the federal housing agency between 1935 and 1940, designated much of Milwaukee’s north side as “negro and slum” areas, places occupied by laborers and “ne’er-do-wells”.

Segregated neighborhoods, fueled by white flight, exacerbated school segregation and the attendant issues that came along: underfunded schools, buildings in disrepair, and the concentrated needs of economically disadvantaged students.

Art from MLK Jr students adorns a bus stop shelter near the school.
Art from MLK Jr students adorns a bus stop shelter near the school. Photograph: Pat A Robinson/The Guardian

North Division high school, where MLK students may one day land, is 96% Black. Roughly 98% of all students at North Division fell short of proficiency in math and language arts in 2019. That year, roughly 35% of students graduated on time.

North Division principal Keith Carrington said he believes virtual learning offers an opportunity: it’s here to stay, and some students thrive within the model. But he said the biggest challenge has been keeping students engaged. School attendance has dropped from the mid-70s last spring to about 63% this year, he said. Along with it, he’s seen an increased number of students failing classes – a trend seen across the country.

Given problems presented by the pandemic, stacked on top of long standing inequalities, Carrington is sober about the current reality for students in north Milwaukee.

“Think about the trauma our students have been dealing with since March,” Carrington said.

“There’s been an uptick of violence in our homes. More students calling to say they’re depressed. A lot of calls from parents who say they’re at their wits end. Racial unrest. Families going without food.”

Dana Kelley, an organizer with Northside Rising, a nonprofit campaigning for investment in green jobs in the area, believes progress on Milwaukee’s north side begins with replacing the economic opportunities lost when factories closed and jobs disappeared.

“We have these manufacturing buildings all in the heart of the city just sitting vacant, not pumping any blood into the neighborhood. Nothing has been put in its place. Now you have a community looking at these gaping holes, and there’s holes in their heart, holes in their hope,” Kelley said.

Recently, Kelley announced she’d be running for school board to force a sense of urgency she sees as desperately lacking for Milwaukee’s students of color.

“Nobody wants to be responsible for making the radical change that we need. Not only have we left kids behind, we have buried children. They can’t overcome what they’ve missed,” she said.

Adapting to virtual learning

While nearby suburban school districts have returned to in-person instruction, with some offering a mix of in-person and online learning, classes in Milwaukee public schools like MLK and North Division have remained virtual.

With the better part of a year’s experience, teaching online is notably smoother for Harris than last spring. She takes the shape of an air traffic controller when teaching, wearing mic’d up earphones, monitoring sixteen Zoom boxes for distracted students – “Jahmiyah, I can’t tell if you’re focused on work or if you’re playing ball in a tent with your brothers” – responding to text messages from caregivers suddenly locked out of the online classroom, all while driving through the day’s lesson plan. During class breaks, Harris responds to the needs of her own children, who navigate their online classes out of sight of the camera.

While she felt more like a social worker than a teacher last school year, this year looks more like tech support, she said, as connectivity problems persist for families at her school.

“I try to help them as best I can, but the wifi is iffy and the internet drops,” said Amandia Mitchell, a 25-year-old mother of four whose daughter was in Harris’ class last year. Mitchell said it’s near impossible to look for work or attend appointments while her children need her attention.

Closing the digital divide remains a challenge for Milwaukee schools. Even with the 8,600 hotspots the district has already deployed, they receive 50 to 80 new requests a day and are unsure how many more will be needed, district spokesman Earl Arms said in December.

Keeping their children educated has, for many families, meant making fundamental changes to their living situations. With their mother at work, 7-year-old Bryson Gray and his younger brother moved in with their grandparents so someone could shepherd them through online classes during the day.

Bryson’s grandmother, Carmelita, said she’s endured and adapted to virtual learning – even if it means she and her 65-year-old husband act as teaching assistants for their grandchildren each school day.

Depictions of the school’s namesake can be seen above the doors at Martin Luther King Jr elementary school.
Depictions of the school’s namesake can be seen above the doors at Martin Luther King Jr elementary school. Photograph: Pat A Robinson/The Guardian

Every morning, Gray sits beside Bryson in the living room, while her husband helps their younger grandson in the kitchen. “As much as I’d love to have my babies back in school, we’re just going to fight this out until it’s safer,” Gray said. “My house is like the quarantine house. We don’t do visitors. I’m not playin’, you come into my house, you might be getting Lysoled.”

Gray said she’s been encouraged to see Bryson mastering his verbs and adverbs and know that he’s learning instead of being passed along to the next grade without the skills he needs – a practice she said she’s seen too many times in Milwaukee.

“If I wasn’t there, my (grandchildren) wouldn’t even be doing online class. Now they have perfect attendance. All I know is that when my grandchildren graduate, my name better be on someone’s certificate,” she said. It’s a family effort, she added.

With vaccine distribution under way, pressure has mounted in recent months for schools to return to in-person instruction. Just this week, after the state mandated a prompt return to the classroom for students with disabilities, the school board voted to bring all students back to school in April – leaving students little more than a month of in-person learning before the school year ends.

The Milwaukee teachers union remains opposed to a return to schools until it says state leaders can provide a clear plan for testing, contact tracing and vaccine distribution.

“Can we return to in-person instruction? No, not safely. Not with the gaps in information we’re still working with,” said Mizialko, the president of Milwaukee’s teachers union.

The crisis could have implications for education for years to come.

Roughly 25,000 students in Wisconsin didn’t return for the current school year, a 3% drop in enrollment – a loss that Rossmiller of the Wisconsin Association of School Boards said was concentrated most heavily in the youngest grades. Rossmiller believes the fact that more parents are home to care for young children, coupled with safety concerns and the challenges virtual instruction poses to parents, is part of the reason parents are disenrolling children from schools.

It’s a pattern seen across the nation’s largest school districts. In Hawaii, more than 4,600 students didn’t return this year, a 2.6% loss, according to its department of education. In Fairfax county, Virginia, enrollment dropped 9,650 students, or 5%.

School funding in Wisconsin is based on a three-year enrollment average, meaning that even if those students come back, the school district could have less money to spend on the learning resources that could help students recoup learning loss in the years ahead.

Harris is against reopening at the moment. Her worry over the potential impact of lost learning is tempered by the recognition that the current system is one that doesn’t seem to be designed for her students to begin with.

“We talk about the losses students are suffering not being in school. But we have to remember, we’re talking about a system that was failing our Black and brown children long before coronavirus.”



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