Public Education: What The Opposition Refuses to See

By Karen Vieth

I have been in touch with many Wisconsin families this past year to discuss the political climate, particularly its effects on education. This outreach has been extremely beneficial to me and to those on the other side of the door or at the other end of the phone line. In general, when I contact someone who clearly “stands with” Governor Walker, I politely end the conversation and move on to the next door or phone call. Dealings within my own family taught me long ago that when individuals set in their ways are confronted, they oftentimes dig in their heels even deeper. However, a few nights ago I was feeling particularly feisty, and so I decided to engage the Walker fanatics on the phones. Doing so did not improve my disposition or raise my spirits, but it did give me a clear vision of what we are up against. We are fighting against ignorance, hatred, apathy, and people who refuse see the truth about teachers and public education.

With a Walker supporter on the line, my first question was, “What about the $1.6 billion dollars cut from education? Does that worry you at all?” The response I received from each Walker follower was, “No, not at all.” And when I asked about class size, an even bigger alarm bell rang. One person I talked to thought that 50 – 60 would be a fine class size. She also thought the budget cuts were okay, because we have “too much” technology in the schools. In her mind, this is why some of our kids aren’t able to read; nobody is teaching them. Teachers and students are too busy “messing with computers.” But the biggest shock came when discussing educational assistants and paraprofessionals. The response was, “We wouldn’t need those aides if teachers would just do their jobs. Those positions should be cut.” When I started to list some programming that has been cut under Walker’s administration, the rebuttal was an accusation, “The only reason you teachers are involved is because you don’t want to pay your pension and health care.” While these types of phone calls were in the minority that night, they made an impact. The calls left me trembling and afraid for our future. This led to days of me walking the halls of my school, purposefully seeing even more vividly what they do not. Here is some of what I see.

In the morning, kids gather in the building, many of them getting their breakfast at school so that they will be focused on learning rather than their hunger. Walking down the hall to my classroom, I notice a special education assistant pushing a child in a wheelchair while sharing a joke. There are goofy expressions on each of their faces.

In the afternoon, I see kids in classes learning and teachers kneeling beside them offering guidance. Special education assistants are in the rooms dealing with some of our neediest populations, sometimes taking a kick or getting scratched without complaint. Professionals with Master’s degrees are bathrooming or feeding special education students, because there is a need. Later in the day, the whole school gathers for our “Fun Run.” They are gearing up for a real life lesson on human health and awareness. Staff run alongside students, encouraging them and providing support. After the run, the school population takes the bleachers, applauding the succeses of this tightly knit community.

After school, the building is still alive with activity. Many students stay after school to get homework help. This one on one attention is something the students cherish; you can see the eagerness in their eyes and the smiles on their faces when they receive positive reinforcement. After hours, devoted teachers stay late, sometimes well past dinner time. It isn’t something they do for the money; clearly there is no overtime pay. They make these efforts for their students; it is the reason that they are in this profession.

I see a lot of greatness within the walls of my school, but lately I am also tuned in to the sadness. The post Act 10 world is already bleak. Staff morale is at an all-time low. Current legislation and rulings, such as the new definition of base wage, are reason to worry. While the Madison teachers are protected by a contract for one more year, friends in neighboring districts tell us tales of their life with “teacher handbooks” rather than contracts. Stories of longer school days without compensation or positions lost without just cause reach our ears. We are already having to say goodbye to some of our friends who have been laid off. We wonder what else is to come. The uncertainty hangs heavy on everyone’s minds while we continue to do what is best for our students.

Many of us find it harder and harder to do our jobs. Over half of my students live in poverty. Shopping for school supplies and stocking my cabinets for the students has always been a part of my job. When a student can’t come up with the funding for a field trip, I have never had a problem chipping in a few extra dollars. This year, I struggle. Due to the recent cuts in my pay, I don’t always have that extra dollar to help out. I live in a single income household. I’m still paying back that Master’s degree that is no longer included as part of my base pay. Money that used to flow from my paycheck into my classroom is not there. It is a horrible feeling. Because of cuts to programs and services, my students’ families hurt more and more under Walker’s rule. At the same time, I find myself able to help them less and less.

As Election Day looms nearer, I get more and more anxious about the years to come. Changes in staffing have made my job more difficult every year. Next year will be the most challenging to date. Budget cuts made now result in a direct change in programming, services, and student to teacher ratios. Those left in the schools have to figure out a way to take on additional responsibilities with dwindling resources.

