The Last Hurrah? That’s up to WI GOP Legislators: An Interview with MPS Teachers and Administrators

By Patricia Obletz, Editor

The greatest threat to our country is ignorance.
---Kareem Abdul-Jabbar 2018

Update 3/9/19:

Parents, teachers and students, as well as the future lose when children are unable to learn survival skills, such as creative thinking, the history of human beings, and life proficiencies, like preserving the environment, rather than polluting it. That’s why two Milwaukee Public School (MPS) teachers and two special needs supervisors talked to PeaceOfMind about their experiences at work since 2011, when Wisconsin turned red and began shortchanging public education while slashing corporate taxes in earnest since Act 10. And, as they point out, some of the systemic ills within MPS
happened long before the current governor. *

To protect their positions, we’ll call them Alice and Blanche, both grade school teachers. Cara and Deborah are current and former special education supervisors.


Portraits of MPS Students and Teachers by Deborah:

The 15-year-old boy who has a learning disability is overwhelmed: his mother has brain cancer and he is her sole caretaker. He comes to school daily, but usually not until after attendance is taken. Because he was counted as absent due to his caretaking responsibilities, his mother lost her assistance funding.

The girl who finally admitted that she missed the bus because she had no alarm clock. When her teacher heard that, she bought the child an alarm clock and that child then made it to school.

The girl who came to her teacher and asked her to read a letter from her boyfriend, which she couldn’t read. The teacher read it to her. The young couple later married and have four children – because a teacher took time to read a letter.

The teacher who taught second and third graders math by creating storefronts out of cardboard, along with cardboard produce, etc., and had her students take turns buying and selling goods, writing up sales slips, and more. This teacher said, “Teaching kids with disabilities is just like teaching adults how to fly a jet: You have to keep your focus on everything at the same time.”

Primary school teacher Alice said, “Teachers are tired and frustrated by teaching and performing crowd control with students during class time, and now we have to fight for our rights over insurance cost of living pay increases,? and other issues that our administration springs on us during our evenings.”

“Teaching . . . is draining the life out of me”

“Emotionally, my teaching job is draining the life out of me,” Alice said. “I try so hard to make a difference during the day with my students and find that to be enormous challenges. It is all I can do to come home at night and not wallow in disappointment at the sucking out of much of my reason for teaching. I find it hard just to relax and enjoy my life beyond school.

“If MPS doesn’t go bankrupt in the next two years, I don’t believe there will be any changes in attitudes among politicians, parents, students, teachers, and the community. Bottom line is that the members of our community overall don’t value what teachers do. Of course, some do, but they are in the minority.

“I plan to retire in December of 2022. I hope I can make it. I just really don’t know what it will take to turn our district around to make it a place where students are successful.”

MPS doesn’t care about the teachers, so how can that administration possibly care about the kids?

Grade school teacher Blanche said, “I retired after 32 years in MPS with ALL exemplary administrative reviews, a very good attendance record, etc. But I never received even a Good-Bye email from administration – MPS doesn’t care about the teachers, so how can they possibly care about the kids?

“My major concerns surround student behaviors (which usually mirror their parents’) and the push to lower the suspension rate, which puts violent kids right back in with kids who are trying to learn. Not saying suspension is the key, but when a kid throws a chair across the room, the others are at risk and teachers cannot teach. There also is a MAJOR lack of respect for education in general by both students and parents.”

Of the last MPS Superintendent (2014-18) Dr. Darienne Driver, Cara and Deborah said that Driver “Focused MPS, was a forward thinker and was great at prying $80 million in 2018 for scholarships out of local businesses and foundations.”

“That $80M for scholarships,” Deborah said, “would be better spent by adding visual and performing arts classes and repairing school infrastructure. And, if the scholarship winners are not being tracked for at least five years to see how that money helped them build their future, then we’re throwing that money away.

“The quality of education in MPS High Schools is uneven,” Cara said.” Some MPS high schools consistently graduate students who are successful in college. For example, Rufus King and Reagan High School have solid reputations in that area. But one hears of other MPS valedictorians who struggle to pass basic college classes. That’s a problem.

Teachers with a Bachelor’s only education are represented in greater proportion at schools with more than 90 percent minority students, and more than 89 percent of students living in poverty. Schools with less than 60–90 percent minority students, and less than 50 percent in poverty are more likely to have a workforce with higher educational attainment.”

Cara said, “We have some fantastic teachers and leaders in MPS, but too many fall short. They don’t have what it takes to teach or improve a school, especially in a very challenging urban environment. “Deborah said, “There are so many complex issues that affect MPS, such as racism, poverty, horrible mental issues, drugs, lead poisoning — just making a dent in any one of these issues has been insurmountable. *

“Then there are the parents who are dealing with all these issues all the time, and they, along with the teachers and administrators, are affected by all these traumas,” Deborah added. “All of this affects how teachers interact with the students. There’s so much emotional caring that’s needed on all sides.”

