Throughout the rooms on the Madison Concourse Hotel’s second floor, the conversations sounded remarkably similar.
More than 200 people from 19 school districts around the country — including four in Dane County — were discussing how to make their schools better for students of color. From room to room, representation among teachers, in advanced learning class students and in the curriculum itself, were common topics of conversation.
Those conversation points soon turned into action plans the students would bring back to their districts, hopefully improving the situation for themselves and their peers.
Friday was the third day of the Minority Student Achievement Network annual student conference, hosted this year by the Middleton Cross Plains Area School District. Students and staff from as far as Arizona, Virginia and Massachusetts spent three days in Madison talking with each other, hearing from keynote speakers like Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and touring the UW-Madison campus.
“Black love and self love is really important,” said Madison Memorial High School senior Yacouba Traore Jr. “They’ve told us a lot about just having a sense of self, just being you, being important and being relevant.”
His action planning group, which consisted of four attendees from each Madison School District comprehensive high school, came up with the idea of “We Want To See Us,” focusing on representation among the district's teaching corps. Yacouba, who started his school career in the Sun Prairie Area School District, said his 10th grade English class was the first time he had a black teacher.
“It was very monumental in my life,” he said. “I feel like when you have a diverse staff, you learn a lot more because people aren’t afraid to talk about certain things.”
That was a common experience among the MMSD students who spoke with the Cap Times. A fall 2016 report found that 88% of the district’s classroom teachers were white. Andrew West, a sophomore at La Follette High School, said he’s also had just one black teacher in his school career.
“I could be way more successful in school having somebody that looked like me that could relate to me,” Andrew said. “Be able to speak with me and not to me, I heard somebody here say that.”
A staff member of color can also serve as a resource to talk to when a student of color needs to talk to an adult about something personal, Andrew said.
“I feel like they’d understand where I’m coming from,” he said. “I could trust them better.”
He and La Follette senior Eden Gbedey said the students they spoke with from around the country over the three days at MSAN were “shocked to hear about Wisconsin things,” and recent news like the firing of West High School security guard Marlon Anderson and alleged segregation of students for testing in Middleton gave them plenty to share. Eden said the conference provided a “bonding or automatic connection” among attendees because it was an opportunity to be around other students who looked like them.
Memorial junior Andrea Norman said she’s hopeful MMSD will be able to act on the MSAN group’s recommendation, which will be finalized later this year when the students meet again to dive deeper into the topic.
“It is going to be a big step,” she said. “It’s going to be hard.”
For Madison East sophomore Samuel Cann, the conference “empowered me as a black man in America,” and gave him hope they can find solutions working together with their new connections across the district and the country.
“It’s allowed me to have the conversation with others and see where they’re coming from and experience that same goal that we all have and work together to achieve that goal,” Samuel said. “It’s comforting to know we’re not doing this alone.”
He was initially skeptical about coming to the conference as a sophomore, thinking there would be more value in coming when he was older. As the conference neared its end, though, Samuel was “really glad that I came.”
“Now I get to take everything I learned from this conference and go back home and preach it to everyone,” Samuel said. “I hope they can (do this).
“Having that representation, it’s going to have us think that we can make it and we can become better.”