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Monica Kelsey-Brown BSE ’90, M.S. ’92

Arndt 450x450Monica Kelsey-Brown receives the UW-Whitewater Distinguished Alumni Award for Professional Achievement

Written by Kristine Zaballos | Images submitted

Monica Kelsey-Brown thrives on her ability to influence, promote and encourage others to strive for excellence as they aspire to meet their career and professional goals.

Kelsey-Brown is one of just two Black female superintendents of the 420 school districts in the state of Wisconsin. She is also the first superintendent of color in the School District of Brown Deer, a district of 1,600 students that is one of the most diverse in the state.

“Seventy-four percent of our students are students of color,” said Kelsey-Brown. “The largest contingent is Black, followed by Asian and Hispanic/Latino. Fifty-four percent are economically disadvantaged, 12 percent have disabilities and five percent are English language learners.”

Kelsey-Brown, who earned a BSE in elementary education in 1990 and an M.S. in curriculum and instruction in 1992, is a recipient of University of Wisconsin-Whitewater’s 2023 Distinguished Alumni Award for Professional Achievement, presented to a graduate of UW-Whitewater who has exhibited distinguished professional, personal and career achievement, and is recognized for accomplishments in their field.

She was born and raised, along with her older brother Kevin and her younger sister Rhonda, in Milwaukee, after her parents moved north from Mississippi during the Great Migration. She graduated from Bay View High School.  When it came time for a college decision, her mother favored Alcorn State University, a historically Black university in Mississippi, while a high school guidance counselor, Bernell Allen, recommended she look at UW-Whitewater. 

On orientation day at Whitewater, when she and her mom were walking around campus, a man summoned them from the window of an office in McCutchan Hall. The man who ran down and introduced himself was Roger Pulliam, an equity and inclusion champion on campus who was in charge of many of its academic support services. Pulliam would go on to have a strong mentoring role for Kelsey-Brown — on campus, through her doctoral education and throughout her personal and professional life.

“Dr. Pulliam would take students on field trips to Chicago to see museums like the DuSable Black History Museum, the Shedd Aquarium and the Museum of Science and Industry. He provided a network of support that’s critical for a student of color’s success at a predominantly white institution like UW-Whitewater, especially one who is also a first-generation student.”

Kelsey-Brown initially declared a major in management–computer systems, but after she received an F in the first accounting class she took, she changed her major to education, inspired by a grandmother who was a Head Start teacher and her mom, who was her first-grade teacher. In addition to Pulliam, Marilyn Irving, a professor in the College of Education, was instrumental in making sure Kelsey-Brown would earn her undergraduate degree. 

On campus, Kelsey-Brown founded TIFU Cultural Ensemble and was a member of the Black Student Union, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., and the Gospel Choir. She recalls chancellors James R. Connor, Gaylon Greenhill, and Richard Telfer having functions on campus and frequently inviting her to be part of campus events that provided networking opportunities with faculty, staff, students and the broader Whitewater community. When it came time to graduate, Pulliam asked her to consider an interim role as the director of the university’s Pre-College Programs.

For 10 years Kelsey-Brown served in various roles on campus, leading and directing programs like Upward Bound and the McNair Program, serving as director of Academic Support Services, and teaching remedial math and a course called Introduction to University Life. She was instrumental in building the foundation and creating pathways for effectively implementing a variety of college and pre-college programs for traditionally marginalized and underrepresented students.

“I took middle school and high school students to Florida, to Alabama, to DC. I even took a group of undergraduate students to present research at a conference in Jamaica, along with John Dominguez, a professor of economics and McNair Scholar mentor.”

As she worked, she was also earning her master’s degree on campus. Once she had that degree, she went on to earn her doctorate under the supervision of Gloria Ladson-Billings at UW-Madison. At that point, she was living in Milwaukee, working in Whitewater and attending school in Madison. Her early focus on elementary education was never far from her mind.

“I told Dr. Pulliam, ‘I’ve always had a desire to teach children. I want to go to Milwaukee Public Schools. I want to go teach. I want to give back to my community.’”

She started her next transition to a career with MPS in 2002. From 2002 to 2015, she served as a second-grade teacher and building and district administrator with Milwaukee Public Schools. During the 2017-2018 academic year, she coordinated the first annual African American Female Institute in collaboration with the Closing the Achievement Gap Consortium, where she also serves on the executive committee, at Concordia University. 

She also serves on the executive committee for Southeastern Wisconsin Schools Alliance (SWSA), an organization whose mission is to collaborate with educational leaders and school board members who are uniquely qualified to work together for sound public educational practices in the spirit of advocacy for all students. She is also a graduate of the Howard University/AASA Urban Superintendent’s Academy, which offers a dynamic approach to urban superintendent preparation and certification.

Pulliam, always the mentor, knew she would become a district administrator. While he never saw her do so — he passed away in February 2020, and she began her new role in July — he did write her letter of recommendation for the role.

As superintendent, she sees herself as a game-changer, someone who is willing to step outside of the norm when implementing practices that will serve all students and families. 

“My first responsibility as a new superintendent was to create a roadmap and navigate all of the uncertainties of a pandemic. From that experience, I truly learned that all things are possible.  I’m hopeful that my students also know that all things are possible and if they believe, they can achieve.” 

She feels it is important to empower others and to strive for excellence — every day and in every way. 

“I see myself as an individual who works to interrupt the status quo, remove barriers, and see the best in all of my students while providing access to opportunities for them to be positive and productive members of society.” 

Kelsey-Brown models inclusiveness. Despite being primarily raised by a strong mother who sacrificed a lot and made a “way out of no way” while they were growing up, she is proud to have been her dad’s primary caretaker for the last 18 years of his life, moving him from Memphis, Tennessee, and caring for him in her home after he was paralyzed by a falling tree. 

“I also attribute my success to my husband, who’s been in my corner 100%. I’m equally proud of my daughter, Alexandria, known as Lexi, who graduated from Hampton, a  historically black college and university, or HBCU, and is in her second year at University of Wisconsin-Madison’s law school.”

She cites her faith and the support of her church family Christ the King Baptist Church under the leadership of Pastor John W. McVicker Sr. and sisters of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.

Kelsey-Brown’s husband, Steven Brown, who earned a BBA in finance in 1990, currently serves as vice president of diversity, equity and inclusion for Molson Coors Beverage Company. 

Her ties to UW-Whitewater continue to be strong. In addition to her husband, her sister, nephew, niece, and sister-in-law are all Warhawks. Kelsey-Brown established the Willie Mae Cowan/Mary Nell Kelsey Educational Scholarship, named after her grandmother and mother, respectively, at UW-Whitewater in 2015. The very first scholarship recipient currently serves as a special education teacher in Brown Deer. Kelsey-Brown also serves as a member of the College of Education and professional Studies Advisory Board.

As Kelsey-Brown considers the road ahead, her focus is on the students she serves.

“Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, said ‘You can’t be what you can’t see.’ I hope my students and staff see me as a model as to what they can aspire to be in the future. A good work ethic, discipline and consistency are important, and — as my mom, my grandmother, Dr. Pulliam and many others did for me — being that one person who is willing to remove barriers and provide access to opportunities is key.”

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