By Mrinal Gokhale
At 6 p.m. on Thursday, Jan 28, a group of ten walked into the Washington Park Senior Center, holding a sign spelling out “No takeover.”
They announced, “What do we want? Public schools. When do we want it? Now!”
After this happened, Dr. Demond Means stood in front of a podium, discussing his role as a commissioner for the Opportunity Schools Partnership Program, also known as OSPP.
“For people who disagree with Chris Abele and me, I respectfully say that we can agree to disagree. But children should be put in the best position and that’s what we agree on,” he said, referring to OSPP.
One woman in the back of the room stood up. “I cannot agree to disagree,” she said. “Ninety eight percent of privatized schools in the country have majority black and brown children.”
This meeting was a question and answer session, but most of the 50-something attendees expressed that they’re on the edge about OSPP.
Dr. Means is the superintendent of Thiensville-Mequon public school district and was recently appointed by Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele as the OSPP commissioner.
OSPP was created to help students from underperforming Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) improve academic performance. These underperforming schools may get converted to private or charter schools.
After Dr. Means explained what OSPP was about, he gave attendees a chance to ask questions and express their opinions over a microphone.
Each speaker had three minutes to make their points, as Dr. Means wrote down the questions and answered them towards the end.
Dr. Means displayed a PowerPoint slide, detailing three points that are legislatively mandated in his role.
The three points read: establish policies to identify OSPP eligible schools through qualitative needs analysis of eligible schools, develop and manage partnerships to more efficiently deploy wraparound services to county residents, select at least one school for the 2015-2016 and 2016- 2017 school years and no more than five for 2017-2018.
He can either manage participating schools directly, or solicit offers from private and charter school operators.
Dr. Means introduced himself as an MPS graduate, noting that there’s an achievement gap among children of color, students receiving free or reduced lunches and students with special needs.
“Wisconsin has held one of the biggest achievement gaps for white and black children in our country.
I think we agree that the data can be better for struggling kids,” Dr. Means said.
“You may see in the media that I’m one of the biggest critics of K12 education. I’m not sitting on the sidelines any longer.”
Although his intentions were good and he stated that OSPP isn’t a takeover program, many of the attendees reacted negatively.
“It sounds like OSPP uses black and brown kids as a pawn to privatize MPS schools.
Can’t we make failing schools better rather than shut them down?” said one attendee.
Many speakers were teachers or retired teachers who are against the privatization of MPS, and identified poverty as an issue among failing schools.
“Every child has the right to a free, public education in the U.S. and it’s disrespectful that it’s an option to take over public schools,” said Kathy Jester.
Another speaker, Joan Christopherson Smith, had a lot to say about poverty, lack of jobs in Milwaukee and how
Wisconsin school budget cuts impact children.
“I’m here with a sad heart as a teacher with 60 years of experience teaching in suburban, urban and rural areas.
Poverty wouldn’t be such a problem if only kids got a stable and structured environment,” she began.
“If these kids had schools art, gym, music, a stable home and parents with jobs, they would rise to the top just as much as suburban students.
Abele should improve jobs and infrastructure, not go after MPS.”
She also reflected on her experience working with children in poverty.
“Teachers must also be parents and social workers, making it hard for us to do our job,” she explained.
Another young man who is currently teaching spoke a few minutes later, asking if Dr. Means can absolutely promise that MPS won’t be taken over.
“I cannot make that commitment today because it’s so early to tell,” he responded when it was time to answer everyone’s questions.
Due to time constraint, Dr. Means gave his definition of a takeover at the end after quickly answering everyone’s questions.
“To me, a takeover is inserting the authority of an elected board of education and taking away voice of the people.
When you disenfranchise employees, you divert funds to another source.”
He explained that he feels standardized test scores must be brought up in order to improve underperforming schools.
“We can’t dismiss these scores because they do matter,” he said, as many attendees shook their heads in disapproval.
“I’ve been in the same fight as everyone here for a long time, and how we accomplish these goals is something we may disagree on, but there’s no need to be penchant because that’s what democracy is about.”
For now, OSPP is here to stay.
It has been about two months since Abele appointed Dr. Means.
He is operating independently from MPS and has not chosen any schools to participate in OSPP, as of yet.