Empower Wisconsin | Feb. 23, 2022
MADISON — Karen Flanigan saw firsthand the frustration and the failure, the descent into disorder and hopelessness in Milwaukee Public Schools.
Flanigan taught high school chemistry and biology for two years nearly a decade ago at MPS’ Wisconsin Conservatory of Lifelong Learning (WCLL), which supposedly uses a “family/team approach to education.” She left frustrated after two years. The school, like so many in Milwaukee’s troubled public school system, is the victim of a central office disconnected from teachers and students, a bureaucracy that has led a culture of chronic failure, Flanigan said.
That’s why the former teacher is endorsing a bill moving through the Legislature that would break up the behemoth MPS and set up smaller, more accountable districts. The Republican-led Assembly on Tuesday passed the bill (on a party-line vote), which calls for dividing the school district into smaller community districts by 2024.
Flanigan wrote an op-ed, published at Empower Wisconsin this week, citing her reasons. She shared her painful experiences as a Milwaukee Public Schools teacher in a follow-up interview.
Are you scared?
When she arrived as a new teacher to WCLL, Flanigan stepped into the middle of a mess. The previous science teacher had fled mid-class. She received her class schedule 30 minutes before her first class. It was then she was alerted that not only would she be teaching chemistry and biology, but robotics, too.
Her day began with biology, filled with 41 disorderly freshmen. Half were repeating the course.
“It was a party. They had Doritos all over the table. One girl was straightening her hair in the back of the room. It was your typical chaos,” Flanigan recalled.
The students asked her if she was scared. At 26 and entering a new profession, Flanigan had every reason to be unnerved. She replied, “I’m not scared. Are you?”
She maintained classroom order in a disorderly school, expecting respect from her students and giving it in return. Flanigan said her principal and assistant principal were constant sources of support, but they got no backup from the district’s administrators — many of whom were failed educators put into management positions through a kind of perverse Peter Principle.
While she may have had control of her class, things were quickly disintegrating around her.
By Flanigan’s second year at WCLL, she said her classroom was “unrecognizable” from many of the others. Central Office decided to do away with successful forms of discipline. Suspensions were taken off the table.
“Kids found this out very quickly,” Flanigan said. “Our principal and a teacher were attacked and the kids knew there was nothing that was going to happen. They were right. Nothing happened. That’s what created the burnout. The culture of the school went downhill as violence was accepted and there was no accountability.”
She described a melee in which a group of high school girls stormed into her classroom in the middle of a lesson and assaulted a fellow student, who was badly hurt. A crowd formed and the group of girls went on to attack another student in the library. That’s when the principal, a “small-statured woman,” was trampled and punched. One of the girls who led the attacks was brought before a disciplinary hearing.
“Nothing happened to her. She was still there by the time I left MPS” at the end of the year, Flanigan said.
Teachers were caught in the middle of the violence. Keeping order was nearly impossible, so it’s no wonder MPS’ failure rate is so abysmal, why so many kids can’t read, write or solve math problems at grade-level proficiency. About 10 percent of students in the district were proficient in math, 17 percent in English, according to the latest state Forward exam. Only 43 percent of students actually bothered to take the test.
Flanigan said one of her fellow teachers told her that there were periods during the day that she would hide under her desk, suffering emotional breakdowns.
“Very few of the teachers I taught with are still there,” the former teacher said. “It was a very demoralizing experience.” The same horror stories were going on at schools throughout MPS.
Commitment to communities
Even more demoralizing was the fact that other urban school districts with similar student populations were experiencing success. Flanigan left MPS and taught in the Austin (Texas) Independent School District, which educates more than 74,000 students and “embraces 125 diverse school communities in one of the fastest-growing metroplexes in the country.”
The difference was day and night, Flanigan said. The difference was a true commitment to partnerships between the schools, the district, families and the community.
“We had our problems. It wasn’t perfect, but I’ve seen it done much better with similar challenges,” Flanigan said. “(Austin) ISD gave me a clearer picture of what was wrong with MPS.”
She said the school district approached learning in a more de-centralized way, giving schools more independence and autonomy to do what was in the best interest of their students.
While MPS has received unprecedented funding over the run of the pandemic, Flanigan believes the district remains too big and too unresponsive to address the needs of students and families. Breaking up MPS into smaller districts would go a long way to bring accountability back to the state’s largest public school system, the former teacher said.
“MPS throwing money into a hole is not the answer,” Flanigan said. “Imagine if parents knew who their school board members were. Breaking up MPS would offer parents opportunities to have their voices heard.”