MSAN Student Conference Seeks to Create Rich Connections, Seed Equitable School Change

Dozens of high school students from across the U.S. met in Madison for the first time since 2019

November 8, 2023   |   By Karen Rivedal, WCER Communications

The Sun Prairie MSAN Conference Student Planning Team hopes to spur change in their school district and help peers do the same.

The Sun Prairie MSAN Conference Student Planning Team hopes to spur change in their school district and help peers do the same.

Nearly 200 high school students and their chaperones/advisors from 19 U.S. school districts were in Madison Nov. 1–4 for the 24th annual MSAN Student Conference, presented by the UW–Madison School of Education (SoE) to develop youth leaders focused on ending racial disparities in achievement and opportunity. It's the first such MSAN conference held in person since 2019.

Hosted this year by the Sun Prairie Area School District, where students helped plan conference events, the gathering took place mainly in a series of sessions at the Madison Concourse Hotel, where they arrived Nov. 1. The participating students also saw a good bit of campus, with guided tours of schools and colleges on Nov. 2, plus lunch and a university showcase/resource fair at Gordon Commons that afternoon. The group left the morning of Nov. 4, after the conference highlight of action planning on Nov. 3, when students met in their district teams to brainstorm and report out ideas for changes they plan to pursue back home to make their high schools more welcoming or equitable.

“I'm looking forward to meeting new people and getting new perspectives,” says MSAN student delegate Quinton Maddox of Sun Prairie West High School. "People of color have been made to be impacted by society, and it's good to have a space where we can express ourselves in a nonjudgmental atmosphere."

"What I really value about MSAN is it provides an opportunity for a lot of our kids that don't see themselves represented on a day-to-day basis in our schools to be able to see themselves in our MSAN leaders and to be able to see themselves as leaders in the school and find their voice," says Jake Rodgers, an MSAN advisor and math teacher at Sun Prairie West. "I'm looking forward to kids being able to be themselves, meet other students, and hopefully form connections and bonds across state lines and county lines."

MSAN is a national coalition of 26 multiracial school districts working together to understand and eliminate racial opportunity gaps that persist in schools. Headquartered in Madison as a project of SoE's Wisconsin Center for Education Research since 2007, MSAN is led by new Executive Director Latoya Holiday working with a Governing Board of district superintendents.


MSAN Executive Director Latoya Holiday

MSAN members over the past year voted to formally change the organization's name—from Minority Student Achievement Network to Multicultural Student Achievement Network—as part of making MSAN more all-inclusive. Holiday, who served for about a year as the interim MSAN director before her permanent appointment in October 2023, also led MSAN through a top-to-bottom reimagining of its equity vision and member services.

"The beauty of this MSAN network, and what has really energized me over the past year, is just being connected with educators and practitioners who have the same common goal in mind," Holiday says. "Everyone is really committed to wanting to change things for kids and for wanting school to be the best it can be for kids, and every single one of the folks I have encountered in this network is beyond there in terms of their commitment and passion for this work."

"This conference marks a new era for MSAN," Sun Prairie district Superintendent Bradford Saron says. "We have a new name, and we have also reaffirmed our commitment to equity and student success through our updated vision and mission."

The theme for this year's student conference was "You Belong Here," a simple-enough concept but also a baseline requirement for learning on any level, Holiday notes. It was inspired by a student-created mural at Sheehan Park in Sun Prairie and by what MSAN leaders and students identified as one of the biggest challenges in education today.

"We wanted to hone in on the importance of creating an environment in schools and communities where kids and other people feel they belong," she says, "because we know that belonging is central to being successful and thriving in school and being connected."

Other conference highlights included keynote addresses from several adult speakers selected to engage students by sharing their own experiences and work around making changes in society. Those speakers included Wisconsin state Rep. Francesca Hong and Milwaukee native Muhibb Dyer, a motivational speaker who founded the organization "Flood the Hood with Dreams" to share his story of surviving the pitfalls of inner-city life with youth throughout the nation.

Conference attendees also heard presentations from a Women in Leadership panel, with speakers including Pang Khang, the first Hmong school principal in the Sun Prairie district, and Sofia Garcia Garbuno, a former MSAN Scholar from Illinois who graduated from UW–Madison in 2022 and now works as a Project Assistant for the university's Division of Diversity, Equity & Educational Achievement (DDEEA) Internship Program. Every MSAN conference also features a panel of conference alumni, former MSAN students who are now in college or working and can describe for current attendees how participating in MSAN helped shape and empower them.


MSAN Student Conference theme

David Mitchell, who works as a youth advocate at Sun Prairie East High School, says he has seen the changes in students that MSAN involvement brings during his eight years as an MSAN advisor, or for the entire time the school has had an MSAN group.

"They want to make a difference," Mitchell says. "One of the biggest benefits for students is they can learn to take ownership of their schools. I tell kids if they want to leave a legacy at their school, MSAN is the group to join."

Seeing that change also encapsulates why Mitchell believes it's valuable for him to work with MSAN.

"The students are our future," he says. "That's the direction we're going to go. So if we nurture those students to be change agents, then we set them up so that down the line, no matter what community they are in, they can look at the bigger picture around them."

Holiday identified action planning and the opportunity to make connections with other students as the two most important benefits for conference attendees.

"The No. 1 thing is having kids step outside of their school communities and come into a shared space with kids like them from across the country," Holiday says. "They're able to connect, and they're able to learn from one another and really grow and think about their experiences as student leaders in a different way."


Keynote speaker Muhibb Dyer

On that point, Holiday could well have been channeling Kendra Stacy, another Sun Prairie West student delegate who, like Maddox, was part of the planning team for the conference.

"I value MSAN because it brings all of us minorities together and we get to hear each other's experiences," Stacy says. "I'm looking forward to meeting new people and hearing their experiences and being able to learn from their experiences."

In the Madison area, school districts in Madison, Middleton-Cross Plains, and Waunakee are MSAN members, in addition to Sun Prairie. Other member districts hail mainly from the East Coast, including New Jersey, Massachusetts, Virginia, and North Carolina, and in the Midwest, including Michigan, Illinois and Ohio as well as Wisconsin. MSAN also has two Phoenix-area districts in Arizona.

Full conference program