Rozlind in her classroom at Kilbourn Elementary School
Rozlind Davis has been an essential presence at Kilbourn Elementary School in Milwaukee’s Westlawn Gardens Neighborhood for over 30 years. She began volunteering there as a parent of a 5-year-old student in 1990. Two years later, the school hired her and over time she became a paraprofessional, teaching everything from Kindergarten (K3) to 5th grade. Now, she serves in an essential role as a parent coordinator where she connects families to the resources they need, ultimately building a brighter future for our city.
Arguably, no one knows our families better than MPS’ 150 parent coordinators. Every MPS school provides a parent coordinator to work with families and ensure that they’re prepared for and supported through the school year, but the family needs at each school are different. At Kilbourn Elementary, Ms. Davis is especially dedicated to helping connect parents and students with basic needs. In her room, there are a few computers to help parents look for jobs and other community resources. “Maybe they might need food. Maybe they might need clothing or housing. Yesterday we had a meeting on financial literacy,” explained Davis.
Looking out for others begins the moment Ms. Davis arrives at work. “When I walk in in the morning, I say ‘good morning,’ or ‘Hey, how you doing?’ Something in me makes me want to make sure that other people are good.” As Ms. Davis gestures about the importance of spreading joy at her school, a colorful bracelet clinks. “A parent gave me this bracelet this morning. Sometimes you don’t even know you’re doing it,” she says. “That’s beautiful. You’re just being yourself.”
Creating that culture of positivity extends from school to community. Originally a native of upstate New York, Ms. Davis first arrived at Westlawn Gardens when she and her family received affordable housing within the original Westlawn neighborhood. While she and her family have long outgrown the need for affordable housing, she’s remained intentional about choosing a home in the same area, near the school. “I believe in community, so that’s why I’m still here,” stated Davis, who buys as much as she can from businesses right within her neighborhood—including gas from the local station and goods from local stores, in a one-woman effort to support the neighborhood economy.
And the community-minded generosity doesn’t stop with supporting local businesses. Like many of her colleagues at Kilbourn Elementary, Ms. Davis says she personally spends about $700 a year of her own money on buying supplies for students that the MPS budget and government-funded programs cannot cover, like clothes and hygiene items that many families have trouble buying themselves. Ms. Davis will even buy playground equipment to help students expend energy so they can focus more easily in class. “The district has a certain budget. But once that’s gone, it’s gone. It’s March and we don’t have a soccer ball anymore. You just need to replenish some of those things too,” explained Ms. Davis.
Often, it’s right in the morning greeting that Ms. Davis and her colleagues discover the missing needs for their kids to feel comfortable and prepared to learn. “That’s how we end up finding out what the need is. Like you’re upset because you didn’t get to eat breakfast, or you couldn’t do your homework because you didn’t have a pencil. They might not need anything. They might just need to just get something off their chest. You never know.”
Earlier in the week, two students came to school in shoes that were too small for them and were unable to focus due to the pain. Ms. Davis keeps a stockpile of donated items and extra things she and the staff buy. If there are no shoes in storage the right size for the child, she and the faculty often discuss who is already heading to the store that would be willing to make the purchase — as shoes are one example of items definitely outside of the usual school budget. Even books (which can be quite costly) are often purchased by teachers for the kids whose families can’t afford them.
In the city of Milwaukee, it’s not just Ms. Davis and the staff of Kilbourn Elementary who make personal purchases for their students. Currently, more than 90% of teachers pay for classroom supplies out of pocket. This unanimous need prompted the MPS Foundation to roll out its new Classroom Support Fund to help cover items outside the traditional MPS budget.
Having access to these funds will not only be a relief to school staff but will provide a more equitable education for many Milwaukee children. As Ms. Davis puts it, “I just want to see the best come out of anybody, any situation. We try to make them just as normal as anybody else, yes, make them feel comfortable.”
By having greater access to the things students need, these kids are not only less likely to fall behind, but it will level the playing field with more advantaged schools.
Ultimately, ensuring that baseline of comfort for our MPS kids will make all the difference in securing a better tomorrow for Milwaukee. “They’re going to be the future and we definitely want that to look bright if they’re going to be taking care of us later on. Some of them are going to be doctors, some of them are going to be lawyers, and some of them are going to be teaching. They are our future and I feel like if we pour into them, then they can give back to us in a different way,” said Davis.
This story is part of a series spotlighting individuals that the MPS Foundation had the honor of serving in 2023.