Just when all signs indicated that supporters of Madison Preparatory Academy were abandoning hope of joining forces with the Madison school district, they've decided to give it one more shot. They're seeking another vote on the controversial charter-school proposal in late February.
Urban League of Greater Madison CEO and president Kaleem Caire says Madison Prep will open this fall as a private entity, but hopes it will transition into the district in 2013, once the district's union contract expires.
Board members who voted against the charter school in December expressed concerns that it would put the district in breach of its contract with Madison Teachers Inc., due to a provision requiring district schools to hire union staff.
School board president James Howard, who voted for Madison Prep, says the board may not have time to address the proposal in February.
Whether the Urban League - which proposed Madison Prep as an ambitious step toward closing the district's decades-old achievement gap - can recapture its earlier momentum is uncertain, considering that Superintendent Dan Nerad and school board members seem particularly excited about their own plans to address the issue.
"We're going at it from so many different angles right now," says board member Beth Moss. "I can't see how we can't make some improvement."
In addition to Nerad's plan, which he'll roll out on Jan. 30, the district is vetting candidates for a new administrative-level position that will focus almost exclusively on African American student achievement.
But at the same time, the school district is coming under fire for its response to being named a "district identified for improvement" (DIFI) by the federal government.
The response, an improvement plan (PDF) submitted last month, has been approved by the state. Still, says school board member Lucy Mathiak, it falls far short of inspiring confidence.
"It's just bloody embarrassing," says Mathiak. "There is no narrative, no analysis…. It's a 27-page list with 60 pages of strategic planning stuff stapled to the back. It's crap."
The district was placed on the federal DIFI list last June after state reading test scores for black and disabled students at six schools fell below those required under No Child Left Behind for a second consecutive year.
Mathiak's frustration stems in part from what she sees as the district and other board members downplaying the district's placement on the list, claiming it undermines public confidence in the district's ability to address issues of student achievement.
The district's improvement plan is largely a list of programming and objectives developed last school year, while highlighting areas where, in practice, the district is falling short. At a Nov. 27 board meeting, school board member Ed Hughes referred to the improvement plan as "just a piece of paper."
Says Mathiak, "If this is just paper, then we need a real plan to address this problem."
Hughes tells Isthmus the DIFI list is "a distraction," because by 2014, federal law requires 100% proficiency for all students, a mandate widely seen as impossible. "We can make enormous progress this year and next year and we still wouldn't get off the list," he says.
Hughes would instead like to focus on long-term solutions, which would also enable the district to meet federal benchmarks.
The complex formula used by the U.S. Department of Education targets student subgroups that have fallen behind in specific areas like reading or math, and gives larger schools a smaller margin of error. "It's one of the shortcomings of the law," Hughes says. "It doesn't mean that the school as a whole is a failure."
As proficiency requirements ratchet up in the coming years, Superintendent Nerad expects that many districts nationwide will also make the DIFI list. "It's a given under how the metrics work," he says.
Mathiak says the district is banking on waivers from most provisions of No Child Left Behind. The state expects to apply for the waivers in the coming months, according to Patrick Gasper, a Department of Public Instruction spokesman.
A statewide waiver would give districts more flexibility in addressing student achievement, but, says Gasper, "Schools and districts are still going to need to make sure they are working toward improved academic achievement for all students."
While it's difficult to get off the DIFI list, the consequences of remaining on it are severe. Should the district remain on the list two years from now, which is likely, the state could, among other sanctions, appoint a trustee to run the district in place of the superintendent and school board.
School board vice president Marj Passman is confident the improvement plan will bring the district into compliance. Beyond that, she says, the district has ambitious plans in the pipeline to address student achievement in 2012.
"Some of the newer stuff we'll be doing is 100% better than what we've been doing," she says. "There is some really dynamic stuff going on in this district."
The details of those plans, however, are a bit of a mystery. Nerad is keeping mum on his plan to address the racial achievement gap, but he promises that it will place "a comprehensive focus in several key categories."
"The approach we're taking is through a district-wide lens," he says. "At the same time there are many things we learned through the Madison Prep experience that we are looking at as important elements of this plan."
Nerad wouldn't speculate on the Urban League's prospects for getting a revote on its unchanged Madison Prep proposal. But he implies that his plan will include elements of that proposal, specifically its call for longer school days and a longer school year, which "certainly resonated with me," he says.
But his top-down approach is already generating criticism, since minority parents haven't had a hand in developing his plan. "At the very least, listen to those of us who have black children in our homes," says Caire.
Nerad expects to unveil his plan to the school board on Jan. 30, the same day that Shahanna McKinney-Baldon - a Milwaukee schoolteacher recently hired as the district's chief diversity officer - is formally introduced.
The public, he says, will have an opportunity to weigh in on the plan, with a list of policy and funding recommendations going to the board in late February or early March.
Though she hasn't yet seen it, board member Passman expects that the plan will be "a lot more original and innovative" than Madison Prep, which she voted against.
"This is a very crucial time for Madison schools," she says. "We have to succeed, not because of Madison Prep, but for our own children."
Nerad says the plan will overlap with the improvement plan submitted last month to the Department of Public Instruction, since both are tied to student achievement.
"This is an evolving landscape," he says. "What was put into the [improvement] plan were things that came as a result of very specific planning that was done last year. We're referencing that as we create this plan because they need to come together at some point in time."
Though Nerad is being coy about the details of his plan to address the racial achievement gap, the district's new director of African American student achievement is likely to play a central role in its implementation. A hiring committee is currently screening applicants.
The administrative-level position, created last June by the school board, was intended to signal the district's commitment to the academic success of black students. But it is also raising eyebrows.
"What is the director of African American achievement going to do?" asks Caire. "Are they going to create a position like that for every racial group? I wish they'd stop placating us."
Caire says it's another example of the district deferring responsibility for the achievement gap, first identified by the Urban League more than 40 years go. "That responsibility should be owned by the district, not by one person," he says. "It removes accountability from the district…. It's clear they don't know how to get this done."