By Dylan Deprey
Before Kahri Phelps-Okoro was knocking on doors in the Harambee and Riverwest neighborhoods getting signatures towards her MPS School Board District 5 candidacy, she was an educator, a mother and an employer.
As a former MPS reading specialist, Phelps-Okoro taught reading intervention at Washington High School of Information Technology. Her class sizes jumped from 7-8 kids to 36 kids, with five classes a day.
“I had 18 to 21-year-olds that could not read at a 2nd grade level,” Phelps- Okoro said. “They are our next leaders going into the community and they’re struggling.
As a mother, she had the struggle of finding the right high school for her son.
After recently moving back to the Harambee neighborhood from Glendale, her son was interested in the trades and looked towards the family business, JCP Construction. The only problem was there were no carpentry programs. She was then forced to weigh the many options and specifications for public and private schools.
As an employer, she witnessed potential prospects having to be turned away.
“I’m looking from an employer’s perspective, and there are people coming through when we do job fairs and they can’t pass the reading and math test, which is a 10-grade level, and they’re frustrated,” Phelps-Okoro said.
“We’re doing our community an injustice by looking away and not holding people accountable,” Phelps-Okoro said.
As the April 4th, 2017 School Board election looms in the distance, Phelps-Okoro prepares to defeat vice president and incumbent MPS District 5, Larry Miller.
Phelps-Okoro said the current literacy rate was unacceptable.
“I’m like, what are we doing? Are we really trying to change, or are we staying stagnant?” Phleps-Okoro said. “These are the same kids I see in the neighborhood, and there is a direct correlation between incarceration and literacy rates.”
Improving Childrens’ literacy rates was one of the top issues addressed in Phelps-Okoro’s Blueprint 4 Change. The plan addresses the 4 C’s to improving education: children, curriculum, culture and community.
As a former reading specialist, she plans to ensure all children can read by the end of 2nd grade.
According to the 2015- 2016 WI DPI report card data, only 20 perecnt of MPS students scored advanced and/or proficient in area of literacy.’
“Up to age 9 or 10 yearsold, which is around 3rd grade, students learn how to read. After that students read to learn, and it’s impossible when you can’t read,” Phelps-Okoro said.
She said that during her time teaching reading strategies she had to redesign her lessons to focus on building vocabulary, rather than phonics.
Phelps-Okoro noted that the curriculum should be strengthened as MPS received only a 55 percent on the WI Department of Instruction Report Card. She added that the curriculum should include more vibrant and cultural programing spread across all walks of life.
“I had a really smart kid at Washington who was homeless, and moved from garage to garage and was hungry with all these other issues,” Phelps-Okoro said. “They (students) want something empowering, something to give them hope and a feeling of ‘This is why I come to school.’”
She said another major factor was rebuilding a culture at MPS, and bring the neighborly feeling back.
“Right now, the culture is saying, ‘It’s ok to not show up for parent-teacher conferences,’ ‘It’s ok not to be involved in your kids’ education,’’ Phleps-Okoro said.
The final and most important part of her plan is to reconnect the community to the schools.
She recalled a time when she was attending Milwaukee Trade and Technical High School and the community engaged with the schools and the students living in surrounding neighborhoods.
“We could go play on the basketball courts, and hold events in the school gym where the community would take it upon itself to get involved,” Phelps- Okoro said.
Following the election, win or lose, Phelps-Okoro said she would continue her grassroots efforts tutoring 18 neighborhood students and financial literacy classes at the Riverwest and Harambee Credit Union.