About 100 parents of Madison schoolchildren looked toward a longtime superintendent on Saturday for answers on how to fix the achievement gap plaguing the district.
Paul Vallas, the superintendent of the Bridgeport, Conn., school district, previously led New Orleans schools during the recovery after Hurricane Katrina. The Boys and Girls Club of Dane County brought him to La Follette High School to help answer questions about the shortcomings of Madison schools.
Parents asked questions on several topics, but mostly focused on the minority achievement gap.
"They want perfection, and the achievement gap is that one big hurdle that they're struggling to get over," Vallas said in an interview after the two-and-a-half hour town hall. "This is a community that cares and sometimes when people care strong enough and have different viewpoints they have a tendency to shout at each other."
A number of school board members, including board president James Howard, attended the town hall. Outgoing superintendent Dan Nerad was also there.
Some parents, such as Jacquelyn Hunt, said their frustration comes from a wide range of issues, from drugs and gangs to early childhood development. Hunt has nine kids and grandkids in Madison schools.
"Some of the things that I see are alarming," she said. "I just want to help come up with some solutions. We come to the table and we talk about it, but we need to (think) practically about some solutions and get some work done."
Hunt said she was alarmed when one of her daughters went from kindergarten through 12th grade without seeing a male teacher or a black teacher.
"My kids want to see teachers who look like them and who they feel they can relate to," Hunt said. "I have to be optimistic, I have to be believe. I just have to believe."
Vallas advocated for school districts to hire more elite minority teachers by recruiting them from minority universities, even if that means looking out of state. He also said schools should overhaul their standardized tests and increase the amount of classroom time.
Nerad's proposal to lengthen the school day in Madison has been delayed for now, as he slashed the cost of his achievement gap plan in half in hopes of winning the school board's approval as part of the budget process. Nerad's plan, which the board must consider before June 18, includes increasing the literacy rate and adding mentoring programs.
Kaleem Caire, chief executive of the Urban League of Greater Madison and the leading advocate of a charter school, sat on a panel asking questions of Vallas. Vallas, like Caire, has advocated for charter schools in the past, and his visit earned criticism from some who called his work anti-union, WISC-TV reported.
Vallas said Nerad was a good leader, and that the time will soon come to rally around one plan to bridge the achievement gap.
"Sometimes you have to close ranks and you have to move forward," he said. "With the controversies and the debates going on statewide, sometimes these reform efforts become a victim of the larger debate that has nothing to do with what's going on here in Madison."