Milwaukee: A Case Study

A look at this Midwestern urban district shows both the promises and challenges of sustaining a movement for multicultural, anti-racist education.

By Curtis Lawrence

Late last spring, about a dozen Milwaukee teenagers sat with a reporter to discuss multiculturalism and anti-racist education. The students were from Riverside University High School, often touted as the district’s most multiracial and academically successful. But when they were asked to assess multicultural and anti-racist education, their responses may have stunned some familiar with the district.

Despite several dedicated teachers, the students said multicultural or anti-racist education wasn’t happening at Riverside.

“We don’t get anything but a European aspect,” said Benjamin Engel, a native of Ghana, who last year was the president of Riverside’s Student Council.

Hannah Nolan-Spohn, a white student who last year was a sophomore at Riverside, also noted that contemporary issues – especially those about race – don’t get a lot of air-time. “In most classes, there are not serious discussions about current events,” Nolan-Spohn said. “The teacher is more concerned about the lesson plan.”

This is not what parents, administrators, teachers, and community activists had in mind 10 years ago when they ignited a movement to infuse a multicultural and anti-racist philosophy throughout the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). In a unique step by a major urban school district, MPS established districtwide learning goals, the first of which stated that students would “project anti-racist, anti-biased attitudes” and participate in a multicultural curriculum.

The initiative was intended to go beyond what some teachers call a “food-facts curriculum,” a shallow overview of cultures and diet that sometimes passes for multicultural education. Instead, they wanted the Milwaukee students to view their world with a critical multicultural eye – whether through challenging a book where Native Americans are stereotyped or analyzing how African Americans and Latinos are portrayed on the nightly news. The district provided funding, staffing, and a strong professional development component to implement its ambitious goals.

But due to a variety of factors – a changing political climate, shifts in district leadership and vision, budget cuts, a move toward decentralization, and an increased emphasis on standards and testing – Milwaukee’s multicultural movement has devolved into what can be described as “pockets of multiculturalism.” The once popular initiative is now kept alive primarily by a small group of teachers and administrators.

Milwaukee’s decade of experimentation with multiculturalism provides a case study of both the promises and challenges of providing a multicultural curriculum in urban school districts.

Last April, teachers and administrators met at a forum on the topic sponsored by Rethinking Schools and hosted by the Helen Bader Foundation, a Milwaukee-based organization with a strong interest in education. Those attending were asked how they thought multicultural and anti-racist education had fared in Milwaukee in the previous three to five years. Eleven answered it had declined a lot, five said it had declined a little or stayed the same, and two responded it had improved a little.

To understand how the teachers and staff arrived at their assessments, one must first go to the roots of a movement many once hoped would put Milwaukee permanently on the map as an innovator in multicultural education.


Part of what makes the Milwaukee experience noteworthy is that the push for multicultural education came from both teachers and parents at the grassroots level and from top administrators in the district’s central office. Further, the school board supported the effort.

“We felt that as the world was changing, Milwaukee was changing, and the school district was changing. We wanted to make sure our children weren’t getting left behind in connection to the larger society,” said Joyce Mallory, a former school board member.

At the grassroots level, a key role was played by district-funded, teacher-led councils, which allowed classroom teachers from across the city to network and share best practices. A particularly important role was played by the Multicultural Curriculum Council, which grew out of an in-service in January 1989 by Asa G. Hilliard III, a noted author on issues of race and education, who is now a professor of urban education at Georgia State University.

Although there is no one date that marks the beginning of the multicultural movement in Milwaukee, many point to that in-service by Hilliard as a key event. Then-Superintendent Robert Peterkin supported the move for multiculturalism and initiated two years of meetings and brainstorming sessions by teachers, parents, administrators, and community leaders on developing the district’s curriculum goals.

In the 1991-92 school year, the Milwaukee district adopted its K-12 Teaching and Learning Initiatives. The first goal stated: “Students will project anti-racist, anti-biased attitudes through their participation in a multilingual, multi-ethnic, culturally diverse curriculum.”

The significance of the K-12 Teaching and Learning Initiatives went beyond their content, however. For the first time, teachers felt that multiculturalism and anti-racist curriculum could be more than just something discussed in the hallways by small groups of teachers. Now, it was a policy developed with significant teacher and parent input and backed by the district.

“It [the need for multicultural education] was broadly laid out, the money was there and it was totally supported from the top down,” said Linda Kreft, a staff development specialist who runs the MPS Resource Center and who at the time was a classroom teacher. “Because of that, you had big support from the schools.”

