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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Sunday, Sept. 14, 2014

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Joe Brusky is a teacher at 81st Street School in Milwaukee's West Side Cooper Park neighborhood.
Joe Brusky is a teacher at 81st Street School in Milwaukee's West Side Cooper Park neighborhood.

81st Street School teacher says merger plan leaves sour taste

If you've been watching this site, you've read about proposals by the community and by MPS to move the educational program that currently resides at 68th Street School, which will close at the end of this school year.

One plan that has gained traction in the West Side Cooper Park, Lenox Heights, Enderis Park and Kops Park neighborhoods was the idea – proposed initially by the 68th Street School community – to merge the program with nearby 81st Street School's and give the school more of a neighborhood focus.

As became clear earlier this month at a public meeting held at Milwaukee School of Languages, the staff and parents at 81st Street School are not on board with the proposal, for a number of reasons, but in part because they feel they were left out of the crafting of the plan.

MPS is currently holding focus groups to gauge interest in the proposal, which will likely go before the board in March.

You've heard what others have said about the proposal before. Now, we asked 81st Street School teacher Joe Brusky – who spoke on behalf of the school community at the MSL meeting – what his school thinks of the plan and the current situation.

OnMilwaukee.com: Do you think there is room for compromise; to work together with 68th Street to hammer out a merger proposal that would make both schools happy?

Joe Brusky: I do not think there is room for compromise as long as any of our school's current families are being displaced or we lose our middle school. Our parents, students, administration and staff are adamant on these points. I think a sour taste was left in our school community from the way the proposal was crafted solely by one side and although attempts were made to engage us, they were not as aggressive as they should have been.

Our community has also expressed that they felt belittled by the things said about our children's test scores and program currently running at 81st Street School. We view our academics in a much more positive light than the writers of the proposal do and that perception has most likely suffocated any chance for future negotiation or compromise.

OMC: What are some of the points in their plan that 81st Street staff and parents don't like?

JB: Not only are parents and staff of our school unhappy with the merger proposal, they feel as though the proposal is offensive for several reasons. First and foremost it displaces our middle school program, which parents have specifically chosen for that very reason since 81st Street School offers a K-8 environment. The North Side of Milwaukee has very limited options for parents in the K-8 model, unlike the South Side, which is K-8 rich. Parents have to bus their kids to 81st Street School because the school options are so few in their neighborhoods due to budget cuts of years past.

Several others have expressed that they feel like our children would be displaced in exchange for "neighborhood" children with no busing to the school. This language and intent in the proposal comes off to our parents as discriminatory. One of the parents who spoke at the community meeting in support of the proposal stated that she wouldn't let her child go on the playground with the children on our playground, which intended or not, turned off many people in our community who began to perceive, whether correctly or incorrectly, that there are other underlying issues of privilege in play here.

There also is a sense among our community that the proposal seems to be very self-serving for the 68th Street School community. Even though they have stated that the proposal is a community effort it seems to be more the work of a small, committed and well-organized cadre of people who see this as a chance to save their school. The group's ability to gather signatures and manufacture a feeling of community support is because the proposal they wrote up is more a pitch than anything close to realistic. Anyone who reads the proposal or who is given the fine points of the proposal would agree it sounds good but that doesn't mean it is realistic and genuine.

In effect the group has been selling a proposal to the communities involved that is not even possible in an effort to manufacture more support for their proposal. At the recent community meeting our school's parents were given notice of the meeting only two days prior to the meeting, and we still managed to get what seemed to be about 60 percent turnout to 40 percent for 68th Street School; I asked people involved with both sides to raise their hands at the meeting).

To turn out such a huge amount of parents on such a short time really showed that our parents have some concerns about this proposal. Their comments in the public speak-out portion of the community meeting also seemed to confirm this. There is also the overarching feeling that if 68th Street School was as concerned about the well being of 81st Street School's community then why didn't the community act before the 68th Street School was targeted for closure?

The 68th Street School would be bringing in completely unfunded units of K3 that would immediately put our school $1.2 million in the hole. This budgetary constraint is not fair to our other students in the building who would be forced to work with fewer resources.

