Ebony Rose has been named the first Black head of school at Wingra School, the progressive K-8 school on Madison’s near west side.
The Kansas City native most recently worked in Sun Prairie as a Dean of Students following stints in teaching and administration in Milwaukee, Chicago and Kansas City since earning his degree from the University of Louisville in 2009.
Board of Trustees chair Arlen Moss said the school, whose student body has been predominantly white historically, has spent the past several years working toward a mission and vision of equity and inclusion.
“The actual work of it goes back for the past five, six years,” Moss told Madison365. “They started work with a predominantly white [community of families], all-white board [of directors] and all-white staff, but they did the hard work of addressing white fragility and addressing white grievance.”
Director of Enrollment and Marketing Johanna Schmidt later clarified that the staff was predominantly white, but over the past several years a handful of people of color have served as teachers, custodians and the director of education.
Still, the commitment to diversity and inclusion was important, and one result of that work has been a more diverse board, which Moss says will “trickle-down” throughout the school.
“Currently and for the past three years, the board has been more than half people who identify as people of color,” Moss said. “And now we’re working on the administration and the administration is working on the staff. And we think that following that pattern, if the trickle-down continues to be effective, then that will lead to more families of color.”
Rose said he took the job at least in part because of the board’s commitment to diversity and equity, but knows what he’s walking into.
“On April 8, I walked into a gym where there were like 20 or 30 parents,” he said. “And the first thing I said was that the (staff shown) on the website don’t match the vision and mission statement.”
“I’m really passionate about equity, about anti-racism,” said Rose, who expects to be awarded a doctoral degree from the University of Illinois at Chicago later this year. “I am studying both African American Studies and curriculum, and so (I look forward to) being able to be in a place where I get to actually put my theories into practice. Taking classes in the ivory tower for five years, but actually, doing the work is different. Yeah. And so I feel like this was a place to take that next step.”
Moss said Rose is taking the helm at just the right time.
“There was a nexus,” Moss said. “(Rose’s) skill set and Wingra’s vision and the board’s vision for Wingra intersected at exactly the right time.”
Rose said he was inspired to go into education by one teacher back in Kansas City, a 5’2” white woman who served as the school’s debate coach, taking mostly-Black urban students (from what Rose called “one of George W. Bush’s dropout factories”) to tournaments around the world. It was her influence that prompted Rose to change his major from political science to education just before enrolling in college.
He said she’s not the only one who’s helped him along, either.
“She was miraculous. She’s a saint,” he said. “I put in a lot of work to get here. A lot of people put in a lot of work for me to be here.”
And now he hopes to pay it forward to another generation of young people – especially young people of color.
“I bring a particular skill set of actually implementing restorative practices and equity work, anti-racist work, both as a teacher as administrator and as an academic,” he said.
Rose, who’s spent his entire career in public education, said he thinks a school like Wingra can overcome the racial disparities present in schools like Madison’s public schools.
“The question I’ll ask is, are public schools designed to actually educate black kids? If you don’t view the black kids as human in a school designed to educate black kids, then the path is incarceration,” he said. “The reason why I’m here is because I feel like our mission statement does view Black kids as human. We don’t have surveillance systems. There’s no police. There’s no hallway monitors … The achievement gaps (in public education) aren’t an error. That’s actually the (desired) outcome.”
Wingra School currently serves about 100 students, but administrators hope to increase enrollment closer to 150 or more, in part through a new tuition model that doesn’t use financial aid, instead creating a custom “full tuition” price for every family based on their complete financial situation.
Applications for admission are taken on a rolling basis.
Rose just started as head of school on Friday and will spend the summer ramping up for his first school year on a three-year contract.
“I feel like Wingra can be the place where Black kids can thrive,” he said.
[Correction: An earlier version of this story said that Wingra School is located on Madison’s near east side. Wingra School is located on the near west side, just off Monroe St. —Ed.]