The article below was written by by Matt Geiger and appeared in the Dec. 16 edition of the Middleton Times-Tribune. The MTT has agreed to let us run it on the district website.
It’s Thursday morning and a group of students are seated around an oblong table in a classroom at Middleton High School.
Most of the students are black. A few are white. Together they make up the school’s Black Student Union (BSU), which was founded last year thanks in large part to the work of a few dedicated teen-agers. Today they are passing around a small toy, a black and white Holstein cow (the student holding the cow has the floor), and talking candidly about issues of race.
“I don’t want us to be a joke,” said one student. “I don’t see other student organizations treated like a joke, and I want this one taken seriously, too.”
Another turns her criticism inward, saying she feels it is important that African-American students not perpetuate negative stereotypes about themselves in the school’s corridors.
Yet another suggests holding more public events and charitable activities, prompting one young woman to volunteer to prepare food for a bake sale.
Nearly 80 percent of students in the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District are white. Only 6 percent are black or African-American. Numbers released by the district earlier this year showed those minority students had a grade-point average more than a full point below that of their white counterparts.
The achievement gap is one of the things the BSU is working to change, according to its members. The union’s long-term goals are much more broad, however.
One of the primary reasons for the BSU’s existence is Tarneda Seals, a senior with a reputation for taking younger students under her wing. For years Seals lobbied administrators to allow the club to be founded. She later worked with advisors and other students toestablish its goals and bylaws.
She serves as the BSU’s current president and she runs the weekly meetings, directing students in an authoritative tone (people clearly listen when Seals talks) and making sure everyone who wishes to speak gets the floor. Seals said she based the club’s structure on black student unions in other high schools as well those in colleges and universities.
“All my friends in other schools were in black student unions, but we didn’t have one here,” she recalled.
While still a freshman, Seals began asking around about how to found a student-run organization. When she found herself making little progress she went straight to the top, approaching principal Denise Herrmann. “I went back to her week after week,” Seals recalled. “I think at some point she realized she had better connect me with someone who could make it happen because I wasn’t going to leave her alone.”
Michael Jones and Antonio Hoye were soon tapped as the club’s advisors. Hoye came to MHS to help oversee the Personal Destinations program, which establishes five- to 10-year plans for students flagged as being academically “at risk.”
“I was brought in (to MHS) to try to find ways to get students more involved in co-curricular activities,” he explained.
Studies have shown that students who are involved in after school clubs and athletics are far less likely to engage in high-risk behaviors.
“BSU first started meeting every Thursday to try to figure out how to hit the ground running,” Hoye said. “I’ll give [Seals] a lot of credit. It’s been pretty much all on her shoulders.”
Middleton High School has more than 40 student organizations. Teens interested in everything from business acumen to lesbian, gay and transgender equality have for years had groups where they could gather with peers to discuss similar issues. Until last year, however, MHS had no black student union.
“For the first quarter it was pretty much run just as a place students could go to have a voice and feel comfortable,” Hoye said. “That and there was a lot of brainstorming.”
Hoye said he encouraged students to break down “interior stereotypes” before taking their message out into the greater school community. He said if they do, they will be better able to advocate for themselves.
“A high percentage of these students weren’t involved in any student organizations before this, and I think administrators felt it was important all the students feel connected,” Hoye stated.
Seals said the union immediately allowed students to identify common obstacles.
“I know the problems I had in school, and I was one of the people who spoke up about it,” Seals said. “I knew other people had similar experiences and what we wanted to do was give them a voice, you know?”
Seals said one concern for minority students is ensuring that teachers give them equal opportunities without “dumbing down” academic materials.
“I don’t want to say any teachers were judgmental or anything, but sometimes when I asked for help they either didn’t give it or they seemed to think I just wouldn’t get (the lessons),” Seals said.
Another BSU goal is to educate the entire student population about what club actually does.