Parents in our surrounding school community have decided to opt out of the Milwaukee Public Schools district in large numbers for voucher, charter and other surrounding public districts. There is no guarantee that those parents will not continue to do this after K5 instruction once they move into our building. This is a huge gamble for 81st Street School since the existing middle school students make up a large proportion of the K-8 school. Our middle school population is also a big user of after-school care, which the proposal mentions as a plus for 81st Street School.

We are concerned that the proposal does not account for SAGE funding – federal dollars used to reduce class size in grades K4-3 – which our school currently receives. It also does not account for two autism units that will be entering our community next year from a closed 65th Street School.

Specials – art, music, phy. ed – have been included in the proposal, however there is no reason to believe that these can be paid for. The proposal assumes that increased numbers to the enrollment from neighbors immediately re-enrolling their students at 81 Street will give the school extra money for specials. Our school is currently already running at 105 percent capacity and that isn't even enough to reinstate specials for our current school year.

The 68th Street community has run the whole proposal process. The community meeting showed this clearly. They not only had the majority of time and speakers supporting their agenda, but they also were allowed to rebuttal anything said by the other side. This was one-sided and our community felt it and that had bred a suspicion as to the intentions of the group and why they feel like they have to sell this proposal.

OMC: Is there anything in the plan that you see as a plus for your school?

JB: Some of the positives we see are the fact that the school clearly does have a lot of active parents who care about the education of their children. The school also would be bringing in some nice resources, such as an excellent library. Some of our staff likes the idea of a year-round school and others do not. The community of 68th Street has also secured wonderful contacts for the arts in the surrounding community, which would be a great resource to tap into. Our community promotes a "college bound" atmosphere and 68th Street also seems to foster that kind of thinking.

OMC: I know you mentioned this a bit earlier, but what do you make of 68th Street community's position that it had attempted to make inroads at 81st Street in terms of talking about a proposal but that it faced a wall erected by administration?

JB: We think this prolonged inability to contact and engage us was very unfortunate because it might have allowed for a healthy debate and collective cooperation by both staffs on writing up a proposal that could work for all sides. Unfortunately, that was not done and the process has been tainted, as most of our community thinks there are ill intentions with the creators of the merger proposal team.

OMC: What is the mood like at 81st Street? Would the school community there prefer to leave things as they are or do they think the idea of a merger -- if done correctly -- could be beneficial for the program?

JB: At this time, the staff at 81st Street School feels the existing school and programming is heading in the right direction and do not see a need for a merger. Our community was quite stressed with the entire process since we were left out for so long and this forced many people to spend a good deal of time reading and analyzing the proposal.

Once the proposal details were known and discussed our staff felt the meeting dates and times were announced with little time to prepare or make time. This stunted our ability as a community to be able to comment on the proposal in any sort of a meaningful way. I think now that our staff confirmed the proposal was not the direction we want to go in, we feel like we can focus more directly on educating our students.

OMC: Again, this is something you touched on earlier, but what's your take on neighborhood opinion – based on petitions and neighborhood organizations – about making 81st Street a more neighborhood-focused school? Would the school benefit from having a much closer link to its surrounding communities even if that meant the population of the school might change?

JB: Although it would be great to have a neighborhood school within a close-knit community, unfortunately that is not the dynamic that exists today. Our parents should be able to choose a K-8 school not too far from home that meets their family's needs. Many of our parents favor having all of their children in the same building and there are not many options in the area for this type of setting.

Again, it is unknown how many neighborhood families would really utilize the new proposed school and not leave prematurely, causing low enrollment. The current situation at 68th Street School has shown this trend. Our staff does not want 81st Street School to follow this pattern and face possible closure in the future if neighborhood families don't stay in MPS.

