Toward the end of a 70-minute interview, Supt. Dan Nerad was discussing the 24,000-student Madison school district when he used an interesting term: tipping point.
In educational terms, the tipping point sets off the downward spiral in an urban school when the number of poor, socially deprived kids overwhelms the enrollment. Performance plummets, violence increases and middle-class kids depart, making a bad situation worse.
Decades of research show that poor kids perform better in a middle-class school setting. Sixty miles to the east, Milwaukee is a case in point of what can go wrong when the middle class abandons the public schools.
Welcome to Madison, Dan Nerad. Can you keep our topnotch schools from further weakening? Can you close the achievement gap that separates too many black kids from white kids? Can you keep middle-class parents invested in their neighborhood schools? And, while you're at it, can you hold down taxes?
Nerad may have Dane County's toughest and most important public service job. We all have a big stake in his success.
Nerad, 56, brings a well-rounded background to Madison. Besides six years as superintendent of the Green Bay schools, whose poverty demographics are surprisingly similar to Madison's, he's also had stints as the head of curriculum and 14 years as a school social worker.
Most impressive is his reputation for reaching out to people. He seems to understand that the schools need not just broad support but trust from elements of the community who may not agree with every decision.
So he's made the rounds in Madison, meeting with school boosters like Thomas Mertz and Nan Brien on the left and skeptics like Don Severson and Jim Zellmer on the center/right, plus groups representing charter schools, the Hmong, the business community and neighborhoods.
If you want to talk, Dan Nerad will pull up a chair and listen. Judging from our interview, he's careful how he holds these conversations. While he offers his opinions on various issues, he says he's also committed to sounding out others on theirs. Given the ferocity of cross-cutting opinions on school matters in Madison, this approach will serve him well.
Listen, for example, to the balance Nerad strikes between fiscal prudence and investing in the future as he discusses a possible November spending referendum:
"I'm prepared to argue the connection between good schools and economic development," he says. "We have to have that discussion about investment, but we also have to be held to a standard of being fiscally responsive. I get that. It's inherent in what we have to be about. But if we fail to make the right kind of investment with children, it will cost us more money in the end."
Conceivably, this line of argument might even sway a few fiscal conservatives to back a new referendum.
Nerad has similarly interesting things to say about a range of other issues:
The high school redesign effort won't be solely defined by the newly received $5.5 million Smaller Learning Communities grant. That plan calls for East and La Follette to adopt the same randomized groupings of students West and Memorial now have. This supposedly will create a more intimate and supportive learning environment.
"There are all kinds of stakeholders who have to be involved" in redesigning the high schools, Nerad says. "We have to get their perspectives. How that fits side by side with the grant, we'll have to see."
Nerad isn't a big supporter of charter schools like the bilingual Nuestro Mundo. While he's open to discussing more charters, he argues that the district should be flexible enough to offer specialized programming like Nuestro Mundo's without following the state's formal chartering process.
He suggests, for example, that Madison's high schools could each have a distinctive career-based academy focusing on a program like computer technology, public service or health care. "I'm looking at how we can differentiate programming without charters," he says.
Nerad is committed to "a full examination" of the district finally launching a four-year-old kindergarten. (Two-thirds of Wisconsin school districts already offer it.) But he'd prefer to not include funding for 4K in a November referendum. "I want to see what else is possible before I go [the referendum] route," he says.
He acknowledges that the achievement gap remains one of the district's biggest challenges - and that it's evident on the very first day of kindergarten. "You can see the vast difference between children who have grown up in literacy-rich environments...and children who haven't."
To improve school safety, he'd like to start a parent advisory council with a parent representative from each school. "I've heard enough about discipline concerns that I want to have a discussion with parents on what their perceptions are," he says, adding that the district may need to update its safety and security plan.
Nerad is earnest, diplomatic and clear spoken. It's a good bet that most anybody who hears him talk will find something they like in his message. Whether that adds up to support for a coherent educational program remains to be seen.
He faces huge challenges: not just closing the achievement gap while maintaining programs that attract middle-class families, but doing it while state fiscal controls continually squeeze his budget.
Equally hard will be overcoming the district's own organizational stasis - it's tendency to stick with the status quo. For all of Madison's reputation as a progressive community, Madison schools are conservatively run and seriously resistant to change.
Authoritarian, top-down management grew under Nerad's predecessor, Art Rainwater. Innovations like charter schools are still viewed skeptically, including by Nerad. Four-year-old kindergarten, which could be key to narrowing the achievement gap, is still seen as a problem. The middle school redesign project of a few years ago has been judged by insiders as pretty much a non-event. The high school redesign effort that Nerad inherited seems intent on embracing a program that is still unproven at West and Memorial.
All of these examples have a bearing on the district's ability to pull back from the tipping point. But despair should be resisted. The good news is that the Madison school board has been unusually collegial and task-minded in the past year. Hiring Dan Nerad on a unanimous vote may prove its best move of all.
Eisen (email@example.com)is Isthmus' Executive Editor.
A personal note
I leave Isthmus on Aug. 29 as part of the paper's retrenchment; yep, the industry-wide downturn in publishing has hit us, too. I'm ready for a change and will freelance. After two tours of duty here and 27 or 28 years of service, I have spilled one too many cups of coffee on copy. Isthmus is ready for its own change. There are no guarantees in this business, but I'm betting we both do fine.