Letter of Recommendation

What we need from our new superintendent

Dear Superintendent Cheatham,

Welcome to the hornet’s nest, where we don’t just know we have a crisis of poor graduation rates among African American and Latino students, we are buzzing loudly about it in the media, around the dinner table and even in the boardroom.

At a recent gathering of nearly three hundred businesspeople hosted by the magazine and honoring the retiring president of the chamber of commerce, the achievement gap took center stage for a good twenty minutes. We are obsessed with the subject right now, and that is a good thing. You have a unique opportunity to help this feisty, compassionate city coalesce around solutions. Unfortunately for you, it’s a precarious one, but you seem ambitious and equipped to take on this challenge.

Three years ago, an accomplished, young black professional named Kaleem Caire moved back to his hometown of Madison to head the Urban League. He brought with him a vision of launching a charter middle school for African American boys, one that would plant the seeds of achievement in the fertile soil of budding but at-risk children. The school would graduate these boys and then send them off to college and careers. Like all public charter schools, it would also be a greenhouse of new ideas that would spread and sprout up in classrooms all over the city. At its core, though, it was more than a school; it was a moment of truth for the parents and the communities of color to say to their fellow Madisonians that the time had come to try something else.

The school, Madison Prep, died on the vine of a school board vote against it. Even for folks on the board and others who chose not to support it, the outcome was deeply disappointing—and as you can see, badly damaging—because who among us does not chafe at the notion that our schools are not serving all of our children equally? That is not the Madison way. And yet, it is.

What has pained me most about this issue is how it has pitted the only people who are qualified to solve this problem against each other. When Caire exposed the gap, teachers rejoiced. It was not news to them; in fact, it’s naive to think otherwise. While Schools of Hope tutoring programs and layers upon layers of other academic and social services were busy plugging the hole left by years of budget reductions and misdirected resources, teachers were teaching, some with results, others with failures. Caire was preaching a way out of this mess. Teachers were listening, hoping.

It’s true that there are teachers out there who shouldn’t be teaching, just like there are doctors who shouldn’t be prescribing medicine and truck drivers who shouldn’t hold driver’s licenses. But for the most part, here in Madison we really are blessed with some of the best teachers in the nation—deeply qualified and respected for the small miracles performed in classrooms each and every day. And yet, as you can see, it’s not enough. We still need more of everything—more diversity, more awareness, more leadership, more accountability. More money would be nice, but we all know that’s not going to happen.

What we need most right now is someone who can tackle the hornet’s nest. Someone who can bring all the players together. This task will be the most difficult and the most critical. If you fail at this first step, I guarantee you will not close the gap.

We also need someone who expects collaboration (not cooperation; that’s not enough). People don’t need to like each other to work together; they just need a shared strategy and expectations of excellence.

Finally, we need someone who is transparent and can articulate to the community—in real terms and in language we can all understand—what the plan is and when we can expect to see results.

You’ve been described by one school board member as the Barry Alvarez of public education—poised to lead, determined to succeed. In this town, that is the highest praise and endorsement of one’s abilities that exists.

Superintendent Cheatham: Please don’t let us down.

Brennan Nardi is editor of Madison Magazine. 

Find more of her columns here

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