By Alison Dirr
Ms. Frentz’s students always notice the family photo hung prominently above her desk.
“Is that your family?” the children ask, curious about the black and white faces smiling back at them.
“Yeah,” replies Julie Frentz, the principal of Madison’s Frank Allis Elementary School.
Tenderness enters her voice when she talks about her husband and two daughters—and the son-in-law and boyfriend who became part of their lives in the past six months. Frentz and her family are white, and her daughters’ husband and boyfriend are black.
“Then I’ll start talking about each person, because they’re all people and that’s what’s important to me, that we’re all people,” Frentz said. “Doesn’t matter what color we are, doesn’t matter where we came from, doesn’t matter what language we speak. It matters that we’re all people, and it matters what’s in our heart.”
Her photos serve as symbols of the multicultural, open environment she and her teachers are working to create at Frank Allis. The teachers—whose races, ethnicities, genders and spoken languages to a great extent mirror those of the children—play a central role.
Frank Allis stands out for its history of emphasizing diversity at a time when the district is beginning to move toward implementing similar measures to close the student achievement gap.
At Frank Allis, Frentz said she makes an effort to hire men, people of color and Spanish-speakers. In a 46-teacher staff, she said about 30 percent is male, 13 percent is black and about 9 percent speak Spanish. Eighty-seven percent is white. Compare those numbers to district-wide statistics: about 20 percent is male, 2.4 percent is black and almost 90 percent of the teaching staff in the district is white, according to data from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.
“Our current workforce does not reflect our kids from a race-ethnic point of view, and we need to advance better work in the district to ensure a more diverse workforce,” said Dan Nerad, Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) superintendent.
This is part of the reason the district hired Shahanna Baldon as chief diversity officer, a newly created position.
“Diversity is about all of us, and at the same time, our key issue here in Madison Metropolitan School District is ending once and for all the systematic disenfranchisement of African-American kids and their families,” Baldon said.
And racism, she said, does have a very real effect on the school district and its students.
“We have low expectations of African American kids and this translates into really poor outcomes for African-American kids,” she said.
One small school on the outskirts of Madison, Frank Allis has quietly been exploring methods to increase an awareness of minority cultures, serving as a model for other schools through hiring more minority teachers, promoting a continuous conversation about race and implementing a multicultural curriculum.
Hiring a diverse staff is one way both the district and Frank Allis have started to combat the achievement gap and racism that accompanies it.
Shirley Files teaches first grade at Frank Allis and has taught in the district for 27 years. She said Frank Allis has always been one of the schools with the greatest number of teachers of color, but she would like to see an even more diverse teaching staff.
Files had been the first black teacher at the predominantly white elementary school—where she taught for 20 years—before transferring seven years ago.
“The fact that I was an African-American teacher coming into an all-white environment, I think it was more difficult for [the students], because they had never seen a black teacher before,” she said. “So they didn’t know how to take it. Some of them didn’t think I was a teacher. Some of them thought I was the custodian when I first came in.”
Files said the support of her principal and the rest of the teaching staff pulled her through.
Still, she noticed an interesting trend.
“As time went on, I would always get the kids of color,” Files said. “Seriously. If they were bi-racial or black, they started putting them more in my class because they felt like, ‘well, the kids need a role model.’”
Further, Files said a male teacher tended to have classes full of boys.
But she doesn’t support this system. She said all teachers should be held accountable for all kids, just as teachers of color teach regardless of students’ race.
Teachers who mirror the students can impact young lives, according to Stephen Quintana, a professor of counseling psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“There’s a lot of stereotypes against the underrepresented minority groups about not being able to do well,” Quintana said. “One of the strongest ways to contest those stereotypes is to find examples of people who have succeeded despite some of these challenges.”
Frank Allis and the district began discussing race about a decade ago, according to Frentz, under the heading “courageous conversations about race.”
“[A diverse teaching staff] lets kids see teachers whose skin and maybe facial features and hair texture, etcetera, look like theirs,” Frentz said. “It creates a sense of commonality that really only skin color can create.”
The percentage of minority students at Frank Allis has been increasing consistently over the past decade, according to the district’s demographic data. In the 2001-’02 school year, of the 537 students enrolled, 53.3 percent were black, Latino, Asian or Native American. In the 2011-’12 academic year, minority students made up 75.6 percent of the 369 enrolled, with 30.6 percent being black, 29.3 percent Latino, 24.4 percent white and 8.4 percent Asian.
Even so, Frentz emphasized that her primary role is to find the best teacher. She looks for someone with strong classroom behavior management who is qualified to teach students from a low socio-economic background. She also looks for someone with passion and a sense of purpose to work with “high-need learners.”
Then she turns her attention to multiculturalism.
Continuous, courageous conversations
The goal is to create a place where everyone feels acknowledged. Frentz said Frank Allis’ approach creates an automatic comfort zone, especially for African American families who have often experienced racial discrimination in a larger society.
“To see that teaching staff are not only acknowledged but held in high regard I think really helps,” she said. “I think it helps [families] feel valued.”