Thinking back to those calls, I wonder how some of our public has gotten so out of touch. Quality, public education is the keystone to a successful democracy. Educated citizens are able to lift up our community and make it greater than before. Mohatma Gandhi said, “A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” He saw what some of those stricken with greed in our society cannot: we are all in this together. There is no greatness that excludes and puts down populations in need. One of the reasons our public education is so important is that it is one of the only systems in our society that welcomes everyone through its doors. When people let loose hatred on these institutions and our government withdraws its funding, we all suffer.

I plan on taking this battle to the polls. There is no time to sit idly by or to let my pessimism and fear prevent me from action. I will continue to knock on the doors of my neighbors and to speak a truth that some may not be ready to hear. The future of public education, my students, and our society depends on it. If we all speak some truth on June 5th, those who are choosing not to truly see us will get their wake up call.

A World of Difference

By Karen Vieth

Picture by Joe Lynde Capitol Connection

Recently, many of my Saturdays have been spent around a dining room table with people I have come to know as my friends. We gather with a common vision of electing Michael Flores to the Madison School Board. At these meetings, we pass around graphics, edit letters and highlight maps. We are all amateurs, but that doesn’t stop the level of inspiration. Periodically, our group is interrupted by a devoted volunteer at the door who is ready to distribute another round of literature. Volunteers are met with a smile and a thank you and then we get back to work. Michael Flores’ campaign has been a feet on the ground, coffee at the kitchen table, grassroots campaign.

These Saturday mornings are one way I fight for our public schools. I do it because I believe that Michael Flores can unite our community and empower our students. I was shocked yesterday when I received the report that Mary Burke had spent $28,000 on her campaign. After all, this amount of money parallels how much I made my first year teaching. Today when I found out another $20,000 was spent on television ads, it was altogether implausible.

This makes one difference very clear. Mary Burke has put forth financial resources to get her word out to the community. Meanwhile, Michael Flores’ campaign has come from the heart of our community. Michael Flores is the change we need on our Madison School Board.

MMSD School Board Elections: The Future of Our Public Schools

By Karen Vieth

Times are rough for public education; there is no contesting that fact. The Madison media is full of talk about charter schools and anti-union sentiment. Next year’s allocations are forcing teachers to face the abysmal reality of our declining budget. Sitting in staff meetings, hearing numbers being crunched, it is difficult to look around and wonder whose job will be cut and what that will mean to our students. Yet, in a recent Wisconsin State Journal article the focus is somehow on a false choice between supporting our teachers or caring for our students. The author neglects the simple fact that teachers exist for the children and the families they serve.

To make matters worse, the author inserts this quote from a school board candidate, “One of the most important needed changes is the use of student learning as a component of a teacher’s evaluation.” This statement discounts the damage that could be caused by this type of assessment. The author doesn’t analyze the perils of making it a more attractive position to teach the students already experiencing success. He also chooses to ignore the many factors of society that cannot be controlled by a teacher or that cannot be evaluated in a test. Student mobility, homelessness and truancy are not mentioned. Nowhere is it referenced that there is cultural bias in our standardized testing or that these tests occur at the end of October, just shortly after students enter a teacher’s classroom for the first time. Unfortunately, these types of simplified solutions have become common place in the mainstream media, where apparently everyone is an expert on the teaching profession. It is another effort to blame the teachers and take the emphasis off of recent budget cuts and a community where poverty is becoming more and more prevalent.

While our media is clearly distracted by such efforts to minimize the power of education, I can only hope that our citizens will see beyond this deception. In the face of right-wing rhetoric and an undervalued public education system, the Madison School Board election on April 3rd is more important than ever. When the teachers’ collective bargaining agreement expires in June of 2013, it will be critical that the school board is there to pick up the pieces. This agreement has been the document that has kept class size down and determined our students’ learning conditions. During a time when teachers and public education are under attack, it protects the quality of our schools. With all of this at stake, it is important to know that there are two school board candidates who can be counted on to support the future of public education.

Michael Flores: Uniting the Community
Picture by Joe Lynde Capitol Connection

Madison School Board candidate, Seat 2

One of the voices that could be heard a year ago during the protests belonged to local firefighter, Michael Flores. Like so many of Wisconsin’s citizens, Michael Flores understood the need to be a presence down at the Capitol and to take action. This event changed his course; Flores witnessed our schools and teachers under attack and knew that there was more work to be done.

Michael Flores is a Union member, fire fighter, volunteer, proud parent and long-time Madison resident. His commitment and strength have made him an asset to our community. Flores understands that true leaders take action. He did exactly that when he announced his candidacy for school board.

Recently, Flores took place in a public forum at the Warner Park Community Center. During this forum, Flores proved that he understands how collective bargaining affects our students, teachers and the quality of our schools. Holding MTI’s current Collective Bargaining Agreement up for the crowd to see, Flores spoke of how this contract protects the quality of our schools, including the school environment and class size. He expressed a desire to keep quality working conditions for all workers in our schools, not just for the sake of the workers, but for the benefits to our children. In a community where Teacher Unions have been under attack, this was a message that needed to be heard. Supporting, protecting and strengthening our public schools will strengthen our community.