Cynthia Ellwood, then an English teacher at South Division High School recruited by the central administration to help implement the K-12 learning initiatives at a districtwide level, echoed that view. “Everywhere throughout the system there was a commitment to multiculturalism, and it came from the top,” said Ellwood. “There was a message out there that I think is lacking these days about how important this was.”

With backing from Deborah McGriff, deputy superintendent at the time, Ellwood used funding provided by the school board to provide books and other instructional materials as well as in-service training and workshops with experts in the field. She also brought a teacher’s sensitivity to her new position and insisted that teachers remain in the driver’s seat so that the program would not become another top-down initiative.

“I knew, as a teacher, that the answers were there among the teachers, “said Ellwood, who is now principal of the Hartford University Avenue School for Urban Explorations. “They understood what it would take better than those in central office.”

Kathy Swope, former co-chair of the Multicultural Curriculum Council who now is the Performance Assessment Coordinator for MPS, said that the “teacher-driven” component of the councils was crucial to effectively infusing multiculturalism throughout the district. “That was important because of the ownership, the level of commitment and the credibility of the work that was done by the councils.”

While the Multicultural Curriculum Council started with 12 to 18 schools, by 1995 the number of schools involved had jumped to 100, or about two-thirds of the district’s schools. Council members were responsible for attending meetings and workshops, then returning to spread the word among other teachers and staff at their schools. Goals of the council included training its members to be advocates for multicultural education, introducing teachers to national consultants, and putting a variety of resources into teachers’ hands.

In addition to the Multicultural Curriculum Council, the district had a number of other teacher-led councils, including the Whole Language Council, Early Childhood Council, and Humanities Council. Most of the councils also focused on providing staff development to promote multiculturalism.


One of the issues that immediately came to the fore was how to define multicultural education. “We were talking more about multicultural education and there were a lot of different views about what that meant,” said Steven Baruch, a retired MPS administrator who worked for the district’s human relations unit at the time.

Many on the Multicultural Curriculum Council argued for a perspective that went beyond merely acknowledging the different cultures within MPS. Kreft said that “by and large we held the definition that it was an education and reform movement – a philosophical viewpoint meeting the needs of students in a culturally diverse population.”

Swope was especially concerned that issues of power and race be addressed directly. “Multicultural education is not just including perspectives and insights and information from various cultures or groups,” said Swope. “It’s an ongoing process that empowers students to view the world from multiple perspectives and to understand the ongoing dynamics of this rapidly changing world.”

“The anti-racist component is included when you talk about empowering students to make changes in the world, to make critical judgments about justice and equity, and not to be complacent about the status quo or about historical omissions and distortions,” Swope said.

There was also the concern that multiculturalism not be viewed in a vacuum, but rather be seen as a thread running through all of the teacher-led councils. The Humanities Council, for example, sponsored an in-service session where teachers instructed their peers on innovative ways to teach novels by non-white authors.

In 1994, MPS teachers and staff, working with the Multicultural Curriculum Council, wrote an implementation guide for multicultural and anti-racist education. The guide gave detailed steps on how to implement a multicultural curriculum and examples of how to involve students in the concept.

“In addition to staff development, we were able to provide actual materials,” Swope said. “If a school wanted to infuse more multiculturalism into their mathematics curriculum, for example, someone from the council would provide sample lessons, strategies, and specific resources to help with that objective.”

While the councils made an impact, even supporters of the initiative say it was far from perfect. Implementing the number-one goal of the K-12 initiative was no easy task.

“We felt that a lot of exciting things would happen and a lot of them did,” Baruch said. “But as far as systemic reform, maybe we were trying to do too much in too many places.”

Paulette Copeland, a 24-year-MPS veteran who now heads the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, said the councils “were hoping that every school would put [multicultural, anti-racist curriculum] into their education plan and actually promote it, but it did not actually work. Schools wrote it out, but it was just a plan. There were no checks to see if you were actually carrying out your plan.”


In the spring of 1996, during the district’s budget process, the K-12 curriculum councils took a major hit when their budgets were eliminated.

“When the funding for the councils was no longer provided, the vehicle that allowed teachers from across the district to come together and to struggle with issues and to pool their knowledge was no longer there,” Swope said.

“It was really a massive blow to all of the councils and to the teachers,” added Kreft. “We could no longer have funds for anything – no money for speakers. And we no longer had funding to develop any kind of publications.”

