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Rebuilding a safe, pro-learning culture at an inner-city school

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It’s been a rough cultural transition back to schools since the lockdowns, and we are starting to see the price that will be paid for keeping our kids out of the nation’s schools for as long as we did. We are fighting to reclaim our schools for the sake of the children we serve. Some schools, like mine, have been up to the task, but many others have not recovered.

I am the Director of the Free Enterprise Academy at Milwaukee Lutheran High School.  Milwaukee Lutheran is a school of approximately 860 students, most of whom are inner-city, economically disadvantaged, black kids who attend using a school choice voucher.  Like most schools during the closures, Milwaukee Lutheran went to virtual learning, with varying levels of success.  When we returned to in-person instruction, little did we know the problems were only just beginning.

Many people have written about the drops in proficiency and attendance since our return from the lockdowns. One of the most important aspects often not considered is the damage done to a school’s culture. Anti-social behavior, insubordination, fighting, and tardiness seemed to be the norm.

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Recognizing the need to re-prioritize a positive school culture, in August of 2023 Milwaukee Lutheran made major changes like instituting a school uniform. Students are only allowed to wear selected golf shirts, sweatshirts, or quarter-zips that have the Milwaukee Lutheran logo on them. Students are consistently corrected when their pants are hanging too low, when their skirts are inappropriately short, or when there is a gap between shirts and bottoms. As a result, we have fewer dress code issues and disputes than ever before. The uniform, in addition to new security protocols and personnel, serves as a further safety measure because we know who belongs in our building and who does not. Students complain that we have gone overboard, but we don’t think so.

In fact, a few months ago Milwaukee Lutheran had a major security incident that prompted us to go back to virtual instruction for a week. Our students were the most put off by not being in school. Our kids wanted to be in school. They did not celebrate a week off. In my opinion, their reaction speaks very highly of the people and policies that encouraged the shift in our culture.

Milwaukee Lutheran has also invested heavily in safety technology. Weapons detection technology has evolved way past the old, simple, and intrusive metal detectors and wands. With this new technology, students can safely enter our building without sending the message that we do not trust them or that they are suspected by default. This leads to a sense of safety amongst the students, parents, and staff without the resentment of being treated like they might be criminals at the front door.

Fighting and insubordination are not tolerated. Milwaukee Lutheran sent the word out early and has consistently applied consequences when problems break out. It seems to be working.  In the past 4 ½ months, we’ve had one (one-punch) fight in our school. My observation is that accountability has been the most important factor that drives positive changes in culture.

One of the more unique changes at Milwaukee Lutheran has been the restructuring of our system of deans. Our deans are instructed and trained to “meet these students where they are at,” both literally and figuratively. No longer do our students sit in a waiting area for 15 minutes to speak to a guidance counselor. Our deans will go to the students’ classrooms, bring them into the hall, and address any issues on the spot. Technology also allows the principal and other administrators to do work while in the halls, where they can monitor and speak to students between classes. This also creates a sense of safety, and, more importantly, accountability, as there are more adults communicating with students on a more consistent basis.  And the students know the adults are paying attention to what is going on.

There are significant portions of the public that would like to give up on inner-city kids. They don’t think our kids are worth the effort of education. They don’t think our kids are willing to learn. They are wrong. Our students want to learn. Our students can learn. It is up to us as adults to provide them with an environment where they can be successful, and when we do that, they respond positively. Don’t give up. It is a long and hard road back, but it can be done, and these kids are worth it.

Shannon Whitworth is a Bradley Freedom Fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty and the director of the free enterprise academy at Milwaukee Lutheran High School.

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