I was saddened and disappointed by the tone, content, and assumptions underlying Joan’s recent post on UW-Madison’s PEOPLE program and feel a need to respond as a parent who is engaged in trying to address cultures of racism in Madison schools and as a graduate and staff member of UW-Madison. I’ve interspersed the responses with Joan’s original wording:

JOAN: Glaringly absent from the reporting is what are the criteria for getting accepted into this program. It sounds like a program open only to minority students, or is it for low-income students of color?

RESPONSE: According to the PEOPLE web site, the PEOPLE Program is designed for U.S. Citizens and Permanent Residents who are African American, American Indian, Asian American (with an emphasis on Southeast Asian American), Chicano/a, Puerto Rican, Latino/a and disadvantaged students strong academic potential currently in sixth grade in the Madison Metropolitan School District. Priority will be given to students eligible for the free and reduced hot lunch program.

JOAN: In addition, I noticed that two of the students interviewed in the article were from Madison West. Is MMSD so deficient in preparing its (low income) minority students that they can only hope to succeed with this special program? I can understand how students coming from poorly funded and troubled districts like Milwaukee might need extra attention, but Madison West?

When our high schools – some say West for example – have separate floors for “advanced” and “regular” classes, and those floors are visibly segregated by color, it is imperative that the university step up and provide the educational opportunities that are not taking place in our schools.
When school counselors advise students of color – without looking at their schedules or checking their grades – that they are not college material, those students need a resource like the PEOPLE program.
When parents of color or parents of students of color request that their children be placed in college prep curriculum only to be told “oh, no. that would be too hard,” there needs to be a PEOPLE program to give students access to what they can and should achieve.
When students of color, especially boys, face a culture that regularly tells them that to read, to study, to plan for college, is “acting white,” and that culture is reinforced by what students see and experience in their schools on a daily basis, there is a critical need for programs – like PEOPLE – that can create a critical mass of college bound students of color.
When classes composed primarily of students of color watch videos and play word search at the high school level, while their white counterparts read books, write essays, and do internet research projects, there is a critical need for a PEOPLE program to provide the academic skills, motivation, and self-esteem that are not built by watching videos. Thye kids see what is expected of them, and they are very capable of drawing the conclusions that the adults seem to be missing.
When police officers regularly stop students of color to ask “what are you doing here” when they are waiting to talk to a teacher after school or waiting to give someone a ride home from school, we have a problem. And that problem signals, loud and clear, that the system and the people who are in charge, don’t see students of color as engaged members of the school community.
I wish that I were exaggerating. All of the above examples are conditions that I have witnessed first hand or, in one or two cases, have heard of from other parents – including parents of white students. When the above conditions disappear and/or white students experience these same conditions, we can talk about equity.
The biggest issue is not that the PEOPLE program exists, but rather that it cannot possibly accommodate all of the students who could succeed if given access to a program that gives them the tools.

JOAN: Moreover, I know students at West who did not get in to UW despite GPAs of 3.6 and higher. This is the best education many can afford for their children. To learn that their students cannot get admitted while some are allowed in with significantly lower requirements (SIC) and paid summer college prep courses might be a bitter pill to swallow. (For the record, both our children were accepted at UW.)

RESPONSE: If you think this is a bitter pill to swallow, check my comments above and try to imagine how you would feel if your children were subject to the same conditions. The fact is, c. 40-50 students from each Madison high school enroll as freshman students at UW-Madison each year. The overwhelming majority of those students are white.
The post seemed to assume that the students of color who participate in PEOPLE are somehow less able than their white counterparts. That would be a huge and erroneous assumption and one that I hope I am misreading.
I also should note that the treatment of students of color (the majority in some of our schools) in Madison’s schools and UW-Madison’s predominantly white campus are significant issues in areas that also affect white students:
1) Corporate recruiters that are unwilling to come to campus because they don’t feel they can recruit students of color OR white students who are culturally competent to work with diverse populations
2) Retention of faculty and staff who have children of color and are appalled at what they discover when their children hit the K-12 system
3) Apprehensions of parents whose children develop strong friendships
in diverse schools and worry that their children will lose something valuable by going to a predominantly white college.
4) The anti-social behavior of students in our schools, who are smart enough to know when they’ve been pegged as “no potential” and see no point in participating in or supporting a positive academic environment.


  1. If there are students with a 3.6 GPA not getting into UW-Madison it’s either because they were not in the top 10-20% of their class, or scored poorly on the ACT. If they scored poorly on the ACT they probably shouldn’t be going to UW-Madison anyway since according to the UW Admissions people that is best predictor of college success.

  2. I was unable to post comments on the response to the response to Joan’s post so I’m gonna post it here.
    If you are opposed to “lowering the standards”, ore more commonly referred to preferential treatment in admissions, for PEOPLE program students, how do you feel about that practice being applied to legacy students?
    Institutional racism is a well documented proven phenomenon. The only question is how do we deal with it. Preferential treatment for people who have been most affected by institutional racism is one way to deal with it. I agree that it is a bandaid solution and there are many other better solutions.
    Unfortunately most people who argue most vigorously against preferential treatment often are unwilling to support any alternatives that actually concretely deal with the problem of institutional racism.
    Until a better solution is suggested and implemented, we really can’t do much better than what we have to work with at the moment which includes programs like PEOPLE, TRIO, plan 2008 and others.

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