By Karen Vieth
When I attended the Board of Education meeting back in October 2011, I walked in without expectations. I was there to hear the public testimony on Madison Preparatory Academy and to figure out my own position in this controversy. I listened to everyone speak, but I came away from the meeting conflicted. I realized that my desire to do something to eliminate the achievement gap was as strong as ever, but that something seemed amiss. Rather than rely on what I had read in the media or heard at the podium, I decided to do my homework and read the Urban League’s proposal for this charter school. What I found in its pages confirmed my fears that this was not a solution for the students I serve.
So, it was with hesitance that I received Superintendent Nerad’s words earlier this month. His summary was well received by those in attendance, but it was just that, a summary. A coworker handed me the 97 page plan and I’m fairly certain a sigh escaped with my “Thank you.” Once again, I was sent home with studying to do.
I have since read the plan through twice and though I have many questions, a lot of what I found is promising. One of the biggest reassurances in the plan comes in a surprisingly short sentence found on page 69. “All students are welcome.”
The MMSD plan to close the achievement gap is broken down into six categories:
1. Focusing on academic instruction and support
2. Developing college and career readiness
3. Expanding culturally responsive practices
4. Assuring safe and positive classrooms and school environments
5. Enhancing family engagement
6. Recruiting, selecting, and retaining a diverse workforce
Focusing on Academic Instruction and Support
This section stresses the importance of frequent monitoring, targeted instructional practices, and early intervention. Programs that have been proven to contribute to student success such as Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID), 90 minute Reading/Language Arts blocks, and Reading Recovery will be implemented and expanded. Reading proficiency at an early age shapes a student’s educational experience. Changes that involve gauging student performance and adapting our approaches to meet the needs of the individual student will promote academic success.
Some of the academic initiatives emulate the Madison Prep plan. Items such as an extended school day, after school programming and summer learning opportunities will expand a student’s educational experiences and increase the time spent learning. My word of caution regarding this item is that these have to be quality, meaningful experiences. More time spent learning will not alone enhance student success. Students must have more time in a learning environment that is both positive and meaningful.
Another cause for alarm is found in item 7 of this section. This item emphasises “innovative instructional designs” such as an International Baccalaureate program or schools with a specific focus such as Science or Fine Arts. These proposals for innovation are meant to draw families into the district and maintain MMSD’s enrollment. It is my hopes that school concepts will be created out of researched ideas that are the right fit for Madison’s changing demographics. While attracting families may help keep our district thriving, if these schools fall short of achieving academic excellence, they will be little more than a gimmick. Such proposals should be ventured into with trepidation. Only the “thematic schools” that hold up under careful scrutiny and are well researched should be embraced by our district.
Developing College and Career Readiness
My biggest internal struggles are contained in the first item of this section. Nerad lays out pathways that prepare students for college or for involvement in a career. The proposal calls for matching students’ interests to career academies that emphasize the fields most likely to cause employment growth in Madison. Internships, volunteer opportunities, apprenticeship programs and mentoring connect students to the community.
Anytime I hear about educational “pathways”, my mind leaps to Jonathan Kozol’s, Savage Inequalities. His in-depth analysis of tracking has held true through the ages. The dangers of tracking are obvious. Who chooses the track a student is on? The student? A test? The parent? The teacher? Once on this track, how easily can a student change direction? On page 37 my fear is briefly addressed, “Students will retain the freedom to explore different career areas through their Individual Learning Plan to ensure that early interests do not force them to predetermined futures.” My concern remains, as there is no clear explanation as to how students can be on a pathway and have this freedom at the same time. Will students jumping from path to path in this manner have the proper credits to graduate on time or to attend a college of their choice? More exploration on this topic is needed.
