Two years in as Madison’s schools superintendent, Jennifer Cheatham is proud of what the district has done.
“I think we’ve accomplished a lot in a short period of time. … I think what we’re doing is worth studying, and I hope that people are paying attention,” Cheatham says in an interview from her office.
Cheatham was hired in 2013 to lead a school district with some significant educational disparities. In the 2010-2011 school year, for example, 50 percent of the district’s non-Hispanic black students graduated high school in four years, compared to 16 percent of their non-Hispanic white peers. That is significantly worse than the state’s disparities,according to the Race to Equity report.
Or as Cheatham wrote shortly after she was hired, Madison’s school district is one with a “stark and stubborn racial and socioeconomic achievement gap that must be addressed directly, with determination and tenacity.”
Yet Cheatham, whose latest numbers in Madisonshow several improvements, is no stranger to working to close those achievement gaps. Before coming to Madison, she was the chief instruction officer for Chicago Public Schools under Mayor Rahm Emanuel, where she helped push through a controversial plan that lengthened the school day for students.
“It was extremely challenging, and I loved every minute of it,” Cheatham says of her job there.
Now, the Harvard Graduate School of Education alum has helped reform how Madison’s schools try to improve. Each Madison school now has a “school improvement plan” that a group of administrators, staff and community members put together, with some guidance from the district
What Cheatham has done — or at least started to do — is to make sure each school develops and follows through on those plans, tracking their performance with data along the way and providing clear expectations for schools.
“I was hearing from our teachers, our principals, our parents was that our expectations were unclear in our school district, and that made it hard for good people to do their best work,” Cheatham says.
And so far, most community leaders remain upbeat about Cheatham’s job performance.
“She’s done a good job — can’t say she hasn’t,” says Kaleem Caire, president of the One City Early Learning Centers. “And she’s been diligent. She works herself to death, and her team spent a lot of time on [her efforts]. You’ve got to recognize what we see now is progress.”
Or, as school board member Dean Loumos phrased it, “I think we’ve got a good one.”
Cheatham’s interest in teaching started when she saw her older brother struggle in school.
“It was through him that I figured out that not all people have the experience in school that I did,” Cheathamtold Brava Magazine in 2013. “I think we all have people in our lives we look up to, who we know are bright, and it doesn’t make sense that they are not thriving in school. That’s a lot of why I became a teacher.”
After Cheatham got her master’s from the University of Michigan, the suburban Chicago native looked for teaching jobs in the city. But the district wasn’t hiring — especially English teachers — so she set off to Newark, California to get her start in the classroom.
She hasn’t forgotten her experiences in the classroom, at times referring to them during school board meetings.
“I would say that my teacher roots have been a theme throughout my career,” Cheathamtold Isthmus in 2013. “I loved being a teacher. I became a professional developer and coach because I loved working with teachers, supporting them in doing their best work.”
While teaching in Newark for a few years, Cheatham won a teacher of the year award and mentored other teachers. And she began to work on school reform efforts, leading an initiative in the district that improved middle and high school education.
That work led her to a larger reform group in the San Francisco area, where she says she got a crash course in tackling the achievement gap.
“We were learning how to challenge assumptions, strengthen core instruction and accelerate the learning of students who were traditionally underperforming,” Cheatham says. “So very quickly, I got immersed in deep learning about what it takes to help every child achieve. It started there, very early in my career.”
A few jobs and a Harvard degree later, Cheatham returned to Chicago to help lead one the district’s geographical areas — and then got promoted to chief of instruction for the whole district.
That job put Cheatham in the middle of some high-profile battles, from the district’s efforts to measure teacher performance through student test scores to its push to lengthen the school day.
Even a top official with the teacher’s union, which fought back against those efforts, complimented Cheatham when she got hired for the Madison job. Carol Caref, who led the research section for the union, told the Wisconsin State Journalthat Cheatham is “very knowledgeable and well educated and familiar with issues in education” but that she picked the wrong side: the one “promoting so-called reforms.”
But Cheatham picked up a supporter in David Vitale, the president of Chicago’s Board of Education, who often clashes with the teacher’s union.
“Her knowledge is first rate,” Vitale told the State Journal. “But what I liked about Jen is that she had a great manner about her. She’s a great listener, she doesn’t turn people off. She presents to them in a way that’s not authoritarian or dictatorial but substantive.”
It’s that same ability to listen that community leaders give in saying they like Cheatham.
Michael Johnson, the president and CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County, gave one example: Cheatham’s response to the officer-involved shooting of 19-year-old Tony Robinson. As soon as she heard of students walking out of school to protest his death, Cheatham began “communicating almost simultaneously with community leaders,” Johnson says.
“She’s accessible, she’s always looking for feedback and she’s been easy to work with,” Johnson says.
Or there’s the example offered by Peng Her of the Hmong Education Council of Madison, who says after years of him trying to get Madison’s superintendents to do it, Cheatham was willing to separate Hmong students’ scores from other Asian students. That, he says, has helped him better understand how exactly Hmong students are struggling in school
Cheatham is “exactly on target” and has “earned people’s trust,” says Madeline Hafner, the Madison-based executive director of the Minority Student Achievement Network, a coalition of school districts across the country that try to tackle the achievement gap.
“She’s come in with a terrific set of skills to listen and she has responded, I think, to what the district needed, which was some alignment,” Hafner says.
That alignment came with Cheatham’s strategic framework for the district that she compiled after hearing from community members. While it gives schools flexibility in their decisions, Cheatham says the plan sets “some very clear parameters” and expectations from the district.
“We’ve had far too much autonomy [for schools], which is why we haven’t [gotten] the kind of results that we need to get,” Cheatham says.
Yet the strategic framework is an example, community leaders say, of Cheatham’s dual approach of listening to community discussions but ensuring the district takes action. That’s an approach that Cheatham laid out herself, saying many school districts “often do one or the other.”
“[Some districts] have all these conversations about race and culture, but they’re not actually expecting anybody to put anything into action,” Cheatham says. “So all you do is have these good conversations for a while — good and hard conversations — that can become really frustrating when you’re not actually seeing any action take place. … What we’re trying to do is both.”
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