Michael Flores grew up in Madison; he understands the issues that our schools and community face. Having grown up in poverty, he personally understands the obstacles that many of our children and families encounter. Flores is also aware that the schools face tremendous challenges due to cuts in funding. He knows that we must reach out to meet the needs of each individual student to truly attend to gaps in learning and to advance all students to higher levels of achievement.

When asked about his position on the proposal for Madison Preparatory Academy as a non-union, non-instrumentality charter school, Flores spoke with passion about how, for many years, people have fought to integrate our schools. He explained that any segregation, whether it be race, religion or gender, would be a step backwards. He made a plea to the public to not separate our kids, but to work together as a community to solve this problem. It also became clear that Flores had done his homework, as he quickly pointed out some of the positive similarities between the school district’s plan to close the achievement gap and the plan that came out of the Urban League. However, one of the greatest differences is that the new achievement gap plan would reach out to all students and allow our students to continue to learn and grow together.

Michael Flores knows the importance of uniting our community and standing beside our teachers to improve our public schools for all students. His personable nature and honest communication style will make him an invaluable liaison to our schools, families and community. Our students, families, teachers and community members need a leader who is going to stand strong and bring people together during these difficult times. Michael Flores is clearly this leader.

Michael Flores is endorsed by South Central Federation of Labor (SCFL), AFSCME – PEOPLE, Local 311 Firefighters Union, Madison Teachers Inc. (MTI) and Progressive Dane.

Arlene Silveira: A Champion for our Schools

Photo: Google Images

Madison School Board candidate, Seat 1

Arlene Silveira knows better than anybody the connection between education and a strong future for all of Madison. She has decided to run for her third term on the school board because she understands the challenges the district will face due to Governor Walker’s unprecedented attacks on teachers and education. Silveira knows that recent attacks have been an effort to stifle public education. In her opening remarks at a recent forum, she said that she knew that talking was not enough. She too must “walk the walk.” This was exactly what she did when she marched alongside the teachers a year ago.

The Madison teachers will see their Collective Bargaining Agreement expire in 2013. During this challenging time, we need school board members who are eager to lead the charge in protecting these long fought for rights. These are contracts that protect our students and make our schools a better place for all children to learn. Arlene Silveira has shown through the years that she understands the value of teacher voice in creating better schools for our children. Silveira continues to advocate for starting the process of moving MTI’s Collective Bargaining Agreement over to a policy handbook as soon as possible. She knows that for this to be successful, it must be one of the school board’s top priorities.

Silveira voted “no” on the Madison Preparatory Academy proposal. On the night of the vote, Silveira spoke eloquently of the need to make sure that funds “target the needs of our students” and not top-heavy management. She also expressed concerns over Madison Prep’s lack of educational assistants, social workers, and psychologists – the people who are in the schools to support our students. She explained Madison Prep was “trying to target our neediest students” yet “cutting supports at their expense.” She also recognized that the charter would put in place “financial and logistical hurdles for these families and students to overcome.” At this meeting, Silveira also spoke directly about the Union issue and the fact that the Board of Education had bargained “in good faith” with employees and that these contractual agreements should be taken seriously. She concluded that this “shows respect for one’s employees.” Since then, Silveira has stood solidly behind her vote as the right thing to do for our public schools. When asked about her position recently, Silveira adeptly pointed out the flaws in this plan: high administrative costs, too few students targeted, not enough support staff and the non-instrumentality status of the proposed charter.

Arlene Silveira has fought hard to protect public education in Madison, because she believes in its power and its potential. She has shown commitment for programs that work, such as 4 year-old kindergarten. Through her history on the school board, Silveira has proven herself as someone who will stand up for what is right in the face of adversity. She knows that in the difficult times ahead of us that we must stand beside our teachers and our workers to make Madison a stronger community.

Arlene Silveira is endorsed by South Central Federation of Labor (SCFL), AFSCME – PEOPLE, Local 311 Firefighters Union, Madison Teachers Inc. (MTI), Teaching Assistants’ Association (TAA), United Fitchburg and Progressive Dane.