On the other side of this “pathway” debate, I find my own son who had limited success in a traditional school setting. He is good with his hands and quick with his wit. Getting him to do his homework is a battle, yet just a few weeks ago he managed to build an air intake system for his car with PVC piping. There are no limits to his creativity and ingenuity. However, pencil paper tasks and learning done out of context have always been a struggle. If he had chosen a career pathway that enabled him to utilize these talents, perhaps he would have been more engaged in his own learning. However, choosing a career pathway should never close the door to opportunities such as attending a four year college.
To further ready students for life after high school, this plan also lays out methods for preparing students for the ACT test. Earlier preparation involves identifying and training 5th grade students for the UW’s PEOPLE program. Tutoring services, increased mentoring, and expansion of AVID are also emphasized. A common thread throughout this plan is that students must begin looking at higher education opportunities earlier on. Students who have set high educational goals and see their future in a positive light will be more likely to connect school success with their lifelong aspirations.
Expanding Culturally Relevant Practices
It is obvious to me that our students will all benefit from a staff trained in cultural competence. Teachers, administrators and other school professionals must continuously examine their practices and prioritize the learning of all students. Developing teacher leaders and effective practices are a first important step in this district. Nerad proposes using an existing MMSD site as a model school for Cultural Practices that are Relevant (CPR). This school will be used to seek out and implement best practices to be spread throughout the district. In addition to exploring cultural competence, the school will also address academic rigor, college readiness and training for staff and parents. The school will utilize student empowerment groups, culturally relevant Saturday programs, summer school enrichment, connections to local colleges and a partnership with Madison Cultural, Linguistics and Diversity Center.
If this is the route that MMSD takes, there must be a concrete plan for this model school to share its ideas and for these ideas to branch outward into other attendance areas. MMSD has always had pockets of excellence where innovation and great teaching practices reside. The challenge continues to be district-wide implementation of these practices. For CPR to be effective in closing the achievement gap, it must reach every corner of our district.
This issue could be addressed through professional development or through mentor-ship cohorts, but only if done properly. Page 73 states, “high quality student learning requires high quality teaching, and high quality teaching requires high quality professional learning.” This statement is one that resonates with me. However, I have learned a lot about the successes and failures of professional development from my ten years in the district. For professional development to be effective, it must not be done in isolation. It must be relevant and it must be taught consistently throughout the year. For this to be successful, teachers need to buy into the initiative and feel that they have the time and knowledge to implement the learning in their own classrooms. For this reason, I strongly urge the district to hire staff members with classroom teaching experience to integrate cultural relevance into every aspect of district-wide professional development.
Assuring Safe and Positive Classroom and School Environments
A current struggle that teachers are facing in the classroom is an increasing need to meet the emotional and behavioral needs of their students. Often times, the classroom teacher wears many different hats and plays a fine balancing act between being a counselor, educator and social worker. Over the years, as support staff positions have been cut and as our demographics have shifted, this has become a difficult undertaking.
Postive Behavioral Supports (PBS) has been a recent response to this dilemma. However, inadequate staffing and time to engage in coaching practices has stunted the potential of this program. Nerad’s recommendation includes staffing PBS coaches at each school. The plan also creates nine community engagement specialists. This team will be active in the community to ensure the safety of our students through networking and mediation practices. Representatives will form strong connections between the families, community and staff. Connections like these will help the team identify conflicts as they arise. This proactive measure will help deescalate conflict as it emerges, rather than merely reacting once an inflated conflict explodes in the school setting. In addition, a committee will be formed to restructure MMSD’s Student Conduct and Discipline Plan to focus on restorative practices and implement measures such as youth courts and circle conferencing. These programs all emphasize natural consequences and restoring damages done to people or property, rather than purely punitive measures. This type of restructuring should decrease the number of suspensions/expulsions and increase the amount of time students spend in the classroom learning.
Enhancing Family Engagement
Engaging families has never been more important. Welcoming families into the school building and empowering families to be a part of their child’s education is essential to a successful school. Nerad proposes that the school district hires bi-cultural Parent Liasions to communicate the community’s needs and concerns and help create an environment where parents will be actively engaged in a meaningful way. Parent liaisons will work alongside staff and administrators to educate, consult and make recommendations. The ultimate goal is to identify and remove barriers that prevent families from being involved in the schools.
