Black families say they feel left out after dispute over BLM cancels Menasha schools program

Published: Sep. 21, 2021 at 10:35 PM CDT
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MENASHA, Wis. (WBAY) - As most students are back in the classroom, some Black families in the Fox Valley say they feel left out, unheard, and unseen by their district.

A First Alert Investigation uncovered that a program in Menasha pubic schools that aimed to help Black students graduate and get into college was canceled this year due to controversy.

Since May of 2021, Action 2 News has looked over documents, spoken with several concerned parents, and interviewed education experts to assess the decision’s impact on closing the racial achievement gap.

Lamon Robinson has three kids enrolled in the Menasha Joint School District. His daughter Amerea just began 8th grade at Maplewood Middle School.

“I was talking to my daughter about it and she was really glad that I enrolled her into the STAR program and I [saw] a different change in her when she came home from school,” Robinson said.

STAR is short for Scholars on Target to Achieve Results, and it supports Black students in the Fox Valley providing them with tutoring and counseling in schools.

“She was more focused and she was asking more about her history and stuff like that, and how we got here,” Robinson said.

The Boys and Girls club of the Fox Valley launched the program in 2018 for Appleton and, up until May, Menasha public schools. STAR placed a staff member in a middle school and high school at each district to specifically assist Black students.

Amerea said she benefited from the extra tutoring and having an educator of color who could relate to her struggles, while pushing her to succeed.

“I just think that more teachers should like start helping the African American students more like he did, because not all teachers help like that,” Amerea said.

Yet, issues arose in the fall of 2020 with administrators over a STAR counselor displaying a Black Lives Matter sign in class and an educator wearing a Black Power mask.

In emails Action 2 News obtained through an open records request, Menasha Superintendent Chris VanderHeyden wrote BLM is a political organization thus any display with the words “Black Lives Matter” violates district policy.

Vanderheyden at one point sent an email to a kindergarten teacher requesting a meeting after she put up a BLM poster

At least two parents emailed the district complaining about BLM being taught in the classroom during the 2020/2021 school year.

Both Menasha’s superintendent and the Boys and Girls Club declined speaking on the record for this story.

On April 2 of this year, the superintendent received a letter from several community leaders and members of the STAR advisory committee, saying Black Lives Matter is a civil rights movement, not a political organization.

Superintendent VanderHeyden responded in disagreement on April 23 stating it is a political entity and promoting the group violates district policy. Then on May 18, he sent an email to staff that he notified the Boys and Girls club he was canceling STAR.

Action 2 News obtained an official statement the Boys and Girls club sent to the district. According to the non-profit, the superintendent cited three reasons for canceling STAR: the dispute with Menasha administrators of its policies on posting the words “Black Lives Matter” inside MJSD schools; a sense that trust had been lost between administrators and STAR personnel over the handling of the policy matter; and STAR not expanding to include other racial minority populations.

“What is it that we need to do differently to ensure that our beliefs that about the brilliance of every child of our school are fully enacted,” Madeline Hafner said. She is the executive director of the Minority Student Achievement Network (MSAN) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Her research is focused on helping schools close the racial achievement gap, an issue even the Menasha Joint School District acknowledged internally in an equity statement we obtained that says Wisconsin has the nation’s largest achievement gap between white and black students.

“If kids don’t feel known, seen, their family is known and seen. Their cultural heritage is known and seen. They’re not going to feel as supported toward higher education aspirations,” Hafner said.

According to the Boys and Girls Club, 92 percent of students who participated in the STAR initiative since it launched have graduated from Menasha High School.

District data showed 20% of its population identifies as Hispanic, 4% as Black, 4% as Asian, 0.6% as Native American, and 7% more than one race.

That brings us back to Amerea, the eighth grader at Maplewood who says she just wants to go to class and succeed.

“I mean, I just gotta focus and just try my best,” she said.

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