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. This week we ask the candidates how they would address what might be the primary issue of the election: the achievement gap. What would they do to address this gap, and balance the needs of both high and low achieving students? More specifically, we ask about their view of Madison Prep, and whether they would vote for or against it in the future.
What is the best way to address the achievement gap? How would you balance the needs of high achieving and low achieving students?
I take a systems view when looking at closing the minority student achievement gap. We need strong leadership on the board and in every level of administration to get traction on this issue -- it starts at the top.
The best way to close the minority achievement gap is inside classrooms. This is a matter of closing gaps along the way and keeping them closed, so that by the time a student gets to 9th grade, he/she has a strong foundation in reading and math, and can sustain the level of rigor and independence required in high school. As early as the completion of 9th grade, many minority students are already off-track in acquiring the high school credits needed for high school graduation. We need a specific high school plan that addresses this issue and keeps them in the game.
High achieving students also need rigorous curriculum, and we need district-wide consistency in offering Honors and Advanced Placement classes.
Early and targeted interventions 4K-8 are critical to combating achievement gaps, and that means having frequent assessment data to identify and help kids who are behind before it's too late. Kids who arrive to high school with reading and math skills 2-3 grade levels behind are at severe risk for high school non-completion. Evidence-based curriculum that is aligned to standards across the district is a necessary systems approach to leveling the playing field for all kids, including high achieving kids.
We need support and professional development for teachers on how to alter their teaching strategies as needed. Looking at ways to extend and enhance learning time is another way to support student learning.
Having high expectations of all students is critical. Too often, African American students are disproportionately identified for special education and suspended, which adds to the gap. We need to create a climate of aspiration and a desire to learn by weaving the "world" into the classroom and our schools. This means embracing service learning, community partnerships, culturally relevant pedagogy, and 21st century teaching strategies that "hook" kids in and show them why education and learning can be rewarding.
Addressing the achievement gap means working on three fronts: identifying and implementing effective programs in the schools; communicating directly and accurately to the broader community; and coordinating efforts among organizations and institutions that must be involved in this community issue.
Effective initiatives in schools: I've been a strong proponent of proven in-school improvement efforts that raise the quality of instruction and expand the definition of schooling: I spearheaded the drive for four-year old kindergarten; supported improved professional development in culturally relevant awareness/techniques; prioritized small class sizes; expanded summer school offerings; supported the introduction and expansion of the AVID/TOPS program that helps with college readiness; and, supported a focus on early literacy programs.
There is more we must do: the superintendent's plan contains some good proposals that must be developed in more detail, such as a more effective plan for recruitment of staff of color and plans to involve parents more in the schools.
Communicating to the broader community: We need to talk clearly and accurately about the causes of the achievement gap -- and it is a complex mix of factors, many of which happen outside of schools -- and we must engender community support and understanding of what is happening in our community. Social, economic and educational factors come into play when looking at a child and their ability to learn.
Coordinated community response: We must coordinate social and economic policies that enable children to begin/attend school more equally ready to learn. Examples include: continuing partnerships with community healthcare providers; collaboration with the city on the neighborhood intervention initiatives; and, collaboration with the county on Joining Forces for Families.
Strategies to educate our high and our low achieving students should not be at odds. I believe that an inclusive model is positive. Inclusion is an all or none, however. We have students who may need to be challenged differently, and require direct instruction through pull-out, cluster groups, honors classes, etc. I do support the modification of programming options for students if and when there is a demonstrated need (evidence). This is true for all students at all levels.
What's your view of Madison Preparatory Academy? Would you vote for the single-sex charter school aimed at helping minority students?
My view of Madison Preparatory Academy is that it would have and could have been an asset to our district and community. Just as Nuestro Mundo and Badger Rock provide models for learning that are based on unique needs of students, families, and a connection to our community, I believe that Madison Prep would have provided a different and valuable option for families in our district. As a parent with African-American sons in this district, it was the first time I saw a substantive plan that could combat the minority achievement gap, and I supported it.
For many, a significant challenge was its non-instrumentality status, especially in a political climate when collective bargaining agreements and unions were given "termination" status by the governor. The notion that Madison Prep wanted to hire non-union teachers and have more autonomous governance didn't sit well with most on the Board of Education or MTI. While I too would have preferred that it had instrumentality status like the other charters in our district, I also understood that in order for Madison Prep to incorporate the longer school day, extended school year and provide the wrap-around support to students, it needed a different operating model. The Urban League, MTI and school district administration spent hours negotiating to make it an instrumentality status, but in the end, due to lack of agreement on staffing and budget implications, a non-instrumentality proposal is what went before the board.
My view was that having a single-sex environment would be an ideal learning environment for families/students who made that choice. Although the research shows both pros and cons on the benefits of single-gender education, I know that learning environment plays a huge factor in student success.
Because I work at the Urban League, if the proposal were to come back before the board, I would not be able to vote on the school due to conflict of interest. If a future proposal were to come back as a separate 501(c)(3) entity without contractual services from the Urban League, then I would be able to vote on it.
While we all agree that the achievement gap is too big, the Madison Prep proposal was flawed and I, and the majority of the board, could not support it. The main drawbacks with the proposal were:
- School structure: The top heavy administrative structure (one administrator/54 students by year five) coupled with the lack of educational assistants, social workers and psychologists -- the people in the classrooms to support our students -- is something I could not support. When we are focused on working with our neediest students, having the appropriate supports in place that support our students is imperative. Too few resources were devoted where they matter most.
- Financial model: I could not support a $900,000+ fee (over five years) paid to the Urban League to manage the school. The Madison Prep budget request of $2.7 million over cost neutrality was a concern, as it would take the money from serving a larger number of students in our schools.
- Non-instrumentality status: Philosophically, I support charter schools, but my support is for instrumentality charter schools. We need to protect public education in Madison.
- Staff contracts: In addition, in March of last year, the board made a conscious decision to bargain in good faith with our employees and enter into new 2-year contracts. Approval of Madison Prep as a non-instrumentality charter school would violate the contracts. As a board member, it is my responsibility to take a contractual agreement very seriously. It is good governance.
- Effectiveness: As a school board, we repeatedly get asked for data and evaluation information on the efficacy of programs in the district. All programs should be viewed under a similar lens. There is no evidence that this program would work.
There are aspects of the Madison Prep proposal that I really like, including focused tutoring and a longer school day. We must take the strategies that had promise and evaluate them as part of the larger achievement gap plan, including the superintendent's recommendations and the ideas from the community feedback process.