Former Milwaukee School Board President Mary Bills said the district was under intense pressure to reduce property taxes and to look for programs to trim and cut. Although Bills had supported the councils, she felt she had no choice but to vote in favor of the cuts. “I think it was just easy pickings to be honest,” Bills said in a recent interview. “It didn’t have anything to do with the merit.”

At the same time, then-Superintendent Howard Fuller favored radically decentralizing many districtwide supports and services. The Curriculum and Instruction division at central office became a major target of the budget cutters. Council activities slowed dramatically when funding was cut for basic operating expenses, and for substitutes – who had made it possible for teachers to leave their classrooms and participate in in-service programs. Teachers who wanted to continue to participate in the councils had to do so on their own time.

Ellwood said the defunding “made a huge dent in the effect of the council. It became a smaller group of people supporting a common goal as opposed to a group of leaders who had resources to spend in supporting the whole district’s agenda.”

The Multicultural Curriculum Council continued meeting into 1998, Kreft said. “But we really found it very difficult to get speakers because everyone wanted a stipend and we had just more or less run out of steam.”

Another contributing factor to the demise of the councils was the district’s emphasis on the School-To-Work program, an initiative with strong support from central office. Funds that once went to the councils were directed to School-to-Work training and in-service sessions. Standards and testing also were getting attention at the local, state, and national levels.

“The emphasis changed over time and when people suddenly found that multicultural and anti-racist education were no longer at center stage. … There was a redefinition of what was the most important goal,” said Baruch. “Everybody was talking about the standards, and the emphasis was now on how to raise test scores. You could see it happening and that’s where the money started to go and that’s where the emphasis went.”


The assessment of multiculturalism by Riverside students is important because Riverside is described in the district’s accountability report as “one of Milwaukee Public Schools’ most successful high schools.” It is also known for its multiracial student body – the school is 50 percent African Americans, 25 percent whites, 15 percent Latinos, and 7 percent Asians. Native Americans and those defined as “other” account for 3 percent.

When the students talked about the lack of emphasis on multicultural and anti-racist education at the school, one of the exceptions they mentioned frequently was English teacher Ashanti Hamilton, a 27-year-old African American teacher who is a Riverside alumnus.

Hamilton began the 1998-99 school year covering the routine curriculum – authors such as Ernest Hemmingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Stephen Crane. In the second half of the year, Hamilton decided to take the curriculum in another direction. “One of the first things we did was to have a discussion about what racism was, how it manifested itself, and how each of us has our own different set of prejudices,” he said.

Hamilton introduced the discussion by showing a 1993 episode from the NBC news program, “Dateline NBC.” The program, “True Colors,” followed two men, one African-American and one white, and chronicled their experiences trying to rent an apartment, purchase a car, hail a taxi, and secure a hotel room. The program, which documented the second-class treatment received by the African-American man, sparked discussion and emotion among his students.

Included in discussions in the weeks after the video was shown was talk of lynches, the treatment of Native Americans, and the persecution of Jews and other people during Hitler’s Holocaust.

Discussions also included the Asian and Hispanic experiences and what it means to be bilingual in the United States. Hamilton also made sure he included positive examples of white Americans including abolitionists and Milwaukee’s own Father James Groppi, the late Catholic priest and civil rights activist.

For some of the students, the frank and open discussions were overwhelming, Hamilton said. “It was heart- wrenching,” Hamilton said. “There were tears and everything.”

Some of the white students “started to feel a little uncomfortable because they wanted to truly believe they were not like their parents,” Hamilton said. There was also an uncomfortable feeling among some African-American students who felt compelled to defend their white classmates during some of the heated discussions.

Hamilton had braced himself for calls and visits from parents, and they came.

“They complained that they didn’t consider this traditional American literature,” he said. When he explained the concept of his class to Riverside Principal Mary Ann Zapala, “she said ‘fine,'” Hamilton recalled and that she gave him her full support.

Contrary to what some parents thought, Hamilton saw multicultural and anti-racist education as a crucial part of the skills his students would need to succeed in life and not at all out of line with his responsibility as an English teacher. “One of the major purposes of literature, of language, of writing – everything this class is supposed to be about – is to cross barriers,” Hamilton said. “I felt like I would have done my white students a disservice if I didn’t put a mirror up to them. I would have done a disservice to my ethnic, minority students if I did not validate their American experience. And I would have really done myself a disservice if I didn’t teach them from a personal perspective.”