Talkbacks

Jojo_Scott_4 | Feb. 25, 2013 at 12:55 p.m. (report)

I'm a parent of children that did attended this school and the only good thing to say about 81st street school is that MOST of the teachers here are fantastic and are so great with the students! I feel so bad that they have to be stuck in the middle of this kind of situation. As for the other teachers I'm sorry to say but should not even be teachers.... Ive seen some be disrespectful to students and it truly saddens me that they take out anger on them!! I would not allow my children to attend 81st Street school. I would hope that parents do some research and back ground checks before sending your children to a school it is very important!!! As for the k-8 at 81st Street school very very bad idea!! Who came up with such a thing??!! Very HORRIFIC things happened to my children while attending this school! In the hallways on the buses all because of these middle school kids that are out of control! Nothing is being done about it! Somebody needs to handle these out of control middle school students that are beating up elementary kids!! Evidently the schools social workers can not fix some of these disturbed middle school kids that feel like or think that hitting or calling little kids names is all fine and dandy! Or smoking in the bathroom next to 4-5year old's is OK!! Its sad! The bus company that they use is called Durham and let me tell you this bus company is just ran by crazy, childish and disrespectful adults that have horrible potty mouths!! And if you think that's bad you have to meet the people that they hire to drive these buses! JUST BAD BAD! If NOTHING is being done right now at this moment its only going to get worse for the teachers and family's that have to deal with it. I'm sure that most of the problems start at home with these kids so its on the parents to raise a well behaved kid and to let them know that the things they do is not ok!! And don't suspend the kid that was just trying to defend him/her self from one of the bigger kids!

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neighbor | Feb. 14, 2012 at 6:07 p.m. (report)

There needs to be some accurate and representative surveys done at 81st st. I keep hearing about/from the same few representatives. How many teachers staff send their kids there? I have worked in many k-8's in Milwaukee, north and south side and I live in this neighborhood. I would NOT send my kids to a k-8 school. They are not safe, and having over 100 documented incident referrals at 81st street school proves that. It's only half way through the year, and that's only the documented incidents. Teachers in MPS are told NOT to write kids up now by their principals. So if that is what's documented- there's a lot more. MPS laid me off, and know I work out of the district after six years of trying to help MPS keep it's head above water. I teach in a 6-8 middle school. I have had 0 incident referrals in my room this year. MPS needs to change k-8's so they are safe, or I will take my kids elsewhere. They need safety people, and behavioral deterrents such as in-school suspensions and lunch detentions. We still have behavioral problems outside of MPS, we just have consequences. ANYONE who works in a MPS K8 would agree with this. We need to treat our kids better. Safety is an issue, not discrimination! This neighborhood has a MIXED population of class and race. ALL MPS STUDENTS DESERVE A SAFE ENVIRONMENT. Get rid of the K-8's and do MIDDLE SCHOOLS RIGHT, so those kids do have a place to go. Joe, and other vocal few of 81st: Please get over your defenses and help make a change for all MPS kids, not just the ones currently attending. It's about the future of MPS. I am not associated with either school, but would LOVE for my kids to be a part of BOTH of them when they are old enough.

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zyxw | Feb. 14, 2012 at 2:16 a.m. (report)

As someone who has lived near 81st Street School for over 10 years and has two children attending MPS elementary schools Ive been an interested observer throughout this process. If Mr. Bruskys opinions/statements truly represent those of the entire 81st Street staff I have some serious concerns.

While I can see how the 81st Street Community may have felt ambushed at the community meeting at MSL, the time to claim they didnt have input is over. It seems to be well-documented by both sides, that for reasons they havent really given a straight answer for, MPS administration blocked any meaningful communication before last month's meeting. If the 81st Street staff claims there is not any room for compromise and refuses to work with the neighborhood proposal they are ultimately leaving the proposal to the school board on its own merits. If they are opposed their voices will be heard, but the "we weren't given a say" argument can no longer be played.

I also question some of the data Mr. Brusky refers to. For example, during last months school board meeting it was reported that the 68th Street program cost $1.4 million to run this school year. How exactly would the proposals one K-3 classroom (two half-day sessions) leave the school $1.2 million in the hole? Is there a previous school debt that the public is unaware of, or are you honestly telling us it is going to cost this much to run one classroom? Also, whether or not anyone agrees test scores and suspension rates are the true measure of a schools success, stating them is not an attack on a schools academics. I would also take issue with the 60/40 split in attendance at the earlier meeting. Many of my neighbors who live near the school and are in favor of the merger clapped when you asked who was a representative of the 81st Street community. Finally, this is NOT a new request of the neighborhood. It's a conversation that's been had 1000s of times at social events, on sidewalks, and whenever and wherever education of our children is brought up.

