Milwaukee Public Schools officially launched its Department of Black and Latino Male Achievement (BLMA) in fall of 2017. BLMA started its journey by delving into the research and best practices informing this burgeoning field, working to analyze data, and adopting local and national best practices for this population. The department reported directly to then Superintendent Darienne Driver, who said:
When we examine student achievement data for all of our students, our Black and Latino male students are consistently below their peers. This is simply unacceptable, we can and will do better. We believe that it is critical to improve outcomes for all our young people. Focusing specifically on Black and Latino male achievement will benefit all students in our district.
This endeavor was additionally informed by the work of national partners, including the Campaign for Black Male Achievement (CBMA) and My Brother’s Keeper, and Milwaukee’s Black Male Achievement Advisory Council (BMAAC). It was with that enthusiasm, leadership, and guidance that BLMA was officially launched in October 2017. The original staff for the Department of Black and Latino Male Achievement included a mix of internal and external MPS employees with diverse perspectives and experiences: Co-Directors Dr. Juan Baez and Mr. LaNelle Ramey, Coordinator Mr. Paul Moga, and Planning Assistant Mr. David Emmanuelle Castillo. This group received essential initial support from former MPS Research Specialist Dr. Amy Nelson-Christensen, former Special Assistant to the Superintendent Ms. Ashley Lee, Public Ally Mr. Sergio Muniz-Munoz, and other internal MPS stakeholders. During what was intended to be a planning year, the group set a course of action, connecting with district and city-wide efforts that specifically support Black and Latino boys and young men. The team identified six priority strategies, all aligned with current research and best practices in the field:
- Launch a Manhood Development Academy that provides safe and protected spaces for Black and Latino male students to explore identity and history among a community of their peers
- Improve school culture through dignity, equitable practices, and capacity building to address significant disparities
- Launch a positive narrative change campaign about MPS’s Black and Latino young men
- Provide varied mentoring opportunities for Black and Latino young men
- Recruit and retain Black and Latino male teachers
- Develop a sustainability plan and data dashboard to measure progress
While all these priorities have undeniable merit, the department learned much from the Semi-Structured Student Interviews (group “listening sessions”) in 2017 and 2018. In conversations with approximately one thousand young Black and Latino men from Milwaukee Public Schools, they emphasized the urgent needs for mentorship, guidance, and multiple platforms to simply be heard. In early 2018, before BLMA's pilot year officially began, the department established the “BLMA First Thursdays Mentor Luncheons” at Bradley Tech and Washington High Schools, inviting Black and Latino men from the Milwaukee area to commit their time and wisdom to MPS’s Black and Latino boys as they navigate an ever-challenging social landscape. Despite many challenges, this effort endured, expanding to seven high schools by 2019, with opportunities for even more sites to join at present.
In early 2018, BLMA received approval for its Manhood Development course, a credit-bearing elective class at South Division and Washington High Schools, taught my Mr. Derrick Portalatin and Mr. Freddie Riley, respectively. The course offers culturally sustaining, identity-affirming lessons to young men based on the BLMA Twelve Guiding Principles. in 2019, the course was also adapted for students at Audubon Middle School and is currently available to grades 6-12, with professional learning and support from the department.
Also in 2018, some of the young men from BLMA Manhood Development were subjects for “See Me Because”, an Art Start portrait project and exhibit that allowed young men from BLMA to record their oral histories and participate in professional photo shoots that reimaged them as heroes, professionals, and change agents instead of harmful racial stereotypes. Amid this growth, Superintendent Driver resigned and BLMA was immediately reduced, losing one Director and most of the department’s budget, temporarily halting all expansion plans. Nonetheless, the abbreviated BLMA team pushed forward, organizing a November 2018 Manhood Development Summit in partnership with Mary Ryan Boys and Girls Club, where many local leaders of arts, public health, finance, and education hosted meaningful, relevant workshops for BLMA students.
The department’s momentum was further challenged by the worldwide Covid-19 pandemic during the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 school years; however, BLMA continued to provide virtual course work and e-mentoring services throughout the shutdown. The April 2021 Milwaukee Board of School Board elections brought new faces and a renewed district commitment to BLMA, missing since 2018. The Board unanimously voted to expand the Department of Black and Latino Male Achievement and its budget, allowing for the additions of three more Coordinators, another Planning Assistant, and an Administrative Assistant. This lays the foundation for an excited, rejuvenated BLMA Department, better positioned to execute its mission, to “collaboratively work to improve the outcomes of Black and Latino male students within Milwaukee Public Schools by challenging systems, structures, and spaces of oppression, and… create conditions that promote greater success.”