Chuck Cooney, a Riverside history teacher and a 22-year MPS veteran, says Hamilton will be sorely missed this school year. Hamilton has decided to pursue a law degree and will not return to Riverside.

Cooney is another example of how teachers have been able to interject multicultural, anti-racist material into the curriculum despite a decrease in the emphasis on multiculturalism from central office.

In the early 1990s, for instance, Cooney taught his students about the Fugitive Slave Act. Included in the lesson was the story of Sherman M. Booth, a Wisconsin abolitionist who organized a contingent of 5,000 abolitionists to rescue an escaped slave named Joshua Glover from a Milwaukee jail.

Booth was arrested and jailed several times for violating the Fugitive Slave Act. President James Buchanan finally pardoned him in 1861, and a Milwaukee street was named in his honor.

Cooney recalls telling one of his classes the story. “This kid, I don’t remember his name, raises his hand and says, ‘Why isn’t there a street named after that slave dude?’ I never thought of that question,” Cooney said.

Cooney, though, continued to raise the same question with his students every year and in 1994, one of his classes mounted a successful campaign to rename a Milwaukee street after Glover.

But teachers can’t be expected to interject such projects into the curriculum without training or without encouragement from the administration, Cooney said. “They won’t just do it unless they’re prodded.”

Cooney cited two other barriers to multicultural education. “A lot more of this kind of teaching would happen if teachers would have the chance during the day to talk to one another,” he said. And like many other teachers throughout the district, Cooney cites the pressure on teachers to improve test scores. “I’ve never felt as much pressure to teach to a test as I have in the last five years.”

The pressures of testing and little time for preparation and developing new curriculum are also felt at the middle school and elementary levels, according to Milwaukee teachers.

Brenda Harvey came to Milwaukee five years ago and worked as a fifth-grade teacher at Hartford and, most recently, as an administrator at Garden Homes Elementary.

“I came here from Raleigh, N.C., and I was really impressed with the number-one teaching goal,” said Harvey referring to the stated emphasis on a multilingual, multi-ethnic, culturally diverse curriculum. “I came here with a lot of high hopes.”

Harvey said she never thought the interjection of race and culture into her classroom was at conflict with her duty to prepare her students academically. “Certainly, I expected them to know math and the scientific processÉ,” Harvey said. “I also expected them to know what it means to be a functioning, educated person in an urban setting.”

“Both as a teacher and as an administrator, I believe in demanding excellence,” Harvey said. “I don’t have a problem with the use of standards to achieve excellence. But when we look at most of the standards, we find that they are reflective of a narrow, white, mono-ethnic perspective. The standards that are used in most cases are not indicators of meaningful learning.”

At issue, Harvey said, is the degree of force with which standards are being pushed to the forefront at the expense of multiculturalism. “The passion is placed into standards and accountability,” she said adding that during her last year at Hartford, she felt “the standards piece breathing down my back the most.”

School Board President Bruce Thompson, first elected in April 1997, said until he sees actual proof that a multicultural curriculum helps prepare students academically, he will continue the emphasis on standards, accountability, and testing.

“I haven’t seen any examination of how effective it is,” Thompson said, adding that he is concerned that such an emphasis “can takeaway from the kind of skills students will need to succeed in mainstream society.” He also voiced concern that students would “get shortchanged on literature that’s part of our overall culture.”

Thompson said it’s hard to have candid discussions about race for fear of “saying the wrong things. The problem is that there are so many dangers of talking about it. It’s very hard to [ask], ‘Why do we have this performance gap?'”


But no matter how painful, it’s critical that race be talked about rather than ignored, said Mallory, the former school board member who is now the director of Start Smart, an organization that focuses on promoting awareness around early childhood issues.

“If adults don’t talk about race in Milwaukee, how can we create a community where everyone is valued?” asked Mallory.

“To think that doing well on a test is all the skills young people are going to need is foolhardy,” she said. “If you look at one of the primary skills employers want people to have, it’s the ability to get along with people from different backgrounds and different orientations.”

Mallory said that the school board she served on did not want multicultural and anti-racist education to come at the expense of the rest of the curriculum. But rather it was to be woven in to bolster the rigor of what was being taught.

“I didn’t see it as fluff then, and I don’t see it as fluff now,” said Mallory. “Personally if I had a child in the MPS today, I would still see it as important, particularly for children of color. Racism and all those other ‘isms’ haven’t gone away.”