Nov. 7, 2019 -- “The roses that grew from concrete.” That image from a Tupac Shakur poem was the theme of this year’s national conference of the Minority Student Achievement Network, MSAN, in Madison, Wisconsin, October 23 - 26.
Heights High MSAN members Issa Augustin-Glave, Taylor Cody, Marius Coleman, Robert Pryor, and MacKenzie Scott attended the conference with advisors Shawn Washington and Nate Williams.
The students heard from national leaders on issues affecting the educational experiences of students of color.
Junior Taylor Cody was struck by the difference between the achievement gap, which we hear so much about, and the opportunity gap, which she sees as the true problem.
“Often, we’re just blaming students for not achieving,” which she sees as misguided. “But we achieve when we’re presented with the opportunity.”
Sophomore Marius Coleman walked away from the conference with a greater appreciation for self-love and self-worth and wants to work to increase the number of African American students taking Advanced Placement courses. “If we instill confidence in students early, they’ll see that they can do it.”
Fellow sophomore Robert Pryor said attending the conference was “culturally enriching. I learned that we’re not alone. There are definitely more of us out there trying to create change. I feel unified from this experience.”
At the conference, students created an Action Plan and will share it with the 45 MSAN members who meet bi-monthly. They will also present the plan to the Board of Education.
The Action Plan includes multiple goals, including:
- Increasing minority student participation in AP classes,
- Connecting with the MSAN programs at both Heights middle schools,
- Enhancing teachers’ understanding of students’ cultural and socio-emotional lives,
- Increasing Restorative Justice practices.
Restorative justice practices can be used in place of other behavioral consequences, including suspension for serious infractions. It focuses on mediation and requires offenders to take responsibility for the harm they’ve caused and make restitution with their victims. It is widely seen as a positive and effective alternative to more traditional punitive models.
The group has identified what the conference called “co-conspirators,” those people willing to do the hard work with them to affect change. “Allies” is too passive a term; “Those are just people who agree with you or say they support you,” said Taylor. “We need people who will do the hard stuff to figure out how to move forward.”
MSAN meetings are open to everyone, regardless of background, though the after-school club at Heights is currently made up of students of color. Many of their peers at the conference attend schools that are majority white, both in terms of student body and in terms of staff and school leadership. “They need their MSANs,” said senior MacKenzie Scott. “Whereas we [at Heights] have so many different groups we can be a part of.”
“But education is still a white institution,” said Taylor. “And we have to strive to achieve in it without losing our identity.”
Not losing his identity was a powerful message that Robert heard at the conference. “You can lose yourself in a society that’s predominantly white,” he said. “You try to fit in, but I don't think I should to succumb to that. There is power in my skin color and I should just be me.”
MacKenzie summed up the current complexities of being a black student by reflecting on Tupac’s poem. “We used to be roses that grew from the concrete,” she said. “But I feel like we broke the concrete. Youth has power and a voice right now. We’re expanding from those cracks and growing into a garden. But we still have thorns.”
Students interested in attending the next MSAN meeting and working toward greater educational equity should contact Ms. Washington or Mr. Williams or check the school calendar for meeting dates.
The conference activities included a tour of the University of Wisconsin.
MSAN is a national coalition of multiracial school districts that work to eliminate opportunity/achievement gaps. The organization was formed in 1999, CH-UH is a founding member and hosted the first conference.