The Madison Metropolitan School District exemplifies the state’s poor record when it comes to the racial academic achievement gap. This gap is closely linked to socioeconomic divides in the community and will require a joint effort to overcome.
Two years in as Madison’s schools superintendent, Jennifer Cheatham is proud of what the district has done. 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, which is significantly worse than the state’s disparities.
The state of education in Madison is stuck. For the past eight to 10 years, data and test scores have consistently shown disparities between black and white students that are closely linked to socioeconomic divides. The achievement gap—a disparity in test scores between the performance of students in groups broken down by race, ethnicity, gender and socioeconomic status—is moving forward little by little in Madison but not for enough students.
Madison’s Latino and Hmong education leaders are praising the school district for a plan that they say would bring long-needed improvements to how English language learners are taught. With Carranza’s prodding, as well as a push from Hmong community leader Peng Her, the Madison Metropolitan School District has developed a bilingual education plan that would, among other policy changes, offer bilingual education to Hmong students for the first time and also expand bilingual offerings to Spanish-speaking students.
Angela Rubin’s teaching license was no good once she moved to Madison in 2007. Rubin, who moved from Brazil, couldn’t afford to keep studying and get a teaching license here, so she spent several years as a bilingual resource specialist in Madison’s school district. Then she got accepted into a new program from the district, called Grow Our Own, that helps pay for its minority staff to become teachers. Now, Rubin is certified as a teacher and is working on a bilingual teaching certification—and she just wrapped up her second year of teaching at Lincoln Elementary School.
After a rocky rollout its first year, Madison’s school district is adding staff and boosting training to help implement its new behavior policy, hoping to address safety concerns and the sentiment among teachers and staff that it’s “not working.” The goal of the policy — reducing suspensions and actually changing students’ behavior — remains the same. It’s a goal that many at the district agree with, with some saying the move away from a more punitive system would help address what they call a “school-to-prison pipeline.”
“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 at school and went on to attend college.”
Paul du Vair promised two things to parents of his students. One, he would be there to catch their kids if they fell through the cracks. And two, if those students refused to improve or accept help, he would honor their right to fail. This tough, no-nonsense attitude is emblematic of a more traditional teaching style, du Vair says, which he used and believes to be the most effective. Du Vair began teaching when he was 25 and retired at the age of 77 in 2014 as a biology teacher at East High School. He started his time at MMSD in 1964 teaching at West Junior High School.