More than 150 Sun Prairie students walked out of class Tuesday in protest over a student who wore blackface during a Nov. 23 Sun Prairie-Madison Memorial girls basketball game.
Students from Sun Prairie High School, Cardinal Heights Upper Middle School and Prairie Phoenix Academy left shortly before 11 a.m. and walked down to the Sun Prairie School District offices at 501 S. Bird St. to meet with school officials.
Students in the crowd held signs reading “Black Pride not Black Face” and “We were more than slaves, we are scholars.”
Students said they want the school district to acknowledge the impact the blackface incident had on them and address racial inequalities in the district.
Ninth-grader Kairra Cook said because of Saturday’s blackface incident and other racial issues in the district, she and other African-American students don’t feel comfortable in Sun Prairie schools.
“Every time something like this happens nobody really does anything,” Cook said. “We thought if we did something like this (walkout) it would prove a point and would change people’s perspectives.”
The Sun Prairie Area School District (SPASD) has an increasingly diverse student population, with white populations declining, and more African-Americans, Asians, and Latinos in the classroom.
African-American students make up the largest population of students of color in the district, according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction data.
School officials said the blackface incident remains under investigation.
District officials said in a Monday, Nov. 25 email that the student spectator didn’t have face paint on when entering the game but applied paint to his face during the game. Friends of the student intervened, and he removed the face paint, according to school officials.
During Monday’s Sun Prairie School Board meeting, Superintendent Brad Saron said, “we are on it,” referring to the investigation of the incident.
The Tuesday morning meeting between the students and school officials was closed to Sun Prairie Star and other media, but students streaming out of the building around 11:30 a.m. told reporters that there were racial issues at the schools.
Cardinal Heights Upper Middle School student Taja Hlae Sago said the blackface incident was offensive to her.
“We are protesting to the district because our history needs to be taught so incidents like Saturday’s doesn’t happen again. That’s why we are protesting to the district so they can make that a part of education in Sun Prairie,” Sago said as she held up a sign reading “All lives don’t matter till black lives matter.”
Teran Peterson is president of Sun Prairie’s African American Parent Network and was invited to the meeting. She said students asked for a change in school curriculum to emphasizes leaders and achievements of blacks beyond slavery and civil rights.
“The big piece is getting outside the slave box,” Peterson said. “We do a lot of talking about slavery in African American history, but we are so much more than that—about what happened after slavery— how did grow, how did we build- — and how do we integrate that in the standard K-12 curriculum.”
Peterson, who helps coordinate Black History Month in Sun Prairie schools, said there are systemic problems because black history isn’t in textbooks and it’s less likely to be taught if questions aren’t on standardized tests.
Peterson said she’s received requests from parents and teachers for a Q and A discussion about race issues. Peterson said the Black Student Union, the Minority Student Achievement Network, and students from Cardinal Heights Upper Middle School, Prairie Phoenix Academy, and Sun Prairie High school have been invited by the school district to enlighten teachers experiences of minority students in the district, and take part in discussions with the school board and other school groups.
She said it will take time to address the racial inequalities in school but it has to be addressed now.
“A lot of things that the students asked for were curriculum changes and that isn’t something that can happen overnight, but can we put the markers in the ground now and start digging to make that happen in the future,” Peterson said.
Saron and Assistant Superintendents Stephanie Leonard-Witte and Janet Rosseter will review information from the students and will meet with student representatives to address racism in the district, according to a press release sent out by the district’s Communications and Engagement Officer Patti Lux-Weber on Wednesday, Nov. 27.
Students, according to the press release, spoke about updating policies to specifically include race, hiring more teachers of color, and a need to review/revise school curriculum to include black history.
The Sun Prairie Star made a request to Lux-Weber, asking for information on the number of teachers of color in the district.
In response, Lux-Weber told the Sun Prairie Star to file a Public Records request to get that data.
Lux-Weber also responded in an email that she couldn’t provide an update on the blackface incident investigation, or give information on what the district is doing to increase racial consciousness in the schools.
Black students make up 10.1 percent of the SPASD’s student population, according to 2018-19 data from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction.
During the last 10 years, black students have had the highest majority of students of color in the SPASD, according to DPI data. Hispanics were at 9.1 percent of district’s student population, Asians at 9.9 percent, American Indian at 0.2 percent, according to 2018-19 data.
The white student population for 2018-19 was 62.3 percent and has been slowly declining over the last 10 years. In 2008-2009, the white student population was 76.4 percent, the DPI reports.
Wisconsin schools are becoming more diverse statewide—with 31 percent of students of color today, compared with 22 percent a decade ago.
According to a Wisconsin Educator Effectiveness Research Partnership (WEERP) evaluation report released this month, the achievement gap between racial groups in Wisconsin is the largest of any state, and districts are hiring more teachers of color to help close the gap.
Research suggests that teachers of color have higher expectations of students of color and African American students who have just one African American teacher are more likely to enroll and graduate from college, the report states.
Sun Prairie School Board member Marilyn Ruffin said she knows the power of having African American teachers as role models. Ruffin, an engineer, was a substitute teacher in Sun Prairie schools before she was elected to the school board.
“Never underestimate the impact of having an African American teacher in front of the classroom--it's huge not only for African Americans but white students as well,” Ruffin said during a Wednesday phone interview.
Ruffin, who was at Tuesday's meeting between the students and administration, estimates that there are a handful of African American teachers in the district.
She was also an organizer of the first-ever Sun Prairie B.E.A.M (Black Excellence Achievement Makers) Award Ceremony last April that honored and recognized African American students for their achievements in schools and the community. She said the event helped to counter the negative behaviors or attitudes often assigned to Black students by “shining a beaming light” on the positive examples and achievements.
Ruffin said she was proud of the students at Tuesday's meeting who talked about a need for changes at the schools, and says it’s an opportunity for the district to move forward.
“There have been changes in the right direction, but we have a long way to go,” Ruffin said.