2015 Report: The State of our Schools

In this third State of Our Schools report,...
2015 Report: The State of our Schools
Safe place: Eighth-grader Kenya Hardin feels welcomed in the office of her principal, Deborah Ptak of Annie Greencrow Whitehorse Middle School.

Kenya Hardin and Jateona Howard file into Deborah Ptak’s office with a familiarity that shows they’re not intimidated by this setting. Ptak is their principal at Annie Greencrow Whitehorse Middle School, and her office is a welcoming spot. It’s where these eighth-grade girls recently threw a birthday party for their social worker Kaitlin Hardin (no relation to Kenya) and playfully shoved a piece of cake into her face. Both principal and social worker embraced the prank as a positive sign that the girls, who are African American, feel secure within the school’s walls, where just ten out of forty teachers are faculty members of color. These girls say they once felt unsafe and invisible in a predominantly white school. But with new goals put in place that emphasize academic equity, such as striving for a mix in the racial and ethnic makeup of each classroom, the school has created a learning environment that promotes inclusiveness. The girls say they no longer feel invisible, and in fact, they say they feel protected in the presence of the entire Whitehorse staff.

Whitehorse, like many schools in the Madison Metropolitan School District, has created goals that recognize and validate the cultural heritage of its students and has incorporated them into its individualized school improvement plan. The improvement plan, drafted individually by every Madison school, is one component of the district’s three-part strategic framework designed to close the achievement gap and give all students access to a quality education in a supportive environment. The way Ptak sees it, all kids of color enter any school and experience a range of inequity, from overt racism to implicit bias, all of which can set back their desire to learn. Or snuff it out completely. Ptak says that African American kids have a different kind of experience than other racial groups when it comes to education. She says they enter school expecting the most overt form of racism, and are often met with it. The comfort level in her office shown by the eighth-grade girls, whether they are there to share a problem or to throw a birthday party, is anecdotal evidence that, at least in this school, things are changing.

In this third State of Our Schools report, Madison Magazine looks at one area of MMSD’s strategic framework known as “excellence with equity.” In its 2014-15 strategic framework annual report, the district listed excellence with equity as one of its three core values. The framework itself is comprised of three categories: the school improvement plan, common learning and five priority areas. Those five priority areas are coherent instruction; personalized pathways; family, youth and community engagement; thriving workforce; and accountability and school support system. Excellence with equity is an effort that permeates all categories of the framework. This story explores the status of the district’s equity goals by focusing on Annie Greencrow Whitehorse Middle School and Lapham Elementary School and their improvement plans. Each of MMSD’s forty-nine schools–thirty-two elementary, twelve middle and five high schools–and the Innovative and Alternative Education Program designs its improvement plans based on key baseline measurements in certain areas. Since the launch of its strategic framework in 2013, the district says it has improved student scores in math and reading for fifth- and eighth-graders. In the 2014-15 school year, these two grades scored above the national average in seven of eight categories. With fifty being the national percentile average, fifth-graders in the district scored seventy-three in math growth and eighty-three in reading growth while eighth-graders in the district scored seventy in math growth and sixty in reading proficiency.

Alongside the district, Whitehorse has also moved the academic needle in certain areas. In the 2014-15 school year, the school surpassed its “all-student growth goal” for math, set at sixty-eight percent, by reaching sixty-nine percent. Plus, Latino students achieved a seventy-three percent growth in math, seven points beyond the school’s goal for Latino students of sixty-six percent. And while the reading proficiency goal for African American students was set at a low six percent, they made it to eleven percent. Not all goals were met, but progress continues.

“The message the kids whose families immigrated to the United States get is this [school] is your ticket to prosperity and freedom,” says Ptak. “They’re armed with knowing things are going to look different, social norms are different; the kids come in knowing this. But our African American students are coming into our schoolhouse with this layer of distrust; look at the history of what we have or have not done for African Americans who did not come here by choice. They are expecting to be ‘other,’ expecting to be called out for being loud and beautiful and boisterous. This is the reality they move in. So, what specific and deliberate actions can I take to say to them, ‘I see you, I see you in a way that’s powerful, capable, beautiful?'”

One way has been to create an environment in which students see their cultures and the impact reflected in their educators, so the district is working toward hiring more people of color. As of December 2015, Whitehorse had ten staff members of color out of seventy-three, but the district plans to increase that number through the Grow Your Own Program, a national initiative designed to help academic support staff of color advance into a teaching spot. She is also working to ensure that cultural diversity is reflected in the school’s curriculum.

