Percy Brown (copy)

Percy Brown speaks in January at the "MLK Forum for Social Action," held at Middleton High School.

As students across Dane County return to classes for the fall, education leaders are focused on keeping them as safe and engaged as possible. To do so, Percy Brown, Jr., director of equity and student achievement at the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District, is working to provide physical and informational resources to students and families who need them most.

Brown is also the CEO of Critical Consciousness, an education consulting firm, and works part-time at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Center for Education Research as a workshop facilitator. With his family and personal background as a civil rights activist, Brown sees issues of accessibility and resources as fundamentally tied to social and criminal justice. Brown hopes the recent increase in anti-racist conversations across American school districts will continue in Middleton, where he says leadership has “come together” more than he has ever seen during his over two decades in education.

Given the first day of (virtual) school this week, what have your biggest priorities been as you prepare for students returning to school?

Percy Brown, Jr.

Percy Brown, Jr.

It really fell upon the leadership to put forth the strongest plan that could best meet the needs of all of our students, given the reality of being in a virtual environment. With issues such as technology, wifi, food distribution or other resources, we were really focusing on our historically disenfranchised students to make sure that we weren’t allowing gaps to widen.

Access to wifi for virtual learning really presented challenges for students of color and students of low socioeconomic status (SES). An example of that is families that had past student bills were not able to access free wifi, so several district leaders had conversations with Spectrum and worked out some of those things. That’s just a brief example of the conversations that needed to happen, and I hope that happen across Dane County, to at least ensure all of our kids have the baseline resources to engage and interact with virtual learning while trying to do whatever we can to build systems of support.

Tell me a bit about what things were like in the spring. You have a lot more experience and have had time to think about these things now, but when you first went virtual, what were some of the biggest challenges when it came to students of lower SES or without internet access?

We were able to use our data from the spring to really inform our steps leading into the fall. We’ve administered surveys; we’ve done a systemic job connecting staff to students or families who are low SES.

As the school year starts this coming week, there’s going to need to be ongoing communication with families so that we’re ironing out whatever wrinkles are there. For elementary, like kindergarten or first-, second-graders, if there’s no family member right there with them guiding them through virtual learning, it just adds other layers of complexity. Some parents are at home because they’re able to work from home, that’s a challenge in itself. How can we make sure kids are accessing some level of learning given all the challenges, whether it’s from our end or external environmental challenges? 

How has this work with accessibility been linked to recent conversations in school districts across the country and Dane County about racial equity and inclusion? These issues have surely been coming together more in recent months.

Here in Middleton we’ve been doing the work for quite some time now. We do have district goals that are really focused on addressing the data that we see. One thing we’ve noticed is that about 30% of our students who identify as Black or African American are reading at grade level, so we have more than half in that category who are not reading proficiently. So, when you think about all that’s going on right now in the nation, especially focused on criminal justice reform, the research shows that third- or fourth-grade reading scores will determine, more than likely, who will be involved in some level of criminality. Given that connection between education and criminal justice, as a district, we have prioritized ensuring that students are reading at grade level.

In order to get at that, we have to overhaul what we teach. The material that we use needs to be more culturally and linguistically responsive; it has to address the needs of intersectionality. Our professional development framework really is focused on all of that and racial identity development. When it comes to curriculum, we are using the James Banks model of multicultural education as a framework to guide teachers toward more anti-racist education.

There have been several years of learning in the district around racial equity that has really gotten us to this point. Unfortunately, in the spring, I would say a lot of people in the district felt like (this work) was going to slow down because of COVID. But one thing I can say in terms of our leadership team is that we’ve collectively acknowledged that, yes, we’re in this new environment and have to adjust, but we’re also making sure we keep on the table the opportunity to do something different and come back different once we get past this pandemic.

You have experience as a civil rights activist as well. Have you been involved in any conversations that have bled into how you think about policy or education or approach these topics with students?

I find it a lot easier to engage younger students in these conversations because they have more of an open mind, and whenever I’m interfacing at young folks — whether keynoting at high schools or leading conferences — it’s just engaging kids in truth. I bring forth information that I think is engaging, but I always encourage them to think critically about what I’m sharing with them. I challenge them to question what I’m presenting, because I don’t want kids to take what I provide as truth. I want them to be critical thinkers. That’s what’s going to advance this nation.

As a Black American, I see 2020 being no different from 1800. Black Americans are still being treated as second-class citizens. I find myself stuck in this dynamic of, “Do I continue to put all of my edge into racial cooperation, or do Black Americans now have to revisit Black power and Black nationalism if white nationalism is going to rule the day?” If America can’t find its way, then Black America is going to have to find its own way. 

I’m at my rope’s end. My wife is white and I have a child that’s biracial, so I have to hold out hope for interracial cooperation, but I also know that if the Black community were to unify, we have enough inside of us to do for ourselves if that’s what needs to happen moving forward. I have been working both angles. That’s just representative of me as a Black American — not representing my role in Middleton, not even as a CEO of my education consulting firm, but just as an American citizen.

With students returning to school tomorrow, what are you most optimistic about learning during the pandemic? Is there anything that gives you hope about long-lasting changes past the pandemic?

It’s still hard to determine the positive or negative effects this is having on children, but one thing I can speak to in terms of the institution in Middleton is that there has been tremendous collaboration unlike any way I’ve seen it happen. We really have come together to do the best that we can for all of our kids while keeping focused on the work around racial equity. I hope that continues to build because if we’re working together and collectively, I don’t think there’s anything we can’t accomplish. I just hope we can continue to be that way when we come back to some sort of normalcy and get kids back into the building.