First to reach mandated racial integration threshold, Brown Deer 'graduates' from Chapter 220 program
Brown Deer — The stage at graduation represents change, bridging what was and what will be, showcasing young men and women as they walk from one life to the next.
When Michael Snowden walked the stage Friday at Brown Deer High School's graduation ceremony, with him crossed the legacy of almost 40 years of progress, racial integration and justice, signaling the end of one era and the beginning of another.
Unknown even to Snowden until recently, he is Brown Deer's very last student funded by the Milwaukee Voluntary Integration Program, commonly referred to as Chapter 220. Passed by the state Legislature in 1975, Chapter 220 provided an ostensibly simple mechanism to grease the wheels of racial integration in one of America's most segregated cities. Students in the Milwaukee Public Schools system could enroll in the outlying suburban districts, and likewise suburban students could enroll in Milwaukee schools. Wherever the students went, so did their their funding, and once each suburban district reaches 30 percent minority enrollment — a benchmark established to reflect Milwaukee's minority population in 1975 — funding ceases for additional Chapter 220 transfers.
While MPS, the participating 23 suburban school districts, and Chapter 220 itself have all weathered significant changes, challenges and criticisms since the program's inception in the 1976-77 school year, overall minority enrollment has crept upward year after year in the suburbs, with Brown Deer leading the pack.
Owing to the combination of Chapter 220 students, Open Enrollment students, and an increased number of minority residents, Brown Deer hit the 30 percent mark in 2000. Minority enrollment has increased from less than 20 percent in 1976, to 24.7 percent in 1996, to 70.4 percent presently, with black students becoming the majority at approximately 47 percent of the student population. Conversely, white students represented a majority of 75 percent in 1996 and now account for approximately 30 percent of students.
The majority of Brown Deer's peer North Shore districts have been crossing the 30 percent minority threshold ever since, with Glendale-River Hills hot on its heels in 2001, Maple Dale-Indian Hill in 2005, Nicolet in 2009, and Shorewood in 2011; Whitefish Bay, Fox Point-Bayside, and Mequon-Thiensville have yet to hit 30 percent.
"Tonight, not only are we celebrating this wonderful commencement and graduation," Superintendent Deb Kerr said in her graduation speech, "we are celebrating an historic event as our final Chapter 220 student walks across this stage, representing how educational choice can create opportunities for a lifetime."
A long road
Chapter 220 truly began in 1973 with the failure of State Assemblyman Dennis Conta's plan for the "East Shore School District," which would have merged Shorewood, Whitefish Bay, Riverside University High School, and the now-disbanded Lincoln High School. Met with strong opposition from Shorewood and Whitefish Bay, the proposal fell four votes short in the State Assembly.
From there, Conta negotiated with the suburban districts and became the architect of the integration legislation which ultimately passed in 1975 in the form of Chapter 220.
"I was privileged to be present at the creation of a very large social movement in this country," said Conta, who attended Brown Deer's graduation Friday with a group of key players in Chapter 220's history. "It was a civil rights issue. It segued into issues of racial justice and equality and freedom."
Despite the school segregation lawsuits which had spread across the country in the 20th century — the most famous being the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case won by Thurgood Marshall and the NAACP in 1954 — suburban districts dragged their feet complying with Chapter 220 and eventually found themselves in court with MPS in 1984.
"For three years, I did almost nothing else," said attorney Warren Kreunen, who with a number of other lawyers represented the suburban districts in the suit.
Finally, in 1987, MPS reached a settlement with the 23 suburban districts for an expanded Chapter 220, setting in motion the true, full-scale implementation of the program across all of the outlying schools.
But the lawsuit wasn't the last hurdle. As the years wore on, Chapter 220 came under threat of defunding a number of times. It was State Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, who threw down the gauntlet at the state Joint Finance Committee to keep the program alive.
"I felt strongly that the philosophy behind the policy was the right one," Darling said. "I had to go and fight for it, but it was well worth it every time, because we can talk results, and results speak and make a difference."
Michael Snowden is a bright young man whose wide, shy grin speaks to his modest nature. Though he would never list them without being asked, his extensive achievements make him something of a Renaissance man. A self-taught guitarist and pianist whose favorite musician is Duke Ellington, he plays alto saxophone with the school jazz band "on the side." He's an honors student who summited the peak of advanced placement calculus. He can draw. He's a sprinter who has competed in several national track meets and is thinking of majoring in actuarial science when he heads off to college.
Until several weeks ago, he had no idea his graduation was such a turning point in the history of Milwaukee and Brown Deer. He vaguely remembers cross-city trips from his home on Milwaukee's north side to Brown Deer, which, in hindsight, he recognizes as trips to file 220 paperwork.
According to Snowden's father, Michael Snowden Sr., it was his mother who pushed for enrollment in Brown Deer. A 1975 graduate of Milwaukee's North Division High School, the elder Snowden said his later attendance at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater was both a shock, since it was his first time attending a nonpredominately black school and a valuable experience.
"I knew the power that comes from a diverse environment," Snowden Sr. said. "I wanted him to experience that."
Through the Chapter 220 program, and in the Brown Deer district, the younger Snowden, and his older sister who was also enrolled through the program, have flourished despite enormous difficulty.
In 2008, his mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, eventually requiring home care. When the family wasn't away at school or work, it was the family providing that care, including a teenage Michael.
On top of his ambitious course and extracurricular load he would wake up early to make his mother breakfast before school. Many days he would come straight home from school to take care of her, to sit with her and share his company until his father came home to take over.
"It's been a journey," Michael said. "It's been hard." Though being a caretaker has kept him from being a teenager sometimes, he didn't shy away. "I understood why I couldn't (do certain things.)"
The Snowdens' story is a culmination of efforts dating back to the civil rights protesters, to fearless activists and lawyers, to the then-radical integration legislation, drawn-out legal battles, and standoffs that have aided and protected the steady and eventual integration of Milwaukee area schools. Even those who fought for Chapter 220 over the years may not have been able to foretell that the first district to conclude the program would go out with such a worthy student and family.
"Considering all of the struggles, but all of the joy I've seen in them, and their family, and their closeness, Michael is a remarkable man," his aunt Cathy said at an honors student ceremony last week. "Theirs is a model family that needs to be held up for others."
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