Back to School
The first annual report on Madison schools superintendent Jen Cheatham's Strategic Framework is out
At the beginning of last year I included on the WISC Editorial Agenda for 2013 an item we called simply Our Schools. It was a reflection of a concern other members of the editorial board and I shared that Madison’s schools were in a state of crisis and the crisis was beginning to divide our community. We were worried that if we as a community failed to create a shared vision for our schools, that if we didn’t commit ourselves to closing achievement gaps and preparing all of our kids for our shared future, that our city would suffer long term harm. Serious stuff. A couple of months later we essentially took the item off our agenda completely. Circumstances had rendered it irrelevant. Jen Cheatham had arrived as the new Madison schools superintendent, and everything changed. It was as abrupt a change of course as any I’d experienced in this job.
As I write this, the first annual report of progress on Cheatham’s Strategic Framework is still being analyzed, but it’s hard to overstate its impact. The numbers are impressive. Not all of them, but a lot of them. The change in how people feel about their schools is even more impressive. I think it’s a really big deal. That doesn’t mean I feel completely comfortable writing about it. I worry about giving Cheatham too much credit too soon and setting her up for failure—some imaginary, and, it seems, increasingly unlikely failure. Not being a teacher, or a parent for that matter, I worry about not actually being in the schools and therefore relying too much on anecdotal evidence. I worry about every child and every parent who is not experiencing an improved education and renewed hope. Claims of success and optimism ring hollow for them. But when I think back to January 2013, I think we simply must acknowledge how far we’ve come and how we’ve done it because it not only says something about who we are but about what we can realistically expect going forward.
It all starts with the Strategic Framework. Cheatham’s plan seemed plenty wonky at first, but after a year one can see the complex management, pedagogical and personnel practices on which it is built. It feels extremely sound; based on data, research and experience, yet uniquely suited to Madison and Madison schools. It has an element of style without being overly flashy. Cheatham brought in some smart, talented people who she knew would support the plan and by all accounts they’ve been great hires. Put it all together and it seems to have engendered trust and respect by district staff and the people who matter most: principals and teachers.
Given Act 10 and years of demoralizing politicization of public schools and the teaching profession, it is a real tribute to Madison educators that they have given this new idea, this new plan—yet another new plan—a chance, and that so many have worked so hard to implement it. I like that elected school board members have given Cheatham the freedom to craft her vision, and that both have recognized they are working with teachers and principals to give the best opportunities to achieve to every single child in this district.
I also like the continued investment of critical community partners like United Way, 100 Black Men, the Urban League of Greater Madison, the Madison business community led by the Chamber of Commerce and UW. And I believe Cheatham’s strategy for mobilizing community support for issues related to the next steps for achievement for all kids—early childhood, out-of-school time, mental health, family engagement and others—are well thought out and absolutely necessary. But most of all this feels to me like a defining moment in Madison’s future. This is how WE respond to Act 10, how WE respond to the Race to Equity report, how WE respond to our shared future. It’s a great way to start a new school year.
Neil P. Heinen is editorial director of Madison Magazine.
Find more of his columns here.