March 6, 2008 ARCHIVES
Reflections/Jonathan Gramling
                         School role models
    Last week, I had the privilege of speaking to an after school group at a middle school. Six young women — four of
them African American — were aspiring to be journalists and I was asked to come and speak to them about my
experiences as a journalist.
    First of all, I told them that I didn’t make very much money as a journalist. If getting rich is your game, then journalism
is not the profession to be in right now.
    But I did tell them about my experiences interviewing and covering famous and not so famous people. I talked about
how I had been able to shake Barack Obama’s hand and take photos of him very close up. They thought that was pretty
cool. And I mentioned that I had the privilege of interviewing Maya Angelou. Granted it was a 15 minute
phone interview, but I told them that for 15 minutes, Maya Angelou knew my name.
    The young women were quite taken with the thought of interviewing Maya Angelou. They brought up this great writer
several times and I got the sense they were imagining themselves interviewing Maya Angelou. I also talked to them
about the late Betty Franklin-Hammonds who had built The Madison Times into a successful weekly newspaper. Only
one of the young women had heard about Betty and so I proceeded to tell them about all of the things that Betty had
done during her life that had ended too soon with an asthma attack. These young women were seeking role models,
other women’s lives through whom they could imagine their own.
    And then I went to the MMSD school board public hearing on the naming of the new elementary school on Madison’s
far west side. I and 223 other individuals had asked that the school be named after Betty Franklin-Hammonds.
I and many others were shocked when her name did not come forward as one of the four finalists. I had found it very
ironic that no African American names had been included among the finalists when the report was released and the
hearing held during February or Black History Month.
    While the committee did have a chart that placed the previously named schools into different categories, they didn’t
look at the categories and statistics in the chart on this page.

     Fully 91 percent of the school buildings named after people were named after men while females comprise at least
50 percent more of the student population. Over 81 percent of the schools are named after Euro-Americans, while only
52 percent of the student population is Euro-American. And of the four names forwarded for consideration, 75 percent
were Euro-American males and 25 percent were Latina. If naming schools after individuals is supposed to inspire the
students, then why wasn’t this kind of information considered?
    While students of color represent 48 percent of the student population and it is predicted that in a few years, the
district will be majority-minority, overall, the role models continue to be overwhelming Euro-American. Only 14 percent
of the school board members are of color. There are no top administrators of color. And the district has been preparing
us for years of a coming trend where they will be able to hire fewer African American educators because the national
supply is shrinking. And so, the role models for the students of color in the Madison public schools are increasingly Euro-
American And while the school board and administration are quick to point out that many of these trends are outside of
their control, the naming of the new school after a person of color is completely within their control and yet, 75 percent
of the nominees are Euro-American.
    During the public hearing last week, many of the speakers stated that the lives of the four individuals nominated
would serve as examples to the students. Well, where are the continuous examples for the students of color? While one
of the individuals was held up as an example for students with disabilities, the greatest percentage of students with
disabilities in the school district are African American students. Yet none of the people testifying for the individual with
disabilities who was nominated were people of color let alone African American.
    It seems that we are in a form of post-Affirmative Action with the MMSD school board. As history has taught us, when
we don’t take an Affirmative Action approach to important decisions, African Americans and other people of color fall by
the wayside because the people making the decisions and selecting the values are the majority and then those
decisions tend to bring forward people from the majority and the people in the minority have little voice on the subject.
The Madison public schools had better keep constantly vigilant on the overall big picture for students of color in the
district. While the decisions that are made are supposedly race-neutral, they keep coming up Euro-American in a
school district that will soon be a majority of students of color. When we aren’t race conscious in our decision-making,
then it is usually people of color who suffer.
    While all students need role models, the Madison school board had better ask itself who the role models are going to
be for the young African American female students I spoke to last week. It appears their role models will be fading from
view at the precise time that they are needed the most. Who is looking out for them and their need for role models?