“Your voice matters,” hundreds of students of color were told in October 2014. They had traveled to Ypsilanti, Michigan, from school districts around the country to attend a conference of the Minority Student Achievement Network (MSAN). Their goal? Developing action plans for reducing racial disparities that they would take back to their schools.
“Kids’ lives have been changed by attending this conference,” says Madeline Hafner, MSAN’s Executive Director. “A homeless student from Farmington Hills, Michigan, was motivated to stay in school and went on to attend college.”
For sixteen years, MSAN has been combating the achievement gap at the national and regional level. One of its core beliefs is to let students guide its work.
And students’ testimonials confirm that this goal is finding fertile ground: “When we came together with our own district to put together our action plan, that made me feel like I can make a huge change in the world,” said one conference attendee. “The experience that MSAN has given me is one that I will cherish for the rest of my life,” echoed another student.
The Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) was one of MSAN’s 15 founding members in 1999, when this coalition was formed by educators from four different states. It now includes 28 districts representing ten states, mostly in the Midwest and Northeast.
In the early years, MSAN was primarily a network of district administrators who saw research as central to closing the achievement gap, especially since all districts had strong connections to major research universities.
“But after the economy tanked in 2008, the MSAN model moved from being very research-focused to a professional development model where educators are trained to be more culturally competent,” Hafner says. The combination of training teachers and building networks of like-minded high school students supports MSAN’s mission “to understand and change school practices and structures that keep racial achievement gaps in place while improving the achievement of all students.”
The economy not only changed MSAN’s approach, but also its demographics. Many schools in districts considered affluent in 1999 now have a free or reduced lunch rate exceeding 70 percent, Hafner notes. To her, cultural competence training includes not only listening to student voices at the annual conference, but during the rest of the school year as well – and she feels the network has come a long way toward achieving that goal.
“The districts are amazingly responsive to the students,” Hafner says. “They have supported everything from helping kids design new courses to having older students mentor younger ones to improving access to honors courses for students of color.”
While school districts play a substantial role in efforts to close achievement gaps, that work certainly has to continue beyond the school walls, Hafner notes. At the community level, she points to United Way’s “Reach Out and Read” programas an example for successfully harnessing community support around literacy interventions and reading tutors.
Since Hafner is based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, her MSAN-related activities during the school year include regular interactions with MMSD administrators and staff. This allows her to compare the local efforts with districts that she views as success stories: Arlington, Virginia; Evanston Township, Illinois; and Shaker Heights, Ohio.
“What these three districts did could absolutely be implemented by MMSD as well,” Hafner says. She feels the district is moving in the right direction, but some of its biggest challenges include its size – MMSD is one of the largest MSAN districts – and its strong history of autonomy, driven by a highly educated workforce.
“It is easier to lose momentum when you are a large district. MMSD also needs to figure out how to balance autonomy with best practices on educating a group of students who have been ignored in the past,” Hafner says. That includes making sure resources aren’t wasted on duplicating efforts.
“We need to move away from a ‘Christmas tree approach’ for interventions, where we try too many shiny things all at once. For example, a behavioral intervention system should be standardized across all schools, instead of each school developing its own program.”
An effort to focus on a small number of district-wide priorities was made by MMSD Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham, who has served two years in her position, in a 2014 Strategic Framework Plan. One of Cheatham’s priority areas is called family and community engagement (FACE), and as multicultural service coordinator at James Madison Memorial High School, JoAnne Brown fills one of four FACE positions in the district.
“I provide college and career support and organize culturally relevant programming, like drama and music performances,” Brown says. “I also interact with MSAN and UW–Madison’s PEOPLE program, and help conduct cultural competence training for teachers.” Cheatham gave the FACE program a new name, but Brown has been doing this kind of work for twenty years.
It is particularly important to her to connect students of color with role models, both locally and nationally. “Since our staff is not diverse, I try to bring in people from the community who are,” she says.
An example for a recent project that went above and beyond the Madison community was taking students to historically black colleges in Houston, Texas, and Jackson, Mississippi, during spring break. Brown’s contributions included taking care of travel logistics and fundraising to make the trip affordable.
Each year, Brown selects two Memorial students for the MSAN student conference, as do her counterparts at Madison’s other three high schools. According to Hafner, the MSAN districts try to support not only students who already have a leadership role at their school, but also those that may just need a little extra push to realize their full potential.
“At the fall 2014 MSAN, the MMSD students decided to make a documentary about how we can get students of color who are physically in school, but not engaged, to participate in the classroom so that they can graduate and be successful,” Brown says.
With two decades of experience under her belt, Brown knows how to get students to take their grades seriously. As the staff advisor for Memorial’s hip hop dance team, she recently told a freshman that she needed to take a break from the team and focus on school until her grades improved. “If they’re passionate about something, they’ll do what they need to do to get back into it,” Brown says.
Among its many student clubs and organizations, Memorial has two that work specifically on reducing racial disparities: Student Voice and the Black Student Union. Memorial parents can join Parent Voice, the Black Parent Council or the Latino Parent Council.
But despite what may seem like a well-established support system, “we still live in a world where many people don’t recognize their own biases,” Brown says. “That shows in the way they interact with other people, including students and staff members. We still have a lot of work to do when it comes to being culturally sensitive and respectful, from the curriculum to the teaching style.”
And Brown continues to tackle that work one initiative at a time. A recent effort she is particularly proud of is the “Diversify AP and Honors Initiative.” That, too, was originally an MSAN action plan, but did not materialize until there was sufficient teacher buy-in at Memorial.
Now, it is a support group and mentoring program for students of color in advanced placement (AP) and honors classes. For the group’s monthly meetings, Brown often invites local speakers who share their life experiences with the students.
“Several Edgewood College students came to our recent meeting to talk about how AP classes helped them in school,” Brown says. “I had been wanting to do [this initiative] for quite a while because I remember what it was like to be the only student of color in my AP English class. For many kids, that can be discouraging. It feels like all the eyes are on you.”
Read more about what UW–Madison is doing to help close the achievement gap in Dane County here. Some information about school districts outside of Wisconsin that have made progress in narrowing the achievement gap can be found here.
Listen to what students and staff from East High School said about the achievement gap.
This article was edited Sept. 16, 2015 for clarification.