Tia Richardson and Rebecca Hall at Greenfield Bilingual School during American Education Week

Milwaukee Public Schools coverage: http://www5.milwaukee.k12.wi.us/dept/superintendent/2013/11/mps-educators-honored/
Fox 6 News video footage: http://fox6now.com/2013/11/19/celebrating-american-education-week-in-milwaukee/

On November 19, 2013 I was invited to participate in American Education Week by being an educator for a day in Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS). The invitation came in the form of a phone call from Milwaukee Teacher's Education Association (MTEA) communications coordinator Kelly Dawson Salas. I accepted, and was informed I would be paired with an art teacher and shadow or lead a class.

At that time it was unknown which school and which teacher I would be paired with. One week prior to the call I had already completed two presentations at MPS Greenfield Bilingual school as a SHARP visual literacy presenter. The morning of my first SHARP presentation I happened to have bumped into Rebecca Hall, a friend and fellow art teacher I had not seen in years. We both shared the school cafeteria as our classrooms. I did my presentations on one side, she taught on the other. A visual barrier made of vertical folded lunchroom tables separated the space; she helped me set them up. I felt a sense of camaraderie as we worked alongside each other that came with loving our work and appreciating having a supportive space to do it at all. Sharing space is one thing I've grown accustomed to working in MPS.

Fast forward one week: Just days after accepting the invitation to participate, I was informed that the participating school is Greenfield Bilingual, chosen out of all other schools in Milwaukee, and that I'd be paired with Rebecca Hall! People from NEA, Milwaukee Teachers Education Association (MTEA), Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) and local media (Fox 6) would be present as well to have their own experience of what it's like being in a Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) classroom.

I wasn't too surprised - synchronistic events happen often in my life and I take them as a sign of being in the divine flow. I looked forward to seeing what this opportunity could bring. The day came and I arrived at the school library around 8:15am for the meet and greet. Everyone was present. Becky Pringle, NEA Secretary Treasurer, and Stacey Grissom, NEA senior public relations specialist were two african-american women I met, both passionate about public education in America. I learned that Stacey was the one who picked me from the Arts in Milwaukee directory. (I'm glad that profile is getting some use!)

After the meet and greet I followed closely behind Rebecca - literally - to her makeshift cafeteria classroom. I joked about being her 'shadow' and we had a laugh. She has a very lighthearted sense of humor and easygoing nature. I enjoyed my hour in Rebecca's 8th grade art class. I shared two paintings I'd brought with me. They enjoyed my work and I enjoyed theirs. They are working on beautiful aboriginal spirit paintings using small colored dots arranged together to form animal shapes and abstract patterns. One of my jobs was to help squeeze paint onto paper napkins they carried to their long cafeteria table stations. The care and attention they put into their work endeared me to them.

After a good class Rebecca and I headed back up to the library for a short program, photos, and interviews. There was one other Educator for a Day - MPS Director Claire Zauktke, who had shadowed the music teacher. We were joined again by the media, NEA and MTEA staff, and other Milwaukee Public school officials like Bob Peterson, President of MTEA. The program included awarding a $500.00 check to the school in appreciation for hosting the NEA and for allowing their school to be showcased.

Afterwards I had conversations with Becky, Rebecca, and Stacey in which we shared our thoughts and feelings about public education.

From Becky I learned about the educational paradigm shifts and practices abroad. She is very passionate about education policy and used Finland as an example of what progressive education can look like (click here to read an article on why Finland's schools are so successful). In Finland, teachers are trusted 100% with employing whatever creative solutions they imagine to support the needs of their students. They are given full autonomy - and there is no mandated testing!

From Stacey I learned more about the bigger picture of the political landscape marring the public education sector of American life, which gets in the way of what many say they want for our children. From funding sponsored by corporate special-interests - textbook companies; companies that rely on their livelihood by selling the testing equipment and products they create; to research driven by the same corporate interests and marketed to top education policy-makers. I believe our american educational pysche is woefully shaped by a capitalistic-driven machine to which our consciousness is intimately linked.

The mindset that money for schools should come from the tax base of the families whose children attend those schools, not those residing outside those districts, shows how self-centered our pysche is. When MPS Superintendent Gregory Thornton came by to congratulate the teachers sitting near me, one of whom serves on the MPS school board, I asked him why this policy had to be. I suggested the money from taxpayers going to public education could come from all of Milwaukee county, not just the city proper, and be distributed evenly throughout so that low-income MPS schools would have the same resources as their wealthier counterparts. He understood my logic, but pointed out that changing the way schools are funded through voting would be a hard task.

Let's take a look. Statistically, with Milwaukee ranking as the #1 most racially segregated city in the nation, the majority of votes coming from primarily white, economically upwardly mobile suburban communities like Bayside, Fox Point, Brown Deer, River Hills, West Allis - the list goes on - are not likely to vote for their taxpayer dollars to contribute to urban Milwaukee education. I'm realizing that the way schools are funded here in Milwaukee and nationwide exacerbates inequity and the racial divide.

This painted a picture that looked bleakly like systemic racism to me. When I shared this with Becky and Stacey they agreed. It wasn't 'new' news. But there is hope. The point of this gathering was to celebrate the strides MPS IS making in regards to creative enrichment through the visual, musical and performing arts. By bringing attention to Greenfield Bilingual school they hoped Milwaukee and the nation at large could learn the importance of an arts-integrated education, and therefore, challenge systemic barriers so that we can all live the education we dream of.