City Life

Leading a community through change in the schools

Q&A with Madison schools superintent Cheatham

The district is in its fourth year of the strategic framework initiated by Madison schools superintendent Jennifer Cheatham and her team when she started with the district. The following is an excerpt of a recent interview with the superintendent.

How do you feel about where the district is regarding the strategic framework?
I think we’ve made really excellent progress over the last few years. Improving student achievement in many areas, and in this last year, beginning to narrow gaps in achievement. I think that we have some proof that the strategy that we’ve put into action is producing the results that we desire. So that energizes me. And I think that it energizes our team.

What are some of the things you’re most proud of?
I’m very proud of the more disciplined way of working we’ve established as a school system. We believe that you don’t raise student achievement and narrow gaps without working in a highly disciplined way that allows you to make better decisions on behalf of children every day, all day long.

I am also very proud of what we’re doing as a group of professional educators. I think we’ve embraced a strategy that is not only disciplined, but embraces the idea that we need to deepen our professional knowledge and expertise around what great teaching looks like in the classroom. Especially great teaching in an urban environment; great teaching that is culturally and linguistically responsive and meets the needs of all children.

And I think the last thing that I’m most proud of is our relentless focus on racial equity. I think that we have identified some problems and not backed away from grappling with those problems and taking action.

Have you experienced any pushback?
I’ve been reflecting on this a lot lately. What does it mean to lead an organization and really, a community, through change? I have learned that it is incredibly important to get multiple perspectives, especially from the people who are doing the work, and using those perspectives to make better decisions. Sometimes those are hard to hear. But I need to hear them. I think that I’ve been learning that people aren’t resistant to change but are resistant to loss. So when I hear people showing resistance, I find myself wanting to understand more about why. Usually I find that there’s some loss that comes with the change. I want to help people through that.

And I’m learning about what it means to help people through a sustained period of disequilibrium. Once you begin this change process, it’s really hard to go backward. You can only move forward, I think. So how do you create a space for people to work through that change? I guess I’m admitting there has been resistance to some of the change. But I think we’re learning how to help each other through it.

Where are some of the areas you had hoped you’d be farther along?
My goodness. I want more in every area. If I had to narrow it down to a couple areas, I want to make more progress on ensuring that all of our students feel a sense of belonging in school. I don’t think you can achieve in school if you don’t feel like you belong there, that you’re a full member of that learning community.

We’ve seen some evidence that some of our students, African American students in particular, don’t feel that sense of belonging at the same rates as other students. I want to make more progress in that area.

The second area that’s been keeping me up at night are our most at-risk students. We’ve been heavily focused on creating more instructional coherence, which will mean fewer students falling through the cracks. But every day we’ve got students who are on the verge of not graduating, maybe who’ve dropped out, who have entered the judicial system. I want to make more progress on tightening those systems so that we can meet the needs of our most at-risk students.

The district has conducted climate surveys [based on patterns of experiences in school life] for the past two years, with families, students and staff responding. What have the results shown?
Now that we have two years of climate survey results, this year schools will be setting goals to improve school climate for the first time. So we’re excited about seeing what will happen this year. And overall, I think the climate survey data has given us a richer perspective on how people are experiencing their schools.

On the positive side, we’ve been pleased to see parents’ overall reaction to our school climate, specifically around family engagement. On the concern side, what stood out to us most were perceptions related to bullying in school, which is a national phenomenon. We wanted to learn more about it and strengthen our strategy for addressing bullying in our school district.

This Q&A is part of a special report published with support from Madison Gas and Electric and Summit Credit Union.

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