Now that Madison School Supt. Art Rainwater is on his way to retirement, it's time to reexamine programs, staffing and curricula throughout the district.
Let's face it, again. African American and Latino academic achievement pales in comparison to that of white and Asian American students, though some segments of the Southeast Asian community struggle as well.
Daniel Nerad, the new superintendent, should dust off all the research that the district has gathered over the past 40 years, look at the recent studies pointing to excellence in education and put together a new approach to ending the achievement gap.
Things are already cooking at the Ruth Doyle Administration Building. Restructuring the high schools is in the works. Pam Nash, former Memorial High School principal and now assistant superintendent for secondary schools, is taking on this enormous task. Based on her work at Memorial, she's the right person for the task.
Nash acknowledges the concerns and complaints of African American parents, educators and community leaders. It's time to raise those achievement scores and graduation rates. She's fully aware of a solid approach that didn't fare well with Rainwater, so she's left to figure out what else can be done.
First, let's acknowledge the good news.
The Schools of Hope program sponsored by the Urban League of Greater Madison (my old shop) and United Way of Dane County offers great afterschool activities that have increased attendance and improved math scores for eighth-graders in the Urban League's Project Reach program.
But much more must be done to prevent another generation of African American and Latino students from falling behind their white and Asian-American counterparts.
It's not like the school district hasn't already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to bring in consultants and send staff to training conferences. But too often the district continues to do what it has always done, which means it gets the same results it has always gotten. Time for a change.
Luckily, there is no shortage of experienced hands right here in Madison specializing in urban education. They offer tried-and-true models to deal with this serious problem.
Historically, African American students drop out at high rates, populate special education classes in greater numbers than other students, rarely take advanced-placement classes, and spend more time in the principal's office than other students.
These are signs of failure. Our students will likely face even greater failure if they don't receive support from home and community. The same support is required of teachers and staff. If they better understand the culture of these children, they can more easily forge the relationships that will produce academic success.
The credit for this insight belongs to some very bright educators in the Madison schools and at UW-Madison.
I'm talking about retired Shabazz High School social studies teacher Tenia Jenkins and West High School principal Ed Holmes. At the post-secondary level we have Dr. Gloria Ladson Billings, the Kellner Family Professor of Urban Education in UW's School of Education Curriculum and Instruction, and Dr. Beth Giles, one of Ladson Billings' former students and now colleague. And Nash, who must apply these concepts to the restructured high schools.
Jenkins and Holmes successfully piloted the African-Centered Pedagogy and Black Studies Curriculum at West High School in the 2006-07 school year. While limited in scope, the program increased attendance and improved reading and math skills. Just as important, student self-confidence increased due to adult mentoring. Not bad when you consider that we as a nation graduate more African American males to prison than to college.
The program, though, says Jenkins, was halted because Rainwater claimed it violated federal civil rights law. The reason being that all the students in the class were African American males.
As untraditional as Holmes and Jenkins' method is, it speaks to research that shows successful teaching occurs when the student's culture is used as a building block.
Ladson Billings makes the same point when she lectures nationally on how successful teachers work with urban students. Ditto with Giles, who works with student teachers in the Milwaukee schools.
Reopening the African-Centered Pedagogy Project and Black Studies Curriculum for all students seems like a no-brainer. Both Nash and Rainwater concede that knowing how to relate to African American students and their culture is an essential element in a successful education program.
But Nash's work faces much opposition. She clearly sees a problem with the city's high schools, saying that disparities in curriculum and teacher quality affect graduation rates and educational attainment. Changing that is a real challenge.
Where do I stand? I think everyone is on the right track and should unite behind the restructuring process. The Urban League, 100 Black Men and other groups should be involved. Nash agrees that the African-Centered Pedagogy Project did well and that it should be expanded throughout all the high schools.
Furthermore, all students should be required to take an ethnic studies class to graduate. Cultural ignorance is no longer excused in this country.
With change blowin' in the wind, what a perfect time to shake things up! Most people don't like change, especially when it threatens what they've done for years. But if the Madison school district keeps on doing what it's been doing, it should prepare for more failure.
STEVE BRAUNGINN IS A WRITER, RADIO HOST, BUSINESSMAN AND COMMUNITY ACTIVIST.