Coordinator Spotlight - Samantha Garrett

1. Tell us about your community school. How has the community school strategy impacted your students, families, and community?

The Milwaukee Community Schools Partnership (MCSP) is a collective strategy to transform schools into a place where students, families, staff, and the surrounding community can work together to ensure every student is successful. The MCSP model embodies three core values:

  • Shared Leadership: To transform how schools make decisions by engaging diverse stakeholders to participate in the development and ownership of local strategies.
  • Equity: To transform how schools collect and use data; recruit, align, and manage partnerships and resources to ensure students, families, and staff have the resources they need to be successful.
  • Cultural Relevance: To transform how schools relate and interact with their students, families, and community in a more culturally relevant and restorative way leading to positive school cultures, strong relational trust, and high quality teaching.

2. Why do you do what you do?

Education is increasingly highlighted as fundamental to the advancement of societies as well as essential to opportunity for individuals. Both the opportunity, but also the right, are too frequently unequal and arbitrarily secured. Girls have too often been shortchanged. Poverty and conflict are frequently obstacles. Racism and bias color our policies and procedures. Sixty year after Brown v. Board of Education, the separate but equal falsehood is reestablishing itself. Schools seem to be moving backwards in time. While segregation, as it is practiced today, may be different than it was 60 years ago, it is no less pernicious. In Milwaukee today, many black students attend a school that looks as if Brown v. Board of Education never happened. I see community schools as a strategy to change this momentum and create more spaces of equity to ensure all activities are fair and just so that all can participate, prosper and reach their full potential.     

3. Last year, your students created a Community Schools Youth Council with the purpose of “improving our schools and communities by holding dialogues and activating student leaders to make our voices heard.” How has the council made an impact in your school? What is your role in supporting them?

Last year, a small group of students, along with my help, created the Community Schools Youth Council (CSYC) to be able to come together and talk about what concerns them and what they can do about it. I led the students through several sessions centered on core practices of organizing and leadership development using the same practices I use with our school teams and committees, by focusing on shared leadership as a core value. Through that process they created a shared purpose to guide their future strategies. JMAC’s Community School Youth Council agreed to share the purpose of “improving our schools and communities by holding dialogues and activating student leaders to make our voices heard.”

I brought the students to a Deliberative Dialogue training conducted through UW-Milwaukee to learn group facilitation techniques. With these new skills, the CSYC invited students and teachers to participate in conversations to collect key concerns. After gathering hundreds of concerns, the students grouped them into categories and came up with 5 main themes of concerns, and then they generated recommendations under each of those main themes which they presented back out to the groups assembled from the initial concern gathering. Next year, they will be putting those recommendations into an action plan. One of the students in the group said, “I believe putting in the work will pay off in the end because we are very serious about creating our action plan. We really want to make a difference.”

4. What advice would you give to other coordinators who want to increase student voice and leadership in their schools?

The students are your biggest source of information and motivation. As schools, we need to do a better job of realizing and recognizing that students are our clients. Schools exist to serve our students, so we have an obligation to involve them in the process and decision making. The most important way to do this is to create the space for them to get together and talk about their concerns, freely without adults trying to control the dialogue. When the students really started talking, they were not asking for recess all day, or no tests ever, or for the end of things that we think they don’t like about school. They want to be authentically engaged, listened to, respected, and loved. Find a way to give them space, trust, and authenticity, and they will be your greatest partners in creating loving and supportive schools. Know that it is more about listening than talking, more assisting than doing, and more supporting than shining.

5. What are your biggest challenges?

My biggest challenge is resistance to change within people. The kind of work we do takes a growth mindset, and not everyone involved in the school system is there yet. Not everyone sees the same value in shared leadership, equity, and cultural relevance. These are not buzz words. These are values people need to live by and not give lip service to when they feel like it.    

6. What was one of your biggest takeaways or highlights from the Community Schools National Forum last month?

Wow! There are a whole lot of us out there doing a whole lot of great work! I see you coordinators! I see you out there grinding and shining! Keep up the great work everyone!

As a result of the creation of the CSYC at James Madison, one of our students got invited to be on the closing plenary. She joined a plenary panel discussion with civil rights activist Roscoe Jones, Sr. to talk about what youth activism looks like today. She shared examples of the changes she has seen at JMAC since becoming a community school and the things she wishes more adults would know and understand about youth today. When talking about why community schools are needed and what role does a school play in a community, she shared, “we need to make sure that the community around the school is involved in the school…people that live near the school know that these are all of our students and they can help keep us safe.” She also added her call to action: “My charge for the adults: Be consistent. Keep giving opportunities, keep opening doors, care for us, and keep teaching us. Because WE ARE the future and WE won’t let you down.” 

7. As the school year comes to a close, what advice would you give coordinators as they prepare for the next school year?

The summer is when I do my most amount of planning and strategizing. It’s really hard sometimes to have the time to sit back and really think through persistent issues while simultaneously dealing with the pressures of your day to day work load. So, I really take the summer months, along with my Principal, to think through different strategies to try for the next school year. I recommend using your summer months to dig deep and challenge yourself to critically think about how your next year can be even better than the last, how you can create change and continuous improvement. 

8. What’s one quote that you live by?

Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn. -Benjamin Franklin

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