While I feel a sense of empathy for the families of any students who may be displaced during this process, this hasnt stopped the district from restructuring, closing, and merging dozens of schools in the past two years with much larger populations, and much less support. The 81st Street communitys refusal to take part in any merger proposal because they are left with a sour taste in their mouths is hardly an acceptable response. Let the record show they voted 'no' and refused to compromise.

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Stop blaming and start talking | Feb. 13, 2012 at 10:14 p.m. (report)

Joe, as a representative for your school, you should be advocating for more clarification about the TRUE facts and position of 68th St. ECC or the neighborhood associations before making any more comments or assumptions about the proposal/plan. You and your staff have been repeatedly invited to many meetings with minimal to no showing. They have tried to reach out to you many times and in many various ways. Not trying hard enough? STOP BLAMING AND START LISTENING! A proposal is just that....a proposal....a draft. The neighborhoods are more than willing to listen to your ideas and work with your staff and make ANY and ALL changes necessary to meet the needs of ALL involved. THAT'S ALL THEY WANTED IN THE FIRST PLACE, BUT IT WAS BLOCKED TIME AND TIME AGAIN AND THEN HAD TO BECOME A BIG SHOW BECAUSE ADMINISTRATION GOT INVOLVED AND TAINTED THE WATER! The neighborhood associations truly DO want to hear how to make a plan work for all students, families, staff, and neighbors.
Unfortunately, damage has been done....but to both schools. My hope is that you at least let the neighborhood associations explain further what has been going on. And if you don't want to listen to them, then YOU and YOUR STAFF at least make them listen to YOUR SIDE as you share your thoughts and ideas in more detail. They are simply asking for the opportunity to talk with you more. The neighborhiod associations, neighbors, aldermen, school board, and families are VERY serious about continuing to pursue a proposal (however that may look) to better 68th St. ECC and 81st. St. School. You may choose to say "no thank you" and close the door on the idea, but knocking will continue.

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MPSparent | Feb. 13, 2012 at 8:41 p.m. (report)

I'm part of the committee that developed the draft proposal being discussed. I'm very saddened by the misinformation and hostility-- and also the implications that we've "manufactured" a feeling of community... for anyone who knows our neighborhoods, they know that these issues, and the schooling options for our kids and families, are real and very dear to us. I very much doubt that Alderman Murphy, Alderman Bohl, and Director Spence manufactured their many years of hearing from neighbors about the need for a quality elementary school in our neighborhoods. I also wish very much that the 81st Street staff would communicate with us directly-- if staff would take us up on the many offers we've had to meet over the past month, we could have cleared up a lot of the misinformation out there. We have always said, from the beginning, that the proposal was a draft and that we wanted to work with 81st Street staff to create a better neighborhood school for our kids. I don't see how the current state of things helps our kids or our schools. Yes, the 81st Street staff was brought in later than the neighborhood or 68th Street groups when writing the proposal. That was after being turned away by Ms. Love, the 81st Street principal, repeatedly in December. Our committee started formulating a merger proposal on January 5th. On January 10th we wrote a letter to the 81st Street staff, bypassing Ms. Love, and asking them to participate. On January 19th, we met with 81st Street staff to discuss the proposal draft. Two weeks-- that's it. The 81st Street staff was brought in two weeks later in the proposal process than the neighborhood and 68th Street School groups. Perhaps we weren't as "aggressive as we should have been," but we tried repeatedly to involve the staff from the beginning and were shut down by 81st Street School's principal. She wouldn't speak or meet with teachers, with parents, or with neighborhood associations about merger talks or the push for a neighborhood school. We approached her multiple times. I understand how the 81st Street staff would feel angry about being the last to the table, but I don't believe the anger should be focused at our committee or our neighborhood associations--it should be focused at the leadership of 81st Street school, who left her teachers in the dark.

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