By Karen Vieth
As November 28th looms nearer, I am taken aback by the silence. It has been months since Madison Preparatory Academy shared its school and business plans with the public. This unveiling created questions from teachers, parents, citizen groups and unions. These questions have gone unanswered. While waiting for answers, I have spent my time generating new questions.
It is still the intent of Madison Preparatory Academy to contract out positions essential to the school. Custodians, security guards, food service workers and psychologists are among those who will not have union representation. Worse yet, custodians and food service workers will not be paid a livable wage. The current budget includes a custodial salary of $26,000 a year and food service $25,000. This is in steep contrast to the $97,000 salary of the head of school.
Perhaps this level of elitism and undervaluing of employees should not come as a shock. In the educational world, custodians are highly valued members of the team. They keep our work environment safe, interact with students positively and maintain the integrity of our building. This value goes against the viewpoints of the leaders of Madison Preparatory Academy. Kaleem Caire recently summed up their reasoning with these choice words, “A janitor is just a janitor.” This is an interesting viewpoint considering the educational plan states that “all faculty and staff will serve as mentors to Madison students.” Is it the intent of the school to exempt custodians and food service workers from this clause? If not, how does it look to a student when they are being mentored by someone the school so openly undervalues?
What Madison Prep clearly does value is management. There is a $50,000 management fee included in the plan for Urban League. That $50,000 grows to $300,000 over the course of five years. What managing will this include that is not already being covered by the five different positions listed under “Leadership” and the four positions listed under “Management?” Laden throughout the plan is a huge emphasis on marketing approaches. With the school only accepting 60 students the first year and adding 60 students each year thereafter, why does there need to be this focus on marketing? I would think the success of the school would sell itself. This type of ploy is one characteristic of many charters as a means of emphasizing the division between charters and public education. Charters rely on lotteries that present students as either winners or losers as a part of their marketing. This sends a damaging message about public schools. TJ Mertz sums this idea up well in the following article: Madison Prep’s Lottery.
In addition to the school creating a divisive system of inequality among its workers, there are some positions that are missing from the plan entirely. Some of this inadequacy could lead to litigation, unless parents check their students’ rights to special education services at the door. An Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) for a student with special education needs is a legally binding document. In these documents there are other services that are provided by psychologists, social workers, speech and language therapists, occupational therapists, physical therapists, and special education assistants. Madison Preparatory has a plan to contract out the psychologist position and a plan for a non-unionized social worker. However, there is absolutely no staff on board for speech and language services, occupational therapy, physical therapy or special educational assistants. Madison Prep will not be in compliance with students’ IEP’s without staffing these postions. Or, even worse, Madison Prep would have to deny students with these needs access to their school. This attitude is inconsistent with maintaining a diverse learning community.
It is clear that the leaders in the Madison Prep initiative have a lot to learn about education. Interestingly enough, there is an emphasis on “training opportunities” in their plan. However, their plan involves Madison Prep enlightening the rest of the Madison Metropolitan School District. This is an unfounded imbalance in power. MMSD schools have a lot to offer. In fact, they are already using a lot of the strategies mentioned in Madison Prep’s plan. For example in the MMSD schools, classrooms have “Circles of Power and Respect” (CPR) or “Morning Meetings.” This same idea in Madison Prep’s plan is called, “Harkness Teaching.” Madison Prep includes an emphasis on male mentors. MMSD schools have been employing this strategy for years through Big Brothers of Dane County, MSCR after school clubs and by matching students purposefully with tutors they relate to. Madison Prep’s “group mentoring” mirrors some of the activities and clubs of MMSD that are led by strong role models. An example of this is the “African American History Bowl.” MMSD students could benefit from more of this type of programming, but taking resources from the public schools will not accomplish this goal.
Recently on Madison.com, there was an article that outlined other programs at work in the district: Ongoing Programs Combat Achievement Gap
With all of its programs in place, Madison Prep claims a goal of a 100% graduation rate for its students. This sounds fantastic, but is setting the goal enough and what does this goal really mean? Will that be 100% of the students entering the school or 100% of the students who are still around by 12th grade? Madison Prep claims an attrition rate that will be lower than MMSD’s is currently, but International Baccalaureate schools on the average have higher attrition rates. Even taking the attrition rate into account, the goal seems to have little evidence to support it. Urban Prep in Chicago, which is the model for Madison Prep, only has a 62% graduation rate. Chicago Urban Prep: Accountability Report 2010
One of the things that Madison Prep may be banking on for its high graduation rate is “cherry picking.” A section of their Educational Plan is devoted to laying out a system of “Pre-Enrollment Interviews.” This gives them the unilateral decision to deny certain families access to their school. It is unclear how many students from these interviews will make it into the lottery. In addition, parents are being asked to volunteer two hours per month, pay uniform fees and fundraise, regardless of their income and work schedules. Students and parents who do not follow through could be asked to leave under this type of system. When this happens, will their “failure” feed into the graduation rate and test scores? It is unlikely if evaluation of the school is left to Madison Preparatory Academy.
Madison Prep does have a plan for at-risk or failing students. Those students who do fall behind their grade level will engage in a “Prep Year.” If they don’t pass the prep year, they will then be retained. Research and data have consistently shown that retention does not work and is frequently damaging to students. During this “Prep Year” there is an emphasis on being taught in small groups and with one-on-one instruction. There is no evidence in Madison Prep’s budget of staffing for this program. Have they considered how many students this may include? What is the plan for students who are several years behind grade level? Madison Prep definitely needs to do its homework on this item.
All of these items are concerning, but nothing is more concerning than the language used in their documents that ask for “autonomy of governance and management.” Nowhere within any of Madison Preparatory Academy’s plans is a clear definition of exactly what this type of autonomy will look like. However, in Urban League’s last statement regarding this issue, they asked for “a blanket waiver of all MMSD Board of Education policies except those relating to health and safety.” This sort of exemption seems to contradict their request to be an “instrumentality” of our district. How much of what they do will be shrouded by their own management systems and self-evaluation techniques when they are working outside the parameters of our school board?
The school board will be making their decision in three short weeks. It is clear that many proponents of Madison Preparatory Academy have bought into a hope and a dream that is not contained within Madison Prep’s Educational Plan nor its Business Plan. The public is operating under misconceptions and misrepresentations put forth by a group that is very good at marketing. However, the plan clearly falls short. If we are truly going to move ourselves forward as a community and a school district, we need to make an investment into our schools and our children. This can’t be left up to lotteries or be limited to 60 students at a time. Our public schools need community support now more than ever. Madison Prep has failed to answer the important questions, including one that I come back to again and again. How do we move our district forward and support ALL of our children?