The number of low-income kids coming into the Madison schools has accelerated in recent years, posing a new set of challenges for educators.
We've asked the Madison school board candidates to talk about those challenges, including the apparent loss of some middle-class families who've left Madison for suburban schools.
In 1991, one in five students in the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) came from low-income families, as defined by eligibility for free or reduced-price lunch. Today, the district's low-income population is at 41%. These kids frequently do poorly in school. What are the most important things the schools can do to help them perform better academically?
There are several things the district can do to better serve all of our students, including those coming from low-income households.
First, we can make sure that school is an inviting, safe, and orderly environment. We should be enforcing our rules about violence and proper classroom conduct in a consistent manner. We are allowing behaviors in school that if conducted on a job or in society, will at the very least get you fired and might even put you in jail. We are not serving our children well, and we are not helping them become productive members of our community. This is by far the number one thing we can do to help all students achieve to the best of their ability.
Second, we can make sure all students are reading well by the time they reach third grade. Currently 23% of our students are not reading at grade level and this is seen as great progress. This is not acceptable to me. We need to reevaluate our reading programs and see if there are things we could be doing better that will produce results.
Lastly, we need to make our schools connected to the city as a whole. We should greatly expand our apprenticeship programs, make parents a valued part of the decision making process, and encourage community service for all of our kids. If we get our community involved with our kids, and the kids see how school relates to the real world, they will achieve much better in school.
The future of our community depends on serving every child well and ensuring a climate of achievement in each of our schools. We need to identify students-at-risk early and develop connections with the families. I believe that the school system needs to assign a member of MMSD staff to provide continuity during transitions, to act as an advocate with social services if necessary, and to be a familiar face for the family as they navigate the student's school years.
I will advocate for the resources to make universal early-childhood education, possible in Madison. Children and families who participate in early intervention programs are better prepared to start kindergarten. Small class sizes for those crucial first years of elementary school are critically important.
The district must increase minority staff recruitment, increase professional development in cultural competency, and improve access to Advanced Placement and other high-level courses in high school. Tutoring and mentoring programs, such as the Urban League's Schools of Hope program, in which I have participated, have been instrumental in closing the achievement gap. These programs must be expanded so that the entire community contributes to the success of all our students. We must all share an expectation of reaching higher. In doing so, we will increase the level of achievement and success for all.
To one degree or another, there appears to be middle-class flight from the Madison schools, which, in turn, drives-up the percentage of poor kids in certain schools. What can the school district do to keep middle-class families committed to the Madison schools?
I see this as a huge problem for our district. Everyday in my work as a Realtor I speak with parents who wish to move out of the MMSD.
There are two basic reasons they are moving. First, and foremost it is safety and the classroom environment. Parents of all backgrounds do not feel that the classroom environment in Madison is what it should be. Unless we admit this is a problem and address it, people will continue to move out of the MMSD. Second, parents do not feel that their opinions are listened to. When parents who are very concerned about the quality of education in the district propose things such as magnet and charter schools, roadblocks are consistently thrown in their way.
We are more concerned with protecting the status quo than we are in having innovative and effective education for our children. It is a lot easier to move to a district that values involved parents than it is to change the huge bureaucracy that is the MMSD.
Until we address the basic issues of the school environment and whether we value the input of concerned parents, middle-class parents (and other parents as well), will continue to leave our district.
Madison has to remain a place that attracts people like my family, educated middle class people, who value a challenging education for all children. We also need to welcome those who are low-income and who want to give their children a better chance.
We can do both by assuring that each child receives an education that meets that child's needs. All parents want a dedicated professional staff, a safe and welcoming environment for their children, and program choices. We must offer a rigorous academic curriculum with equitable choices across the district and a quality fine arts curriculum.
Better communication assures that the schools are in touch with the community's needs and desires for our children's education. Involving business leaders, as the Foundation for Madison's Public Schools' "Principal for a Day," builds more knowledge and understanding about what happens in our schools. More and more community leaders, especially those without school-age children, must become aware of the positive role our schools take in our community and in the lives of families.
The district can do a better public relations job of letting the community know about the he breadth of choices that are only at available in our schools. A public awareness campaign giving facts and data on safety issues may help everyone understand what is really going on in our schools and what the district and community are doing about it. For the sake of our community, we must have a public school system that serves all students.
Okay, what are your five favorite CDs (or recording artists) of all time?
I enjoy a wide variety of music. If I would have to choose only five, I would say John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Indigenous, AC/DC, and the Blues Brothers.
Alison Krauss, The Grateful Dead, Jean-Pierre Rampal, The Dixie Chicks, and Mbilia Bel.