Milwaukee Public Schools annual kickoff rally
Annysa Johnson Milwaukee Journal Sentinel August 29, 2016
See photos at: Fullscreen
Biluge Ntabala, a student at Milwaukee High School of the Arts, gives a speech thanking teachers for all they have done for her during the Milwaukee Public Schools annual kickoff rally at the BMO Harris Bradley Center.
Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent Darienne Driver, Mayor Tom Barrett and a host of others speakers spent the better part of two hours Monday touting the merits and values of MPS at Milwaukee’s BMO Harris Bradley Center.
But it took a child to really show it.
Speaking before thousands of MPS employees gathered for a back-to-school rally, High School of the Arts junior Biluge Ntabala credited MPS teachers with changing her life — and the lives of many students — through the gift of second chances.
Biluge, who was born in the Congo, said she knew just three words of English — yes, no and maybe — when she immigrated with her family to Milwaukee four years ago. This summer, she told the crowd, she took part in a University of Wisconsin-Madison program for gifted students and an NAACP competition in Cincinnati.
“I give thanks to each and every one of you who made this possible,” Biluge said to thunderous applause and a standing ovation.
“MPS gives second chances, and those chances change a youth’s life forever,” she said. “You are the parents some of us never had. Thank you for … using your voices to give us hope and pushing us to move beyond our expectations.”
Monday’s rally drew some 9,000 MPS educators and staff to the Bradley Center for a high-energy welcome and pep talk just days before the start of the 2016-’17 school year on Thursday. It was a celebration of all that supporters say is right with MPS. And the crowd erupted in applause again and again as its successes flashed across video screens on the stage. National awards. Teachers of the year. Nearly $50 million in scholarships to last year’s graduating seniors.
But the rally came, too, at a difficult time for the district as it — like the city itself — grapples with the long-simmering issues of race and equity laid bare by the recent police shooting and unrest in Milwaukee’s Sherman Park neighborhood. MPS serves primarily low-income students of color. And, despite its successes, the district’s struggles include many poorly performing schools and a graduation rate of 58%.
Driver acknowledged Monday that MPS has not consistently educated all students of color.
But she applauded her board of directors for proposing a social studies and civil rights curriculum inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement.
And she highlighted a handful of new initiatives aimed at closing its achievement gaps, including in reading and algebra readiness, and improved climate and culture in the schools. And she said building healthy relationships — with students, among students and with families — is at the heart of the district’s work and mission.
“We are at a critical time right now in terms of how we’re going to move forward. … We’re not waiting for Superman; we’re calling in the Justice League,” said Driver, who drew a standing ovation and was frequently drowned out by applause.
Driver said she was “truly ready to change the narrative about public education and … Milwaukee Public Schools.”
“Our children deserve an opportunity to learn. And I know you are the ones who are going to … make sure our students are successful and prepared for college, career and life, and more importantly that they are loved, that they are nurtured.”
Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association President Kim Schroeder used the rally to call out Gov. Scott Walker and lawmakers in Madison, who public school advocates say are trying to dismantle the district by expanding voucher programs and other initiatives that bolster private and independent charter schools.
“It is no secret that public education — and public education specifically in Milwaukee — is under attack by our governor and state Legislature,” Schroeder said.
And he lifted up teachers, not just for their work in the classroom, but their social justice activism in service of their students.
Many, he said, work with immigrant-rights groups because some of their students fear their parents will be taken away and deported in the night. They fight for racial justice “in the most segregated city in America,” he said, and the “Fight for 15” campaign so their students’ parents “have a chance to earn a living wage.”
“We teach and work in the most challenging and most rewarding — often at the same time — district in the state. The obstacles to success are seemingly impossible and more often than not you succeed,” Schroeder said.
“You are the most important person in so many of our students’ lives. And that’s a credit to you, your passion and your devotion.”