The State of Our Schools

With less drama, better data and a determined new superintendent, Madison schools forge ahead

(page 4 of 5)

Dawn Crim, the mother of a daughter in elementary school and a son in middle school, says lowered expectations for students of color regardless of family income is an ongoing problem. “When we moved to Madison in 1996, we heard that MMSD was a great school district … and for the most part it has been good for our kids and family: strong teachers, good administrators, a supportive learning environment, and we’ve been able to be very involved.”

But?

“Regarding lower expectations for kids of color, not just disadvantaged kids, we, too, have experienced the lower expectations for our kids; overall there is a feeling and a sense of lower expectations,” Crim says. “And that should not come into play. All of our kids should be respected, pushed, have high expectations and should get the best education this district says it gives.”

PHOTO BY SHARON VANORNY

Joey Banks co-directs the Urban League Scholars Academy and is site manager at Sennett Middle School.

In the meantime, the school district has been running programs in partnership with the Urban League of Greater Madison, UW–Madison, United Way of Dane County, the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County, and other organizations—all designed to lift scholastic achievement, close the gap, and get more kids graduated and on to college. (Read more about programs in Madison intended to help close the achievement gap here.)

The Advancement Via Individual Determination program known as AVID (or AVID/TOPS, when coordinated with the Teens Of Promise program) is run by the district and the Boys and Girls Club here, and is a standout in a slew of public/private efforts to change the fate of students of color in Madison.

“There are four thousand AVID programs throughout the country and the AVID national organization only designates two percent as ‘demonstration locations,’” says Michael Johnson, CEO and president of the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County. “This means that superintendents and teachers from across the country can visit as a learning module and see how these programs should be run. They chose East High School, and we’re really proud of that.”

AVID was founded six years ago at East and has since expanded to all Madison high schools. It served eighty students its first year and now serves eight hundred a year. “Seventy-five percent of them are students of color, eighty percent have traditionally not done well in school and one hundred percent are the first generation in their families to go to college,” says Johnson. “Right now, eighty-six percent of the kids who have graduated from our program are still in college.”

This year, Caire and the Urban League have added their Scholars Academy program to the mix, running it in partnership with the school district and serving students at Toki and Sennett middle schools with plans to expand to additional schools.

“This is to support those kids with the greatest need academically in language arts, reading and math,” says Caire. “We’re engaging parents, we’re immersing students in college- and career-related activities to help them identify what they have to become and how to get there. So they’ll finish eighth grade and go on to high school prepared to succeed.”

And yet student achievement isn’t the only area in need of improvement. In fact, the school district is also under fire for under-staffing teachers and other personnel of color. A complaint filed late last year with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights asks for a federal investigation into hiring, noting that “only 2.2 percent of teachers and 4.9 percent of staff” are African American, according to a Wisconsin State Journal article by Dean Mosiman published in December.

“If you talk to African American and Latino people in this community, they will all tell you that they know someone who applied to teach here and who wasn’t even interviewed,” says Herrera.

Sounds anecdotal, but it’s true, says Rodney Thomas, who was hired at the end of last summer as a special assistant to the superintendent to investigate and improve the district’s hiring practices.

“We have an old system that is currently placed around hiring that probably worked well twenty years ago but doesn’t work well now,” Thomas says. “I’ve talked with a number of people who have had those experiences.”

At the end of the last school year, a total of four hundred forty-two students did not graduate on time from high school in Madison. One hundred nine were white, eighty-six were Hispanic, thirty-three were Asian and one hundred ninety-one were African American. If the graduation rate for African American students had been comparable to the eighty-eight percent graduation rate of white students, one hundred forty more African American students would have graduated from Madison high schools.

But they did not. While it’s true that the district actively searches out students who did not graduate on time, and works with them so that as many as possible do ultimately graduate, the black-and-white dividing line of fifty-five/eighty-eight remains for now the achievement gap’s stark, frightening, final face. What can be said is that many more Madisonians are paying attention to it, and many people in a position to make a difference are doing their level best to do something about it.

IMPROVING IMPROVEMENT

At the helm of the current school improvement push is the district’s new superintendent Jen Cheatham. 

“I think that pointing to graduation rates is really important; it is the ultimate indicator of our health as a district,” she says. “Our mission and vision is to ensure that every child graduates. Numbers like fifty-three percent [which was the previous year’s African American graduation rate] are alarming. They tell us far too many students aren’t aware of the career opportunities that are available to them today in Madison and Dane County. Far too many do not understand what it takes to get into those career paths. Far too many are not getting exposure to learning that introduces them to those career options. I think those numbers indicate that our students can’t see their futures in the experiences they’re having in high school.”

In addition to hiring Thomas to get to the bottom of diversity in hiring, Cheatham has standardized the process through which businesses and community organizations can partner with the district to provide programs for students, including students of color. It’s a move that the Urban League and other groups have applauded for its potential to deliver services in a more substantive and targeted way.

It’s also a move that would have been considered a significant step in most other administrations, but Cheatham made it look effortless. In fact, her administration has implemented a number of such streamlining initiatives. Storch, the Black Hawk principal says it’s part of how she has pushed the “reset button” district-wide, which Cheatham says was one of her first orders of business.

“One of the reasons we haven’t been as successful as we could be is because we’ve lacked focus and jumped from initiative to initiative,” she says of the Madison schools.

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