School board elections are usually sleepy affairs.
But the proposal this year for Madison Prep, a single-gender charter school, has sparked a lively, and sometimes controversial, conversation about one of the most pressing problems facing Madison schools: the achievement gap between students of color and their white peers. The debate has, in turn, sparked interest in the school board.
While there are an unprecedented number of candidate forums and listening sessions under way, we thought we'd pose our own questions to candidates. We start by asking the candidates what their experience is and how they would address the educational needs of the growing numbers of poor children in the district.
What qualifies you to be on the Madison school board? What is your personal stake in the Madison schools?
When I began tutoring two brothers on Madison's south side, I saw how tough it is for children with serious challenges at home to learn and thrive in school. School was a refuge for these boys, and education was the best way for them to build a better future. I have worked with teachers striving every day to meet the needs of each student, to challenge the gifted child and the one just learning English. In the past 13 years, I have mentored five youth, have seen great things in our schools, and opportunities to do better.
I care about our children. My broad experience in education, non-profits, government, finance, and business will make me an effective school board member. After receiving an MBA from Harvard, I was an executive at Trek Bicycle, Secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Commerce under Governor Doyle, board president of the Boys & Girls Club, and co-founder of the AVID/TOPS program. AVID/TOPS is the district's premier program to address the achievement gap, and has 450 students across all four Madison high schools. For those in the program, grade point averages are 30% higher, school attendance higher, discipline issues down, and 100% of seniors have gone onto college. I've served on the boards of United Way, Madison Community Foundation, Evjue Foundation, and Foundation for Madison Public Schools. One current school board member said, "Mary Burke stands out. Mary may be the best-qualified candidate to run for Madison School Board in quite a while."
Success in school for our children is important to me and to our entire community. Our public schools shape our future neighbors and workforce. Success in school is a leading factor in whether a student is on the path to UW-Madison, Madison College, or the county jail. Nothing is more important and critical to our city's future than our public schools.
I have been a catalyst for positive change in Madison. On the school board, my focus will be bringing our community together to ensure students learn and thrive -- taking smart action for them, for our neighborhoods, for all of Madison.
I have real world experience. I am part of a minority group and have walked the path that a number of our students are encountering. I have worked since I was 14, and supported myself from the age of 17 on. I have worked as a bank loan officer and small businessman, and know what it means to face budget constraints. My training as a paramedic has made me skilled in high emergency prioritizing and urgency in decision-making -- skills that will translate to the work on the school board. As a parent and member of this community, I have a vested interest in education.
The rate of impoverished students in Madison schools now tops 50%. How should the district address the educational needs of these students?
Addressing the educational needs of impoverished students by sacrificing the needs of other students is not smart or fair. We can address the needs of all students by:
- Setting priorities rather than taking on too much and not doing anything well.
- Focusing on programs that have proven to be effective.
- Starting new programs as pilots, establishing their success and then rolling them out district-wide, so that we don't waste resources.
- Setting up accurate assessments so we can see how we are doing and make adjustments.
- Setting long term goals and benchmarks, so we can make sure we are really tackling this issue, and will not be in the same place in five or ten years.
We should start with literacy programs for children in kindergarten through third grade. Research shows that this is the best strategy because reading is the basis for all future learning. If children cannot read at grade level early on, they rarely catch up. By investing in effective early literacy programs we can make sure all children can read at grade level in their early years and beyond.
We can also learn from programs already working in the district. Lincoln Elementary has made substantial progress and has been taken off the No Child Left Behind list of Schools in Need of Improvement -- an incredible feat. They have done this despite high rates of poverty. Another example is the AVID/TOPS program in Madison high schools, currently showing signs of great success in closing the achievement gap.
The academic achievement of low-income students must become a community-wide issue. Schools cannot bear the responsibility for this alone. I would also put a high priority on engaging low-income parents as partners in their child's education. Many barriers to this have been identified. However, we can overcome these barriers and others if we all work together.
Poverty does not determine academic performance but it is very closely tied. Madison can rally around this issue and beat the odds. We can have the schools and the community we all want and that our children deserve.
Education is a human right that I firmly believe in. We need to be positive and creative within the district, but we all can help.
As a taxpayer, I am proud to pay my taxes, because I understand that being part of this community demands and offers services that benefit all of us, from safety to education. Education is at the top of my list of services, and I demand an excellent service, which I know our teachers aim to provide, but I know they can't do it alone.
During these times of hardship, we need to extend our hands out and help our neighbors. An increasing number of students are facing homelessness, poverty, and lack of parental support, be it from low education, working multiple jobs, or other factors. We need to connect services and resources that offer help and support to those families in need, while maintaining a positive, welcoming, nurturing, and safe school environment for the students.