Digging Deeper: Wisconsin's Graduation Gap - WKOW 27: Madison, WI Breaking News, Weather and Sports

Digging Deeper: Wisconsin's Graduation Gap

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MADISON (WKOW) -- On average, almost 9 out of 10 of Wisconsin high school students will graduate; third best in the nation. But if they're black, that percentage drops to about 6 out of 10.  It's the biggest racial graduation gap in America, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Education.

Madison schools have one of the state's biggest racial graduation gaps, at more than 35%. Experts say that mirrors racial economic gaps in the area.  A 2015 report by the Wisconsin Council for Children and Families shows African-Americans average  $31,000 a year less income, a 25% higher poverty rate and a 12% higher unemployment rate compared to their white, fellow Madisonians.

"If the children don't have a solid household, if parents don't have sustainable wages, therein lies the problem," said Ruben Anthony, president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison.

We talked with three local, African-American high school students to get their perspective on the racial disparities and under-achieving students they see every day.

"They don't have anyone to motivate them. There's no one there to tell them, you can do it." said Anthony Gatlin, a junior at Middleton High School.

"It's normal for them not to do anything with themselves. I think that's just how they think, that's how they're brought up and those are the examples they have around them," said Mia Cannon, a senior at Madison LaFollette High School.

And it's not just a lack of positive feedback. Historically, American society has conditioned blacks to think they can't do as well as whites in school.

"In my opinion, one of the factors is internalized racism, where they feel like, this is just a quote from one of my friends, I don't know if I can go to class with all the white kids. I don't know if I'm capable of doing the work," said Middleton High School senior Mena Williams.

But, even when black students overcome their own doubts, they still come up against others who have low expectations of them because of their race. It's what experts call racial micro-aggression.

"I've had times when I raised my hand in one of my honors classes and they're like, yes, you can go to the bathroom. And I'm like, no, I was trying to answer that question you just asked and they're like. That would be a micro aggression. Yes. Does that whittle away at your confidence at all? No, it just makes me ten times more on fire, like, hmm.." recalled Cannon.

The 300-year old attitudes that have developed since blacks were first brought to the U.S. as slaves still plague us today.  Changing those attitudes is still a work in progress, and in the meantime, experts agree that closing Wisconsin's racial education gap involves more than the schools.

 "The one thing we have to keep in mind is that, in order to help children have progress in education, we have to focus on the family." said the Urban League's Anthony.

The students interviewed for this report are not the norm.  They're high-achievers by any measure, who also volunteer lots of time to tutor and help their fellow black students.  So, they know what it takes to make it across the education gap.

"You have to want it for yourself, strive for yourself. You're not always going to have someone that's going to tell you this is what you should do or be on your back and help you progress in certain areas," said Cannon.

Another aspect of the racial education gap in Wisconsin was revealed in October, when results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed the state's 4th and 8th grade students scored on par and higher than the national average in reading and math.  But, "The Nation's Report Card" also revealed the state was second from the bottom when it came to the gap between white and black student scores on both tests, in both grades.

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