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Parent Advocacy in Milwaukee

The ACIE Newsletter, June 2000, Vol. 3, No. 3

By Kelly Guthery, Parent and Chair of the City Wide Language Immersion Council, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

 


 

Milwaukee has a long and successful history of language immersion programs. The Milwaukee German Immersion School opened in 1977 and was quickly followed by the Milwaukee French Immersion School and the Milwaukee Spanish Immersion School. Today, the Milwaukee Public Schools continue to offer the three elementary programs that feed into the Milwaukee School of Languages, a 6-12 program. Parents who choose to enroll their children in language immersion programs are aware of the high-quality, unique education their children receive. However, the road to success is often marred by difficulties. In Milwaukee, parents of children in language immersion programs have often had to speak out on behalf of their children, language im-mersion schools, and the public school system.

The City Wide Language Immersion Council (CWLIC) was developed in 1989 as a parent advisory council that would articulate concerns common to the language immersion programs in Milwaukee. The goals of the language immersion council remain the same today as in 1989. The CWLIC seeks to work cooperatively, rather than on an individual immersion school basis, to make recommendations to the administration and school board, to keep parents and the community informed of the purpose of immersion education and the advantages of language immersion programs, and to encourage the involvement of parents in the continued development and evaluation of immersion programs.

Membership on the CWLIC includes two to three parent representatives, the principal, the program implementor and foreign language curriculum specialist from each school, as well as leaders from the field of foreign language education. Many of the issues that the CWLIC addresses today have been addressed previously. The CWLIC has continually parried school board and administrative actions that would be detrimental to our programs and has frustrated countless school board members and administrators who have tried to push their own agendas through the system.

In 1989, the CWLIC addressed the difficulties in hiring language immersion teachers. While we are proud of the many outstanding teachers at our schools, we know first hand how difficult it has been to hire competent staff who are proficient in the language. Today, the CWLIC is addressing this same issue as our school board advocates replicating successful programs. We attend school board meetings and public forums to remind our leaders that they cannot simply fly overseas and bring back a school full of teachers without concerns from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. Additionally, our school board and administration have floated the idea of repli-cating immersion programs as sub-programs of neighborhood schools. We have written position papers and articulated the premise of immersion education in which all aspects of school life be conducted in the foreign language. We have recently turned up our efforts to build public awareness of our message.

Milwaukee began entertaining thoughts of school choice in the early 1990s. Despite the efforts of the CWLIC and many other organizations to oppose this movement, school choice, including both religious and charter schools, is very much alive in Milwaukee. As the movement grows, we fight to keep public dollars in public schools and we fight to be recognized as outstanding public schools in our community. After 20 years, many people are not aware that the language immersion schools are part of the public school system; some people are not even aware that language immersion schools exist in Milwaukee.

As immersion parents across the country know, student achievement in language immer-sion programs is high. Students in Milwaukee immersion schools score well on standardized tests and our schools receive national recognition as schools of excellence. We see it as our responsibility, as concerned parents, to make sure that our programs are accurately represented. We regularly send reports to local media outlets. The media in Milwaukee, however, favor school choice and rarely pick up the many positive stories that come from our schools. The CWLIC is working to change that as we build our contacts with many alternative media outlets in Milwaukee. It is our goal that every person in southeastern Wisconsin be made aware that the Milwaukee Public Schools offer top-notch language immersion education from kindergarten through Grade 12.

We have repeatedly gathered and shared statistics that show immersion schools do not cost more than regular public schools. Still, some in the community erroneously believe that we need a tremendous amount of financial resources to run language immersion programs. While the schools acknowledge that texts and materials from other countries do cost more, we have proven to run excellent programs with less money than many other schools in the district. Our current task is to fight for equitable funding across all public schools in Milwaukee. We have worked with principals, the school board, and admini-stration to gather our facts. Now, we will sort through our data and address our concerns to appropriate entities within the system.

The CWLIC has allied itself with advocacy organizations that are concerned with social justice. We are finding that common ground, particularly the concern for all children in Milwaukee, helps us build strength in numbers. We are developing connections with state legislative representatives, and regularly call to voice our concerns. We try to hold our school board accountable for every action they take that affects our schools. Members of the council have learned that patience, time, dedication, and strong will are critical to our success. Above all, we have learned that we can be passionate about our concerns, but air them in a diplomatic way. We try to keep our anger at bay and fight logically. The bottom line is that we are working for our children. Their success is our success.

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