“Some people take offense to the name,” Seals said. “They’re like: ‘Why is there no white student union?’ Those people are surprised if they take the time to actually learn about BSU. In fact, white people we have in BSU seem like they’re some of the most excited members to be there. Them and the youngest people are the most involved.”
Sitting in the high school cafeteria last week, Seals pointed out one visual effect of the student organization she helped found. “See those tables over there?” she said, gesturing toward a cluster of seating on the far side of the room. “That’s where the black kids used to sit. Separate from everybody else. Now BSU students sit over here, all together.”
At its core, the BSU is a mentoring organization designed to help students who are struggling with their coursework.
“I do grade checks every week,” Seals said. “If you are failing a class, we pair you up with someone for help.”
Seals runs the club as well as holding down an after-school job at a nearby restaurant. Her busy schedule and her propensity toward helping younger students sometimes have a negative impact on her own academic achievement, she admitted.
“I’m the type of person that doesn’t like to see people struggle,” she said. “I don’t like to see them fail. I’ll be failing a class
myself but I’ll be spending my extra time trying to help another student.”
Herrmann said Seals’ mentality is widely known in the school. “That’s the first thing I heard about her,” said the principal. “That’s why so many of the students call her ‘Mama Ne-Ne.’”
Hoye agreed. “That’s actually something we’ve been working on with her,” he said. “People call her the mom of the school because she takes everyone under her wing, but sometimes that actually causes her grades to suffer.”
At the moment, Seals is taking online classes in addition to her regular coursework in an effort to graduate on time.
So what will the BSU look like after Seals and her classmates leave MHS? “I hope it’s more organized,” Seals said. “I hope it’s bigger and more recognized by the school. I hope it’s not just walked away from and ignored as something that’s just for black people.”
The future of the union may rest in the hands of young students such as Gabriel Taylor.
“He’s the future president,” Seals predicted. “When he came to his first meeting, everyone else was acting up and I looked over and saw him sitting there, really paying attention to everything.”
Taylor is a tall, thin freshman. He is the son of a white mother and a black father. His father is a jazz musician and Taylor plans to pursue a career in music as well. He currently plays flute and saxophone in addition to rapping.
“At the beginning of the year the freshmen come in to find out about the school,” he said. “[Seals] walked up to me and said she knew my dad. I didn’t know her or the BSU, but she told me what it was all about, that it’s kind of a big brother program and a mentor program that helps people with their homework and helps them do their best.
“Then I learned my dad had been in a black student union,” he added.
Like Seals, Taylor said there are lingering misconceptions about what the BSU does.
“Believe it or not a lot of people in the school still think it’s just for black students,” he said. “They think it’s a way to disconnect from everyone else. It’s really just the opposite.”
He said anecdotal evidence shows racial stereotypes are dissolving at MHS, but some still remain.
“I was in art class on Monday and a girl there asked me why I always act ‘so black,’” he said. “She asked why I didn’t act more white, because I have a white mother I guess. She didn’t even realize how offensive that is.”
Taylor believes the BSU can help change those stereotypes. “We’re trying to make a good life, we’re trying to go to school, and we’re trying to get a college education just like everyone else,” he stated.
But Taylor and Hoye agreed that exterior stereotypes aren’t the only problem the BSU is trying to address.
“The way black people view themselves is definitely a big problem, too,” Taylor said. “You look at kids around here, still saying the N-word because they think it’s OK for black kids to say it – it’s not OK – and still trying to live up to the expectations white people traditionally had of us.”
That’s why Taylor said non-black members of the BSU play a vital role. “They add their perspective,” he said. “They can tell us how they view things, and we can learn how to react to that.”
Taylor said when Seals graduates the club will experience a leadership void. “Ne-Ne is kind of strict. She makes sure everyone gets their work done,” he said. “We have fun, we joke around, but it’s about paying attention.”
But Taylor said young students plan to keep the club going.
“It will continue,” he said. “If it doesn’t, I’ll start a new one.”