MPS in the Eye of the Tornado

“We’re in the eye of the tornado here,” Deborah said. “In our professional lives, we’re seeing the shift away from separating children with significant mental/behavioral difficulties from small group and more contained school settings (alternative), to including them in public schools in supported classes. But we don’t have the resources to support them successfully in the classrooms.

“Yes, it is their civil right to be educated in a public school, [[
Public-Schools.htm | but what about the students whose rights are violated due to dangerous and threatening behavior and significant disruption?”]] Cara said that she has observed ten-year olds being taken away from school by cops. And, “Some kids,” she said, “think nothing about hauling off and punching an unsuspecting teacher in the hall.

Schools Are Not Mental Health Clinics or Hospitals

“Most MPS schools have psychologists, social workers, physical and occupational therapists, speech and language pathologists, nurses, and children’s health assistants (CHAs),” Cara said. “The support staff, other than the assistants, often sees a student once a week for 15 to 20 minutes. Is a therapeutic session going to happen in 20 minutes? No. Is it fair to have a child open up and recount, perhaps relive, a painful incident, only to be sent back to class after 15 minutes? And be expected to function? Of course not.

“The school psychologists aren’t typically clinicians, though some have that experience. I believe that sometimes adults mistakenly feel that the school psychologists will provide more intensive therapeutic interventions than they do. School psychologists have tremendous knowledge and value, but a big part of their responsibility is diagnostics, and not ‘counseling’ or providing emotional interventions for students. We are schools, not clinics or hospitals.

“But parents often can’t get that kind of support for their student, or don’t consistently follow through with those supports when available. I believe that many parents are suffering with mental health diagnoses of their own, which impedes their ability to seek help for their child.

“The social workers do social and emotional work, often in tandem with the psychologists. The social and emotional learning is usually done in groups. But social workers also have to track attendance, which is a huge job. They make it a responsibility to assist families with clothes, shelter, and food. They assist with mandated reporting for students who exhibit signs of possible abuse and neglect. They often serve on Individualized Education Programs (IEP) teams.

“Out of 15 years of working in a few 100 schools,” Deborah said, “I had only one social worker who was clearly incapable of doing the job. She was written up numerous times, but she never was fired. It takes an awful lot of work to fire someone.”

Community Responsibility: Keep public education funding with children, not school

Deborah added that non-public schools (private and choice schools) aren’t required to supply special education services to students or to do evaluations, but MPS is. If a non-public school refers a child because of challenging behaviors, MPS is required to evaluate the child. MPS staff goes to the school to observe, administer diagnostics, gather background information, and may visit the home, etc., to collect the information. They write the reports and hold the meeting. If the child is found eligible for special education, the non-public school can then indicate that, since they don’t have the proper resources to educate the child, the child should return to MPS. Too often, the child returns to MPS, even though the private school keeps that child’s tuition.

Deborah said, “The money does not follow the student. Do you see a problem with this? Does this provide an opportunity for some unethical behavior on the part of non-public schools?”

Another problem is this: Until or if all public-school taxes are shoved into curriculum-controllable charter schools, the powers that be have excommunicated civics lessons for public students. Why?

MPS Not a Functioning System of Education in Midst of Abject Racism, Poverty and Abuse

Wisconsin African American students rank 49 th among black students in the country; Wisconsin white students rank 41 st (behind Alabama and Mississippi).

Deborah said, “It’s all very discouraging.”

Cara said, “Our students are failing for a number of reasons: environmental, medical, socioeconomic. Being poorly educated should not be one of them. But how, in the midst of all these challenges, do you have the energy to document a teacher’s unacceptable behavior? We’re all in crisis. We’re all upset all the time because of the heartbreaking stories we hear, and the situations we see.”

In the next five years, most of America’s most experienced teachers will retire,” The Atlantic magazine states. “(I)n 1988, a teacher most commonly had 15 years of experience. Less than three decades later, that number had fallen to just five years leading a classroom,” usually due to burnout.

“MPS bright is 90 IQ. Elsewhere, 90 IQ is average.”

Cara said that too many students have experienced traumatic environments and have huge challenges, which have a direct effect on brain development and functioning. “MPS also has a high percentage of students with special needs. Most school districts’ special ed students make up 12% to 15% of the student population. MPS has some schools with 30% to 35% of their population diagnosed with special educational needs.

“All Wisconsin racial, economic status, and disability status sub-groups perform below the national average for that sub-group.”

U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that food insecurity presently stands at 14% compared to 11.1% in 2007. But, MPS bright (90 IQ) v. bright (110 IQ) — the definition of Learning Disabilities used to be 90 IQ or below; now 90 IQ is average.]] The expectations of people who are excited about a 90 IQ speak volumes.

“Teachers walk into class with the students, and out with the students,” Cara said. When she used to teach, she arrived 45 minutes before the students and stayed 45 minutes after they left, as stipulated in the contract she’d had with different school districts. “Many things teachers do here, which I was contracted to do, are extra tasks that MPS Special Ed teachers are paid for.

