As Percy Brown looked out at the crowd of more than 125 school officials gathered together in a gymnasium on a recent Wednesday night, he felt hopeful his message on equity could get through.
“The fact that you are here is saying something to me,” Brown told the mix of administrators and school board members from 19 area school districts. “You all have a role in what we need to do for kids moving forward.”
It was the first event of its kind hosted by the Dane County Equity Consortium, a group created last year to foster conversation and learning on the importance of educational equity in schools — the idea of giving students the resources they need rather than giving everyone the same resources.
“We all need the same basic things to survive, but we need variations in the conditions around us to truly thrive,” Brown’s co-facilitator and Middleton Cross Plains Area School District coworker Rainey Briggs said at the Sept. 11 event. “Think about the conditions that are being set based on the policies that are being written.”
The consortium brought school board members together that night for the first time to discuss the history behind the educational disparities in Dane County. Brown, the director of equity and student achievement in MCPASD, told them it shouldn’t be the last time they gather.
“This can’t be a one and done,” he told them. “If it is, it’s going to take a part of my soul. I can’t let this just slide back.”
The consortium hosted the Dane County Youth Social Justice forum this spring, and Brown is hoping the next step can pair that with its most recent meeting, bringing students and board members together to interact about equity, implicit bias and the history of racism in the area.
He told the Cap Times several days after the event that the nature of people around here has kept those conversations from happening for years.
“It’s really big in Dane County where people are so nice that they’re nice to a fault,” he said. “Then when it’s time to engage in these difficult conversations, it muddles the work.
“This idea of us being something that we’re really not. We pride ourselves on being progressive and forward thinking, yet we don’t want to confront our history and confront the fact that systemic racism is alive and well in Madison and the broader Dane County area.”
Briggs made it clear early on to the overwhelmingly white group the evening would likely include some discussions that would make them uncomfortable.
“The best learning takes place when you all are talking with each other,” Briggs said. “We’re ... on this journey together. What we’re trying to do is find solutions, to grow and understand what needs to happen moving forward.”
Madison School Board member Ananda Mirilli was among the attendees, and said she was glad to see other board members interested in learning about the history that informs today’s disparities.
“It’s inspiring,” Mirilli said. “It gives me a sense of hope. We needed to have a different conversation about our results, our school data particularly.”
Brown also emphasized the importance of understanding the history that puts that data in context. He pointed to early deed restrictions in Madison neighborhoods that banned black people and immigrants and walked attendees through the history of public schooling in the United States — explaining how its foundation at a time of slavery contributes to how it looks and functions today.
“Change begins with history,” Brown said. “Decisions that were made historically have generational impact.”
Verona Area School District superintendent Dean Gorrell, who helped create the consortium, said it was “gratifying” to see the group gathered in the Monona Grove School District administrative building gymnasium on a Wednesday night for two hours, talking to each other about these complex concepts. He said that staff can have all the knowledge they want about equity, but without board support, it would be challenging to have broad effects.
“Unless you’re specifically talking about it, unless you’re specifically designing policy and practice around that, then you are inevitably leaving groups of students out,” Gorrell said. “It’s rarely an intentional design to create policy, to create practice that creates barriers. But unless you are intentional about what you’re doing, who it’s impacting, then you’re kind of going to get the same results.”
Mirilli said she is hopeful this begins to stop people from “creating all sorts of excuses” for those results as they have in recent years, pointing fingers at things like poverty or people coming from outside of Madison.
“We have used a lot of excuses to justify data that was a reflection of our school practices,” Mirilli said. “Having everyone in the room ... attending a late evening event on a school night, with such a sharp and explicit curriculum is a sign that we are taking the institutional responsibilities that we need to, to move us forward.”
Brown told the Cap Times the event allowed board members at various stages of understanding the concepts of equity, implicit bias and institutional racism to learn from each other.
“For me, the more that folks can be aligned in their knowledge and awareness, gives us our best shot to move forward,” he said. “You have to try to get as many people on the same page as possible, and school boards are part of the power structure in school districts.”