Occupy Education: Teachers, Students Fight School Closings, Privatization, Layoffs, Rankings

Courtesy of — As students across the country stage a national day of action to defend public education, we look at the nation’s largest school systems — Chicago and New York City — and the push to preserve quality public education amidst new efforts to privatize schools and rate teachers based on test scores. In Chicago, the city’s unelected school board voted last week to shut down seven schools and fire all of the teachers at 10 other schools. In New York City, many educators are criticizing Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration after the release of the names of 18,000 city teachers, along with a ranking system that claims to quantify each teacher’s impact on the reading and math scores of their pupils on statewide tests. “The danger is that if teachers and schools are held accountable just for relatively narrow measures of what it is students are doing in class, that will become what drives the education system,” says Columbia University’s Aaron Pallas, who studies the efficiency of teacher-evaluation systems. “The effects of school closings in [New York City] is one of the great untold stories today,” says Democracy Now! education correspondent Jaisal Noor. “The bedrock of these communities [has been] neighborhood schools and now they’re being destroyed.” Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union says, “When you have a CEO in charge of a school system as opposed to a superintendent — a real educator — what ends up happening is that they literally have no clue how to run the schools.” Lewis recounts a meeting where she says Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel told her that, “25 percent of these kids are never going to amount to anything.”

Senate Bill 486: A Step Backward for Disability Rights

By Karen Vieth

Wisconsin Republicans and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) have done it again. They have produced legislation that turns back the clock on human rights, only this time they have gone after an unthinkable target – children with disabilities. Under the proposed SB 486 (AB 110) families would forfeit their rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA) for a special needs voucher with a maximum value of $13,000 to be used in private schools that are not accountable to state standards and do not have district oversight. Even worse, these vouchers can be used at schools that are unable to provide an environment appropriate to the student and may not have qualified, certified special educators.

Is it that the people and organizations behind this legislation don’t understand the implications of IDEA? Every undergraduate education student is taught the importance of special education law and the protections in place for students with disabilities. IDEA is one of the greatest laws in place to protect our students with disabilities. Schools receive IDEA funding with the requirement that they are to provide qualifying children with a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in a student’s least restrictive environment. Schools who fail to comply with this provision, lose funding. The law and funding procedures are in place to assure equality in education and to guarantee that the needs of students with disabilities are met. It is a central reason our public education system is inclusive and cannot be replaced by privatization or independently operated charter schools. At the heart of this is the role of public education, which is to educate all students.

Proponents of the bill claim that the newest proposal is not damaging, because schools will have to implement the student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP). However, once students are accepted into a private school, this IEP can be rewritten and components may be removed. The end result of such an action would be depriving special education students of a free and appropriate public education.

What the student will receive in exchange for sacrificing their legal protections is either the cost of their tuition or the cost of their specialized services, whichever dollar amount is less. However, this voucher is not to exceed the state-wide pupil cost of $13,000. For students with more severe disabilities, this dollar amount does not come close to providing them with the services that they are entitled to under IDEA. This leaves these families with three options: to waive their rights to services, to remain in public education, or supplement their child’s tuition. Most working class or poor families will be unable to pay the extra money, so this voucher system is more likely to serve either the students who have less severe needs or the students of wealthy families. Note that there is no income requirement to take part in this voucher system.

Disability Rights Wisconsin (DRW) and the Wisconsin Board for People with Developmental Disabilities (BPDD) oppose this legislation. In fact, there is not a state-wide disabilities organization that approves of this bill. The groups who have drafted and supported these bills are advocates for draining money from public education to fund privatization. This bill would do exactly that; it forces public schools to pay for private education. It could cause the loss of millions of dollars in state aid. The Department of Public Instruction predicts that this type of voucher could cost the Milwaukee Public School system alone $89 million in the first year. It gets worse; there are no family income limits to take part in this program. So in addition to draining funding from our public schools, it is also a means of giving a tuition break to the wealthy. The wealthy can seek a voucher to offset the costs of tuition, while the poor are less likely to be able to take part in this system.

The good news is that this isn’t over yet. Some of the more moderate republicans are having reservations about this voucher program and its impact on special education students. The people of Wisconsin still have time to speak out against this bill that denies children their rights, defunds public education and gives financial breaks to the most wealthy. On Tuesday, February 28th there will be a Senate Education Committee hearing on SB 486 in the State Capitol. Public testimony can be given at 10:35 a.m. in room 201 SE. What we need are people, to stand strong and support public education and the rights of all of our students. This year has been a challenging time for public education. It is essential that we let our legislators know that we stand collectively behind every student’s right to a free and appropriate public education.

Full Text of Senate Bill 486

*If you cannot make it to the hearing, please send an email to the committee’s chair: Senator Luther Olsen

MMSD’s Plan to Close the Achievement Gap: All Students Welcome

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.

My Thoughts on Madison Preparatory Academy 10/22/2011

Madison Preparatory Academy Still Waiting for Answers 11/07/2011

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.

Building Our Future: The Preliminary Plan for Eliminating Achievement Gaps in MMSD Student Achievement