“If the issues we cited earlier don’t get any better, the students’ downward trend will continue,” Cara said. “Let’s pick the worst issue and work on improving that.”

Teachers not working with students to ensure they understand the work

“MPS has one of the worst work ethics I’ve ever seen. Absenteeism of staff is really high, Family Medical Leave of Absence (FMLA) use is high” Deborah said. “Why is there so much absenteeism? I can guess. Staff feel undervalued and underappreciated. In our urban setting, staff also doesn’t feel safe. But we also have people who aren’t up to the work.

“When I visit classrooms,” Deborah continued,” I see teachers sitting at their desks, not teaching. I see paraprofessionals and Children’s Handicap Assistants on their cell phones . . . That is not happening in every class, of course…but why is it happening at all?”

Deborah said, “There are fights in school hallways. Not long ago, kids at an elementary school swarmed the halls, yelling, ‘Fight. Fight! Fight!’ I ran toward the fight, and I’m not even an administrator there. I felt like a salmon fighting the current to swim upstream. All the rest of the staff was running from the fight. I said, ‘What the hell?’ A teacher said, ‘Oh I’m not getting messed up in that.’ Someone yelled for the Safety Officers. I reached the kids first and grabbed the one kid and said, ‘Hey! Hey, I’m here, you don’t know me, but’ — I told each one of them where to stand – “Eleanor said the boys started laughing when she did that, which broke the tension. She and the principal each took a kid aside to get their stories separately, and then they’d meet to discuss them. “He said, ‘Have you looked at your dress?’ There was blood all over it, which washed out. But that kind of violence happens in our schools.”

Special Education is Civil Rights Legislation – But Everything Is Politics

Cara said that when the federal government mandated special education in 1990, it was supposed to be fully funded. “It never was,” she said.

“Special education is civil rights legislation. The supervisors are charged with protecting the rights of the child, which is why it’s unpopular: so many of the kids, even at very young ages, destroy property, steal, and fight with students and staff. The special ed supervisor must determine why these children are acting out. If it’s a pattern of behavior for the child, it’s called a manifestation of the child’s disability. If it’s a manifestation of the child’s disability, you can’t send him to another school unless the parents agree, and they rarely agree. The principals want those kids out of the building because keeping the child is disruptive,” Cara said.

Eleanor said, “Everything is politics. Teachers don’t want kids who will bring down the average test score and push to put them in an alternative curriculum. Then there’s the overcorrection. Special ed teachers are in the eye of the tornado. Society is just beginning to grapple with these huge educational issues that are outside of all the trauma in their environment.”

Abuse is far more prevalent in society than is acknowledged.

Deborah said, “Abuse is far more prevalent in society than is acknowledged. Familial and educational sexual abusers gravitate to disabled kids. People in education may not be well informed about some societal issues, such as sex trafficking in Milwaukee. It’s an alarming problem in Milwaukee. Ask law enforcement or social services.”

Deborah said, “Teaching is really hard, no glamor, no perks, but, man, if you want to do work from your heart, teaching is it. I’ve seen really troubled children succeed when they work with gifted teachers. This just brings a tear to my eye and love to my heart. It’s amazing to see kids who come from difficult homes build relationships with teachers and start to do well in school. That is what makes education a rewarding field.”

“When Teachers Connect with Students, They Learn – With or Without Special Ed,” Deborah said.

“Teaching gives us hope for the future,” Cara concluded.

PART III: The Facts

Do YOU want the plutocrats to ensure their power by limiting education for most Americans? Let the following facts guide your voting power next year:

The Survival Coalition of Wisconsin Disability Organizations recently released a report based on nearly 600 responses from families statewide that examines special education quality and the school experiences of students with disabilities in Wisconsin. Read the report here:
content/uploads/2018/05/SurvivalCoalitionReportBooklet0518_Final.pdf To sum up:

· Special education funding in Wisconsin has not increased in a decade while special education costs have risen by more than 60% since 2000.

· A recent survey of Wisconsin families of students with disabilities shows that parents have significant concerns about loss of staff, poor implementation of services, increases in disciplinary

· 58% of parents of children with disabilities surveyed said the erosion of special education quality makes them concerned for their child’s future.

· Special education funding must be significantly increased in the next state budget. The Arc Wisconsin supports a state funding increase to cover 50% of special education costs (state funding is currently just 26%).

· The State should immediately conduct a meaningful audit of special education quality and outcomes, including the preparation of students with disabilities for college and the workforce. This
audit must include input from parents and students with disabilities.

Find out more about the Blue Ribbon Commission here:

Also, of note is this March 2018 report from Government Accountability Office on K-12 EDUCATION:

Discipline Disparities for Black Students, Boys, and Students with Disabilities:

Notable, too, is the January 14, 2019 LA teachers strike that includes halting charter schools:

Additional Reading:

Please Note: This interview was first published in October and has been updated January 13,

Last edited by patricia obletz. Based on work by Courtney.  Page last modified on March 09, 2019

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