Changing Lives - One Student at a Time

John Milton greets La Follette High School’s Black Student Union members with a commanding presence. These teens know the BSU drill—some nosh, others discuss agenda issues, some do both. What’s apparent is that they all look up to their advisor.

To these kids, Milton, who is also the La Follette Multicultural Services Coordinator, is an ally and connector. His job in both capacities is to bridge students of color—African American, African, Latinx, Asian, Hmong—to leadership-building and academic enrichment opportunities in school and throughout the community. He also provides support that goes beyond. Dija Manly, BSU co-president, described his dedication to be so earnest, she worries it affects his health. To her point, Mr. Milton says when his presence is needed with students, he pushes his paperwork back even if means he stays longer at school to get it all done.

“I try to change the life of one student a day,” says Mr. Milton, who explains the shift from holing up to do paperwork and being available to students. “You never know how you’re going to make a difference. I go back (in his mind) to a student who all day was trying to talk to me, was all day saying Mr. Milton, Mr. Milton…I kept blowing her off because I had to get a spread sheet in that day. About 2:30 that student came in, and I wondered what could be so important, and as it turned out, she had witnessed her sister contemplating self-harm the night before.”

Mr. Milton says he wears his “black excellence on his sleeve” and in turn holds his students to a high standard. He sees the district’s Black Excellence initiative as a tool that helps ramp up their self-esteem in part because it encourages white staff members to not only see greatness in kids, but for the first time for some, actually notice kids who traditionally slip under the radar. He says it’s an opportunity for them to intentionally connect in the classroom.

“We can’t mandate Black Excellence, but by putting it in the forefront, it may have challenged some teachers who might have been used to their old practices to change their ways,” says Mr. Milton. “It may encourage them to communicate or get to know a student of color a little more. A couple of years ago we had a student who was homeless and wore the same clothes every day and no one noticed. By putting black excellence in the forefront, and really using it and being challenged by their principal, they’ve started saying I really need to get to know the black students in my class, what’s going on with my students of color.”

Still, he says it’s up to the kids individually to access what’s great about themselves, which covers a wide range of personal and academic achievements.

“To see a student who has been struggling for a year or two who can now sit down and prepare themselves for a class every day, that’s black excellence,” says Mr. Milton. “To have a student who was normally suspended for getting into fights who’s now sitting down and voicing his or her opinion, and being very articulate about how they are being treated is black excellence.”

“I like to make sure the students know they have a voice, but in order for me to promote black excellence, I should have a voice for them and their parents. We hold restorative circles to give students voices. For instance a student put something out on social media that was racist, we had a circle just to make sure his friends didn’t believe him. The authentic and genuine change happens when students go back into the classroom and see students embrace each other and move forward.”

Among the many culturally relevant community engagement opportunities to which Mr. Milton connects his students, and perhaps the most celebrated, is the BSUs annual trip to visit Historically Black Colleges and Universities. This year the district took 75 students from all four high schools. To attend, students must have a 2.75, write a paper about why the trip is important to them and have a 90% attendance rate. But every year Mr. Milton reaches beyond the achievers to find two or three students who may not hit all of those requirements, and takes them on the trip to expose them to a whole university of people who look like them.

“That changes their life,” says Mr. Milton. “I’ve had two to three who, because of going on these trips, went to college for at least two years. Now, have they received their associates? Maybe, maybe not, but’s what’s more important than them graduating, walking across the stage in June, is them even trying.”

- Pat Dillon