Jennifer Cheatham’s Bright Promise
A year into her role as Madison schools superintendent, Jennifer Cheatham offers a progress report on increasing parental involvement and staff diversity and eliminating the achievement gap
PHOTO BY SHARON VANORNY
Madison Schools superintendent Jennifer Cheatham has spent much of her first year working on ways to solve the achievement gap.
Last April, and to a remarkable amount of fanfare, Jennifer Cheatham became the superintendent of the Madison Metropolitan School District. From the very start, the community has opened its arms to welcome her. When I interviewed her for Madison Magazine TV last month, I was aware that the community, especially parents of color, continues to be hopeful, if not expectant, that she’ll be a superintendent who follows through on her promises to ensure that all students learn—no excuses. Here’s an excerpt of our talk.
Deana Wright: One component of the district’s new strategic framework is parental and community involvement. Research, of course, has shown that when parents get involved in their kids’ education, not only do test scores go up, but disciplinary problems go down. The report does indicate that the plan to develop family engagement strategies for each school is a little behind schedule. What is the next step?
Jennifer Cheatham: Each of our schools develop their school improvement plans, and one of the requirements for those improvement plans is to have a strategy for better engaging families. What we learned quickly is that our schools are struggling with that. They just don’t know enough about what great parent engagement looks like. So, we had to take a close look at, really, what defined parent and family engagement, first of all. I think we intentionally had to slow this work down, because we realized that it was more complicated than we originally thought and we’re trying to re-define family engagement so it isn’t about expecting families to come to us, to come to the traditional events that we hold in our schools, but to really think about family engagement differently.
DW: Does that mean going to them?
JC: Perhaps, and it doesn’t necessarily mean parents coming to school. We want to make sure the families are engaged in supporting their students in doing their best work at school, but it doesn’t necessarily mean coming to the PTO meeting. It doesn’t necessarily mean engaging in traditional ways.
DW: Do you think parental involvement would play a role in terms of the academic achievement gap that exists here?
JC: Oh, without question. One of the things that we’ve talked about is creating what we call “demand parents,” parents who know enough about what to expect from the child’s educational experience. They can demand the very best from their children, and that’s all about empowering their parents with great information about those expectations.
DW: There used to be a position, the parent liaison, that was a link between the schools and the parents. There was a partnership that they were trying to forge between the community, the parents, the schools, maybe even some of the churches in the community. What are your thoughts on that position, and perhaps getting it back into the district?
JC: I want everyone to know that we have established a family engagement office, which is actually new this year. Before our work on family engagement was happening, there were several different offices. It wasn’t coordinated and I think that’s one of the many reasons why we didn’t have a clear picture of what great family engagement looks like, first of all. So, in that office, there actually are a team of parent liaisons that already exist, so we’re learning how to better utilize those parent liaisons. We’re absolutely interested in expanding that program, perhaps, based on what we learn about using the parent liaisons that we do have as a way to really do what I said before: empower parents with great information so they can advocate for their children, but also other children.
DW: And what do you say to a parent who says, “You know, I really want to be involved, but I don’t know how to do it?”
JC: Again, this is one of the things that we are still learning about as a district, so I don’t think we have all of the answers there yet.
DW: Any idea when you will have the answers? I mean, what do you tell folks who say, “I really can’t wait any longer. Our kids aren’t achieving, our kids are not being successful and we want some answers.”
JC: There are some things that we’re already doing to better engage families. One thing, and I realize that not everybody has easy access to the Internet, but we have hosted really clearly family-friendly tools to better understand the expectations for the new Common Core State Standards, so any parent can go online right now and see the kinds of things a kindergartener would be expected to do in their classrooms today and moving forward, what a sixth grader is expected to know and be able to do in their classrooms. That kind of information is really important, again, if our parents are to demand the very best from their children.
DW: Now, do you think the achievement gap is more about race or class, or is it more about the intersectionality of the two?
JC: I think it’s definitely about the intersection. I’ve been very concerned about some of the language and dialogue that I’ve heard in Madison recently about poverty, and really placing the emphasis on poverty. I think that part of this is not just about not following through with determination and tenacity on implemented practices we know work best, but there is something about values and beliefs. This is a difficult conversation that’s been happening in Madison lately, but I’m glad it’s happening. I don’t want us to have a deficit view about our families and our students of color.
DW: It’s like you’re blaming the victim.
JC: Yeah. I think when you talk about poverty, when we assume that every child [who] is living in poverty is a child that is dealing with crisis, I don’t think that that is necessarily true ... So, I think it is incredibly important for us, as educators in particular, because we have to be the advocates for every child, every day. We have incredibly high expectations for every child, we address it when we know a student is in crisis because, absolutely, that happens. But, we don’t make assumptions about a student’s ability to learn, or a family’s ability to support them based on socioeconomic status.
DW: It looks like four-year-old kindergarten showing some promise of perhaps, in some ways, closing the achievement gap or attempting to. How important do you think that is specifically for students of color to get their kids enrolled?
JC: Oh, it’s incredibly important. Early childhood education, if there is a silver bullet, and there really isn’t, but if there were one when it comes to closing the achievement gap, it is early childhood education. In fact, I would argue that these start well before four-year-old kindergarten. It’s really important that our families get their students in high-quality preschool experiences, really, as soon as possible. It is a great benefit to our community that that service is provided to any child who needs it at no cost. So, it’s extremely important that students are engaged.
DW: The teaching staff at MMSD does not represent the diversity of its students. So, folks want to know what, specifically, is going to be done to attract teachers of color to the district and to actually ensure that they stay with the district.
JC: I am excited about the work that we’re doing in this area. It’s true that our workforce does not represent the students that we serve ... We are in the middle of a full review of our recruitment, hiring and induction practices. Induction is how we really bring people into the district in a way that’s nurturing and helps them do their best work. Statistically, in education, about fifty percent of teachers drop out of the profession by their fifth year, so how we bring people into the profession is
really important if we want to keep them, but this work is going to focus in part on diversifying our workforce.
DW: You have an eighteen-month-old son. He’s going to be in the school district at some point if you choose to stay in Madison.
JC: That’s the plan.
DW: Would you enroll him in public schools here?
JC: Of course I would! Are you kidding me? I’m already excited about that. He would be going to Crestwood Elementary School if we are still living in that part of town when the time comes. I think we will be. My plan is he’s going to graduate from high school here in Madison, so I’m going to stay as long as you all are going to put up with me.
It seemed clear to me when I interviewed her that Cheatham has high hopes for Madison students. Madison clearly has high hopes for her, too. As the superintendent’s answers demonstrate, she stands behind her commitment to increasing parental involvement, improving teacher diversity and eliminating the achievement gap in our city’s public schools. That’s a promise our kids need kept. Though I realize a year is not ample time to see these promises to fruition, I also know that the community, parents and, more importantly, our kids, deserve more than what could be perceived as the same old rhetoric. And another year of unfulfilled promises. We need results!
My late father, James C. Wright, who was a civil and human rights pioneer—and a strong advocate for education for whom Wright Middle School is named—would undoubtedly share with Cheatham one of his favorite sayings: “A promise is a promise.” These are words that still ring loudly in my memory. Words that I want very much to ring true for our superintendent. By all accounts, Jennifer Cheatham is the education leader Madison needs. Like most Madisonians, I’m hoping so.
Deana Wright is the host of Madison Magazine: The TV Show. Watch Wright’s television interview with Cheatham here.