Parent University will provide free Saturday sessions at schools, libraries and community centers to educate parents on resources available in the schools and community. Parents will also be trained on how they can be actively involved in their child’s academic success. This is a concept that will be successful if parents utilize the programming. The plan does not address how this program will be promoted to parents or how the district will identify who is a proper fit for Parent University.
MMSD also plans to have an Open Schoolhouse model in at least one elementary school from each high school attendance area. In this model, schools will be open one night a week to host family and neighborhood events. During this night families will also be invited in to use facilities such as the gym or computer labs. This is a great way to let the community take more ownership over neighborhood schools. However, there are many populations who will not be able to gain access due to location and transportation needs. Areas such as Deer Valley Road or the Great Grey neighborhood are extremely isolated and also deserve this sort of opportunity. I urge the district to create a plan that also reaches out to these often neglected communities, either by providing transportation or finding locations for events that are closer to home for these families. This is a difficult task, but necessary to showing all families that they are an integral part of our schools.
Recruiting, Selecting, and Retaining a Diverse Workforce
To me, this is the heart of the achievement gap proposal. We need to hire staff that is representative of our diverse student body. This has been a deficit in the Madison school district and it is one that requires our immediate attention. Our students need to form strong bonds with our school staff. Though I have known powerful teachers from many different backgrounds who have successfully reached out to students, I also know that there is power in having a diverse workforce. Staff from ethnic groups that resemble our student body offer new perspectives, ideas and insights into educating our children. Students feel pride when they see themselves represented in every aspect of our school, including the mentors who teach them.
The Chief Diversity Officer, along with Human Resources and the Affirmative Action Officer will be charged with creating hiring goals and monitoring MMSD’s progress. They will also create a recruitment plan that will emphasize “Grow Your Own” programs. Students of color in the district will be targeted in high school if they show an interest in going into the teaching profession. Staff members who are in other positions who share a similar passion for teaching will be mentored and provided with assistance to become certified. Principals will also be “grown” in this manner. All of the “Grow Your Own” programs will specifically target participation of people of color in an effort to increase diversity in our schools.
A full time position will also be added to Human Resources to actively communicate with and assist applicants of color. Showing an interest in applicants early on in the hiring process will help to build positive relationships with potential hires. While this position is currently rather vague, it is imperative that the district does more to reach out to minority applicants and ensure affirmative action in the hiring process.
What is Missing From the Plan
There is clearly a lot to admire in Nerad’s plan, but I can’t help but notice that there is something missing. Minority students are overrepresented in special education. I have had countless conversations about the reason for this. Some point to poverty, some to behavior and others to cultural biases. No matter the cause, this issue needs to be addressed as we move forward. The district needs to clearly outline a plan for how it will identify students with special education needs more accurately. It was recently pointed out to me that it is just as damaging to wrongly label a student who does not have special education needs as it is to not identify a student who really does require these services. If we are misidentifying some students, is it possible we are also entirely missing other students’ special needs? If the system is broken, this may be a reality.
As the district moves forward, it needs to address the needs of special education students and pinpoint how these needs will be addressed in the schools. After all, this is another of our achievement gaps. Our district must face the achievement gaps between minority students and white students, between students in poverty and those with financial security and the gaps between special education students and their non-disabled peers. This means finding accurate methods to identify special education students and being thoughtful in the interventions and accommodations that students receive.
Superintendent Nerad has outlined an ambitious plan, but we have many motivated, knowledgeable staff who are ready to roll up their sleeves and get to work. Recent debates have captured the interest of families and community members who will play a powerful role in making this plan a success. Our first step is engaging in discussions, sharing our ideas and making this plan our own. We are all in this together; come to a community input session and let your voice be heard.