Our Urban Superintendent

Jennifer Cheatham talks translating academia into action

A post-graduate program founded in 1990 at Harvard University is going to have a lot to do with shaping the flavor and effectiveness of public education in Madison for the foreseeable future. That’s because earning her doctorate through the Harvard Urban Superintendents Program in 2010 has much to do with who Jennifer Cheatham is as the superintendent of Madison public schools in 2014.

Designed to develop educators such as teachers and principals into leaders adept at dealing with the challenges of urban school districts, the Harvard program emphasizes quality teaching and learning, along with the importance of understanding a district’s community, says Cheatham.

“What I learned about creating change through the program is that context matters a lot,” Cheatham says. “You really need to understand deeply the community you serve and the need to create with that community a strategy that makes sense.”

Hence Cheatham’s high-visibility community outreach from almost the moment she arrived in Madison last spring. In fact, pointing to an urban district’s culture and people as a context is a hallmark of the Harvard program. So is acting with a sense of urgency and developing a strong entry plan when a superintendent first comes to the district. And so are some of the ways that creating a plan for a school district actually plays out.

For example, graduates of the program serve on one another’s initial advisory committees and report on a district’s strengths and challenges. Community outreach involves tapping local stakeholders to help develop strategic frameworks. Districts’ human resources departments are typically reviewed for diversity-sensitive hiring practices and often found lacking, as has been the case in Madison. In addition, other USP alumni-turned-superintendents have hired consultants to review their districts’ teacher salary schedules, which Cheatham is also doing here. 

“This is absolutely not a template,” Cheatham says. “The people who are accepted into this program and have graduated do share a common set of values and beliefs about urban district reform [and] about children who are growing up in urban environments, so I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw common themes there, such as being adamant about holding high expectations about all students, but there’s certainly no prescriptive approach when it comes to improvement.”

Photo by Sharon Vanorny.

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