Bridging the Gap

With so many different approaches to solving the achievement gap, it's easy to forget the district's own plans

The city’s school board races this month have had the unfortunate consequence of reopening old wounds inflicted on us in late 2011 when the Board of Education voted against Madison Prep, the charter school for African American and Hispanic boys and girls aimed at tackling the racial achievement gap. Several journalists have issued strong commentary on the matter—in particular David Dahmer of The Madison Times and Jonathan Gramling of The Capital City Hues, both of whom have deftly covered topics that affect the city’s burgeoning communities of color for years. Dahmer and Gramling have been so forthcoming with their views on the white community’s failure to acknowledge the frustration and resentment the gap debate has triggered among minorities that their opinions have become news in and of themselves in the mainstream media.

Meanwhile the heads of the teachers’ union and the Urban League have been sparring over the “truth” about Madison Prep’s demise—they each blame the other—while the mayor and the Urban League chief are verbally jousting about which socioeconomic demographic is causing the learning gap: students who transfer into the district (the mayor’s hunch) or kids of color in general who’ve been left behind by a complex bureaucracy that fails to address the needs of all (the Urban League).

As the stormy wars of words and politics rage on at the higher altitudes, down on earth Schools of Hope tutoring, a proven way to reduce the gap, continues to grow in volunteers and impact. The Boys & Girls Club is rapidly transforming its role as after-school activity enhancer to include academic enricher by expanding its AVID/TOPS partnerships with public schools, which means more tutors and support services for low-income black and Latino students during and after school as well as over the summer and not just at the club’s two facilities but in K–12 schools and community centers. According to the Wisconsin State Journal, club CEO Michael Johnson wants to “quadruple the number of young people receiving club services to 10,000.”

Another promising gap closer is the Simpson Street Free Press, a student-powered newspaper headquartered at South Towne Mall. It’s been around for twenty years, but this year SSFP launched two more newsrooms, one at Glendale Elementary and another at Capital Newspapers, to double the number of students served. The managing editor is UW–Madison student Deirdre Green, who cut her teeth as a teen reporter from La Follette High. Not only is she paving her own career path, Green is an important role model for her staff; Madison has few journalists of color, and the new pipeline into The Cap Times and State Journal newsrooms could prove fruitful in yielding a more diverse media.

Likely due to the Madison Prep turmoil and former superintendent Dan Nerad’s hasty departure last year, we’ve paid too little attention to the school district’s own achievement gap plan. As the mother of a middle-schooler, I recently joined a Parent Task Force to brainstorm ideas for the district’s new Community Schools (actually, they’re not new; they were called “lighted schoolhouses” in the early 1990s but were never realized). Four schools across the city will keep the lights on as activity and enrichment hubs for those in the attendance area. It’s a model that’s working elsewhere across the country, where people gather for meals, recreation and cultural events, adult education, tutoring, health and human services and beyond.

With two dozen other parents, I spent an hour brainstorming the kinds of offerings Community Schools, along with its core program Parent University, could provide. One of my favorite ideas came from Molly Tupta, who suggested parent talent swaps. In addition to learning a new skill or hobby from a fellow parent and fostering diverse relationships, Molly thought swaps would be a great way for people who receive social services, such as free and reduced lunch or Medicaid, to feel like they’re giving back, or paying it forward

I suggested a club called “Gap Busters,” where kids support achievement gap efforts using social media and the power of their own voices and experience. Perhaps they’d even teach us grownups a lesson or two about our own gaps in the art of civility and compromise, and inspire us to follow in their footsteps.

Brennan Nardi is editor of Madison Magazine.

Find more of her columns here

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