Editor’s note: Have something on your mind? “Community Voices” is the place to let Milwaukee hear what you have to say. To be considered, we need your name, email address and phone number for verification. Please email your submissions to email@example.com.
Kristen Leer is a Milwaukee native and MPS alum, currently working with AmeriCorp City Year Milwaukee to support MPS high school students this upcoming school year amid the COVID pandemic.
Some students want to forget about their high school experiences, especially a high school career with the academic rigor of Reagan IB High School (an abbreviated name to the more formal Ronald Wilson Reagan College Preparatory International Baccalaureate [IB] World High School).
The advanced curriculum often kept us up until 1 a.m. We struggled to fit our backpacks and books into very small lockers that were built for middle school children, not to mention the dread of classes in August with no air conditioning. I graduated from Reagan IB High School in 2016.
I will be the first to admit that I have a more unique connection with my high school than most. During my high school career, I didn’t just go to classes and then go home to watch Netflix – I immersed myself in a myriad of opportunities provided by Reagan IB High School. I participated in the theater department, competed with the forensic team regionally and nationally, was a member of the National Honor Society, was the first editor-in-chief for the high school newspaper The Husky Howler, student monitored classes and the library, etc.
Yes, these all looked great on a college application, but I did these because it allowed me to build a community of support with my high school friends and teachers outside of a classroom setting. It wasn’t just my experiences that kept me close to many friends and former teachers after graduation, but my siblings’ and cousins’ experiences as well. Many members of my family chose Reagan IB based on its academic reputation and the opportunities it provides to gain a head start in life. Their experiences and my own have kept me invested in the culture of Reagan IB High School, even years after graduation.
My personal insights and connections as a Reagan IB High School alum motivated me to write a response to an article by Joey Grihalva titled, “OPINION: Ronald Reagan is a symbol of systemic racism. It’s time to rename our high school.” Despite agreeing with the points that the article argues about Ronald Reagan, the man, and appreciating the conversation that was brought forward, I had a nagging feeling that something was missing from the conversation. Something wasn’t being communicated.
After much verbal processing with Reagan IB High School friends and teachers with whom I am still in contact, two things became clear: 1) the criticism of Reagan IB High School’s name, in this article, wasn’t coming from a member of the Reagan IB community itself, and 2) Ronald Reagan’s name and legacy doesn’t define Reagan IB High School’s legacy.
When I first read the title, I was expecting this article to be written by someone from the Reagan IB community, particularly a student – the writer did use the word “our” in the title. Alas, it was not. The closest connection Grihalva has had with Reagan IB High School is his mother’s transfer as a soccer coach from Rufus King High School (Grihalva’s alma mater) to Reagan IB High School in 2009, 11 years ago. Before his publication about Reagan IB, the author has had thoughts about the name, but only now published his opinion piece in light of current political and social tensions in the post-George Floyd era.
Though I don’t disagree with Grihalva’s points concerning the name, it must be clear that a decision about Reagan IB High School’s name should come from the community itself, including students, teachers, alumni, staff and the students’ families. Problems of any kind in the school should be dealt with by the people they affect.
While Reagan IB High School is a part of the MPS system, Reagan IB should be in control of its name, legacy and reputation – which it is. There have already been active discussions by the faculty and students within Reagan IB’s different multicultural student organizations, before Grihalva’s article, on how and why changing the name could benefit their community.
This process of discussion has been on hold because of external and uncontrollable factors like the COVID-19 pandemic. The discussions currently on the table are concerns about how Reagan IB High School will continue to support its students’ academic and personal success and well-being this upcoming year.
This brings me to my next point. Neither Ronald Reagan’s name, nor his reputation, has stopped Reagan IB High School from providing an excellent education and opportunities to its students, especially for students of color and low-income students. I can say with confidence as a first-generation Latinx female from a low-income background who recently graduated (Spring 2020) from UW-Milwaukee, triple majoring as a McNair Scholar with Honors Distinction. The confidence, academic skills and support that the Reagan IB community gave me allowed me to carry these forward and use them in my personal and academic accomplishments post-graduation.
Many students, including myself, didn’t have the privilege of turning down an acceptance from Reagan IB High School or crossing it off our list of possible schools because of the immense opportunities and academic excellence it provided. Reagan IB High School is ranked #1 in Milwaukee School District High Schools, #3 in Wisconsin High Schools, and #223 in National Rankings.
The record can speak for itself, but it is the voices of the students that should take precedence. Coming from the outside and arbitrarily advocating a name change dismisses the positive experiences and accomplishments so many students have had from Reagan IB.
We don’t, or at least shouldn’t, condemn a child for the beliefs and mistakes of their parents. Instead, we recognize and encourage the potential that child has for doing right and giving a new legacy to the name they bear. The Reagan IB community deserves the same right.
To that point, changing the name won’t change the school. Reagan IB works tremendously on behalf of students of color and will continue to do that for its students no matter the name. Furthermore, changing the name won’t eliminate past agendas of racism from President Reagan’s term, MPS or our school system at a large. Putting too much stake on the name takes away from what Reagan IB High School is and can continue to be.
Are there improvements that can be done with Reagan IB High School and its community? Of course. But since recently becoming a high school in 2003 and being renamed to commemorate the death of the eponymous president, I would say the community has done well within that short amount of time. Just imagine what Reagan IB High School will be like in the next 10 years. Perhaps bearing a different name, but still a respected MPS high school.
Before I end this article, I must make clear that a lot of what I am writing is from my personal experiences and shared secondary experiences from multiple generations of peers and faculty within the Reagan IB community. I submit these points to the discussion for current and future Reagan IB students and community members to consider when talking about this action further. Also, the COVID-19 pandemic and social unrest are putting a lot of already vulnerable student populations and their families at further risk. Providing additional support for MPS students’ well-being personally and academically this upcoming year should be the first and foremost concern of any MPS teacher, staff and administration.
Thank you for starting the conversation but the Reagan IB community will take it from here.