Positive interaction is key to this kind of open environment, according to Amy Bellmore, a professor of educational psychology at UW-Madison, whose research focuses on inter-ethnic peer relationships.
According to Bellmore, it is important that interactions between groups be positive so all parties see they share the same goals. Frentz has come to understand this over her 16 years as a principal.
“Teachers have to earn respect, just like everybody has to, and so I think that if a student has had a negative experience with a white teacher or a white principal I’m going to have to overcome that,” Frentz said. “And that may not be about my race or the color of my skin.”
The district’s “courageous conversations about race,” which began about a decade ago as a teacher training program, helped Frentz begin asking questions of one of her good friends.
“I could ask her and her family lots of questions, and it helped me start having the conversations about race and being more open about color,” Frentz said. “And so starting to ask questions of families and saying to families, ‘I get this feels like it’s about your race, but here’s how I can show you it’s not about your race.’”
Still, these conversations have not always been easy—nor have these initiatives garnered unanimous support throughout the district.
Files was teaching at Frank Allis when the district-wide conversations began. She said at that time, many staff members opposed the measures and did not implement the program’s methods in their classrooms.
This is one of the pitfalls Baldon, the district’s chief diversity officer, is trying to avoid in implementing the plan to close the student achievement gap.
One of the six district initiatives involves hiring a diverse workforce. Another entails training existing staff in “culturally relevant practices.” Baldon is integral to both efforts.
But “unlearning racism” is an emotional topic, Baldon said, and it can be used as an excuse to stop training. Part of the problem with the “courageous conversations” was that they did not push through these challenges, she said.
Her work will focus on community involvement and building facilitation groups, in addition to creating more opportunities for students to participate in the dialogue and initiatives. They will also encourage students of color to consider careers in education and provide incentives for teachers of color to move into principal positions.
A multicultural curriculum
Working toward closing the achievement gap involves more than conversations between adults. At Frank Allis, students grow up in a system that celebrates multiculturalism.
“I think we’re really open about color, and for us white people we’re not used to talking about color,” Frentz said. “But I’m really trying to be that real with kids.”
Incorporating multiculturalism into conversations with children at an early age gives them a language with which to ask questions and participate in discussions throughout their lives, according to Quintana. As children get older, conversations that once encompassed only physical features become more nuanced.
In Files’ first grade classroom, students recite poems about Barack Obama, Harriet Tubman and self-respect, and they explore the meaning of equality in short skits. On May 22, they will proudly present the final results of their hard work to their parents.
Week by week, the students have internalized the half-inch-thick stack of life lessons first grade teacher Vivian Franklin glances over as they recite the verses from memory. Franklin smiles lightly as they silently stand at attention, hands behind their backs, while waiting patiently for her hand to rise into the air and her head to nod once: Their signal to take a deep breath and begin the next piece.
Both Franklin and Files emphasized the importance of setting clear expectations that apply to all students.
“My goal is to make them ready, not just for second grade,” Franklin said. “I want to make them ready for life.”
Like the hallways of the school, Franklin and Files have chosen a decidedly celebratory décor in their classrooms. Reds, blues and yellows catch the eye at every moment, and their rooms contain one central theme.
In Franklin’s room, a hand-made sign hangs above the whiteboard:
Life is beautiful when we all respect each other.
Students also learn acceptance through contact with students from Nuestro Mundo, or “our world.” Nuestro Mundo, a Spanish-immersion charter school, shares the same building as Frank Allis. Walking down the hall, Spanish and English mix as teachers from each school lead their pupils in single-file lines to other classrooms. Students share the lunchroom, but they have progressively less contact as they get older (the school board voted April 30 to move Nuestro Mundo to another building because of overcrowding in the current facility).
Valuing the “openness”
For parents like Ananda Mirilli, finding a school that emphasizes non-mainstream cultures is key. Mirilli and her family moved into the area so her now-9-year-old daughter could attend Nuestro Mundo.
Mirilli, whose family is from Brazil, said despite her efforts to incorporate Portuguese and Brazilian culture into her daughter’s life, even at four years old she was affected by messages in the media and mainstream society.
“She questioned why she isn’t blond, she questioned why she had to speak a different language, she questioned why she didn’t have blue eyes,” Mirilli said.
But things have turned around since attending Nuestro Mundo.
“She had much more understanding of that people come in different color skins, and that it was okay,” Mirilli said. “Most of her peers are of different colors, are bi-racial, multi-racial, Latinos, and she also was able to find her own identity now.”
Of Nuestro Mundo’s 269 students this year, 62.1 percent are Latino, 23.8 percent are white, 10.8 percent are black and 0.7 percent are Asian, according to demographic data kept by the district.
Although Mirilli is passionate in advocating for her school, she said she would also like to see more diversity among the teaching staff at Nuestro Mundo and throughout the district.
At Frank Allis, too, there are signs that students and their families value the openness with which the school acknowledges differences and diversity among faculty, Frentz said.
“My African-American girls especially, as they go down the hall want to say, ‘hey’ or, ‘good morning’ or get a hug from the African-American teachers,” Frentz said. “I certainly see that. I see that from parents who might say, ‘you know, we would really like to have an African-American teacher.’”