By Karen Vieth
I write this note as a teacher, parent, strategic planning committee member, union member, and long-term Madison resident. I have to admit that the Madison Preparatory Academy issue has caused great conflict within me. I am strongly invested in all that this school stands for, but with a charter school as the vehicle for change, there is a lot to fear.
I believe whole-heartedly in the positive intentions of this school, and I know that closing the achievement gap must be the top priority of the district. It is a problem that has gone on for far too long. However, this charter school is not the answer. I am deeply concerned about the proposal for Madison Preparatory Academy.
My concerns fall into four categories:
1) Lack of implementing strategies district wide
2) Student selection and equal access
3) Lack of livable wages and union representation
4) Charter schools pitted against public schools
Lack of Implementing Strategies District Wide
When I was a part of creating MMSD’s strategic plan, I truly believed it would be a plan for all kids. With Madison Prep, it appears that we are sacrificing some of our students so that others can experience success. In doing so, the district seems to be conceding that it has failed and is unable to educate these students. This is a strong message that will have consequences.
If the curriculum and philosophy of Madison Prep is the way to meet the needs of our students, why is it being implemented so narrowly for such a small group of students? If it is truly an answer to our achievement gap problems, then it would be irresponsible to not offer this solution in all schools and for all students.
Clearly, in the long-term Madison Prep will take resources away from the students in our existing schools. There is the financial loss and also the personnel draw. While this school recruits minority staff, how will our other public schools increase their diversity? Rather than competing with a charter school, why aren’t we creating programs within our schools for all students who would benefit? If we did this, we could all be a part of this learning and open a dialogue for system-wide change.
It would be great if Urban League wanted to work in coordination with the MMSD staff on this endeavor. With this type of partnership, we would be learning from each other. Our school district does have a lot of knowledge to share. Many of the ideas behind Madison Preparatory Academy are already being implemented in our schools, but out of the sight of the public eye. We need to do a better job of sharing this information.
There is a lot more we could do as partners. Bring some of the experts into our schools. Every school could have an “Equity Coach” who would work with the teachers on culturally responsive strategies to implement in the classroom. The Equity Coach would work with Learning Coordinators to find deficits in the curriculum or to select new curriculum. They could also do “instructional rounds” and monitor which strategies were working. Programs like AVID that are already in place would be broadened to include more students. Practices like “morning meetings” would be implemented in every classroom to create a culture of caring. Schools would be modified to include some of Madison Prep’s ideas of best practices, such as the extended school day or community partnerships.
If that is too broad a scope to begin this charter idea, then start with an existing school and have it pilot a program that mirrors the strategies of Madison Prep. Find a school that is diverse, low-income and has a principal willing to embrace these changes. When this pilot experiences success, it will be a lot easier to share and disseminate throughout the district.
Student Selection and Equal Access
Will the students who attend this school really be the students who most need it? Parents who can jump through paperwork “hoops,” pay uniform/fundraising/field trip fees, and handle the transportation of their child to and from school are not the neediest in our community. Having sat in on the board’s listening session, I can safely say that there were not any families that I serve represented there. The parents who spoke for Madison Preparatory Academy clearly want their students to attend, but were these the families who need it the most? I’m not sure the families I serve even knew this meeting was occurring, nor would they be able to attend. Access to information and time for involvement are areas of inequity among families.
Some of our populations who are not succeeding in the traditional school model reside on the east and south sides of Madison. If this school is created on the west side of town, these populations will be at a clear disadvantage. Even if they can get their child to school, will they truly feel part of this west-side community?
Also, I notice that Urban League’s plan for special education falls short in the services it will be able to provide. Will students with these needs be turned away or will they have to give up their rights to services such as occupational or physical therapy and other needed services?
The gender segregation also has me concerned. There is an obvious assumption of heterosexuality. What does this say about the progressiveness and inclusiveness of our district? It is clear that this is another group of students that this school does not plan to serve. How will the issue be handled if they do have a student attend who is homosexual or questioning their sexuality? Has this aspect been thought out or discussed?
Lack of Livable Wages and Union Representation
Another of my concerns from the document labeled 1.0 is that there is funding for a psychologist that is to be contracted out. It is Expense Item #23 on page 27. It is also listed as a “Specialty Contract” earlier in the budget along with substitute teachers. It is my assumption that this is a move toward privatization of a very important support staff position. School psychologists are key players in testing students who are referred to special education. They also provide many services that directly relate to student safety.
I also have concerns about union representation. The only thing I could confirm was that teachers and clerical would be represented by MTI. This leaves out support staff, custodians, food service, Physical Education teachers, and security. If any group is left out, the door is open for unequal treatment and poor representation.
I notice that the custodian will only receive $26,000 annually and food service $25,000. These are not livable wages. It amounts to about $10 per hour. Saving money on labor is not the way to cut costs. It is unethical and disappointing to think that someone in the school district could be working for substandard pay. This sets a bad example for our community and for our children.
Charter Schools Pitted Against Public Schools
The bottom line is that if Madison Preparatory Academy does not include a wide range of students with various abilities, economic levels, and needs how will we really know this school is effective? When its success is later compared with MMSD’s failure to serve target groups, will our public notice that the student groups are not the same? We are setting our district up for some bad public relations down the road if we do not proceed cautiously.
There are so many factors at work here that I am not sure we will ever be able to measure the success of Madison Prep. If there is a high success rate, it could be the parental involvement, the pride of choosing one’s own school, the extended calendar or day, school uniforms, being in a new setting… How will we know how to measure this success so that it can be shared with others?
And of course, the very idea of using charter schools as an answer to a district issue troubles me. It opens the door to pit one system against another and channel money away from the students who really need it. In my eleven years of teaching, I have had many students who have parents with mental health issues, transportation woes, incarceration and substance abuse problems. These parents are not often the ones who hear about programs such as Madison Prep and take the initiative to sign up. They are also not families with the resources to transport their students on a daily basis. This does not make these children any less deserving, I would argue the opposite. These are the students that the school needs to open its doors to and that educators need to believe in and nurture. This needs to happen in their area school so that there is equal access for ALL. Otherwise, these are the students who will be left in the public schools when others are being drawn in by charters or private schools. It is not equitable and speaks volumes about the value we place on impoverished youth. While working toward narrowing one achievement gap, we may increase another. There is an achievement gap between middle/upper class black students and those who are economically disadvantaged. That gap is just as prominent and will widen if we put all our efforts into the former.
Many of the MMSD staff devote their entire lives to the students and families they serve. These staff members are always willing to try something new and would embrace changes that would work to close the achievement gap. If someone truly has the answers, then we should all be changing, learning and growing. When this happens, all of our students will benefit.