“We’ve been very intentional about making sure that when we talk about history, we’re talking about history that’s accurate,” says Ptak. “When we’re giving you choices for what poems you can read or what novel you can read, we’re making sure there are a lot of options that reflect you and where you come from, the color of your skin, the texture of your hair, the choices you make and the food you eat.”

In 2007, Ptak arrived as principal at Whitehorse, located on Madison’s east side, ready to work on creating an equitable learning environment. In 1987, as a University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Social Work student, Ptak authored the first MMSD achievement gap report commissioned by the National Urban League as an attempt to support floundering African American students. Then she moved to Baltimore, where, as a school social worker, she witnessed what urban white flight to private schools did to African American kids who stayed put and were educated by largely African American teachers. They thrived. This begged the question: Why did they not thrive attending primarily white schools?

When she returned to Madison, Ptak found the achievement gap here had not narrowed since she left in the late 1980s.

“I came back here with that journey and knowledge and was stunned for lack of real progress that had been made,” says Ptak. “So I began asking, why have we not changed this system when we have so much knowledge and resources, why aren’t we doing the hard work?” As the assistant principal at Sennett Middle School, Ptak observed and studied trends until she felt ready to take on a school of her own.

What Ptak found at Whitehorse was “very caring teachers and a neighborhood family feel of pride in the school.” Yet, she says, the facility did not provide the tools that teachers needed in the classroom, nor did it have the kind of nurturing environment where kids could learn and be engaged. So the first thing she tackled was making improvements to the facility and creating a culturally sensitive environment with the expectation that every kid can learn.

Using a method adopted districtwide in the last two years, Ptak gathered data to inform her decision-making process, and she shared that data with the teachers. She collected information that showed time out of class, which students were getting referred out of class and for what reasons and what type of discipline they received. “In those days, we were talking about discipline and not engagement. And I provided the instructional minutes that were being lost [from disciplining students].” Three years into data gathering, Ptak got rid of the in-school suspension room.

The staff also went through professional development training, another tool that is now used districtwide to keep schools on track with their improvement plans. The staff came up with a mission statement and worked to establish strong relationships with students and families, and to “not be in reactive crisis mode, but proactive teaching mode.”

Then in 2013, Jennifer Cheatham came on board as the superintendent of MMSD and immediately began addressing the racial achievement gap. The graduation rate for kids of color was forty-eight percent, compared with eighty-seven percent for white kids in 2010. Cheatham came from the highly diverse and challenging Chicago public schools system, the third-largest school district in the U.S. Her experience there helped her build a strategy for equity for Madison schools, a district with gross academic disparities as documented and published in the 2013 Race to Equity Report authored by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families.

Defining Success

Cheatham also introduced a common approach that includes professional learning districtwide. One of the district’s barriers to success, she says, is that for many years it hadn’t defined what great teaching looks like from classroom to classroom and school to school. Great teaching, she says, includes giving teachers and administrators flexibility and creativity.

“We’ve been working on building everyone’s capacity to see what teaching looks like when it’s culturally responsive,” says Cheatham. “And, what does it look like when it’s linguistically responsive–we have a lot of language needs in our schools.”

By the time Cheatham rolled out her strategic framework, Whitehorse staff members were ripe for change. They had already spent extensive time defining what a professional educator is and what collaborative work looks like, plus developing the tools. But what Cheatham and her team brought to the Whitehorse staff was a definition of what “teacher teaming” looks like.

“At the same time she brought in the school improvement plan process that was intentional and data-driven,” says Ptak. “She brought in this structure for how teachers team and do their work together, and she created a tiered leadership structure within schools called the School Based Leadership Team, or SBLT, the team that pulls all of the stakeholders together and meets on a regular basis to monitor the [school improvement plan] in each building. That’s the key.”

This helped the Whitehorse staff take targeted steps in each of the improvement plan categories. According to Ptak, you can’t develop your action steps unless you’re looking at your data and seeing where you need to focus your energy to improve.

“Our work is so complex and so vast you can get lost in it, and you can do all kinds of stuff and not do any of it well, so this process is what [Cheatham] calls a ‘laser lens focus’ on those high-leverage actions that will lead to improvement,” says Ptak. “For my school, we’re focusing on writing because our students are not good writers, regardless of their race or culture, so we’re focused on writing, journaling and writing Standard 4, a Common Core standard of writing.”

Ptak develops her goals with the belief that when you honor students and see them for who they are, listen intently with empathy and couple that with high expectations and repeated messages, you can nurture a culture of inclusiveness and a safe and peaceful climate. She links the inclusive culture with student behavior. “Our middle school is the school with the lowest rate of referrals of students out of class,” says Ptak.

A Focus on Families

New to Whitehorse is Kimberly A. Robinson, the family liaison coordinator. This is Robinson’s second year in this new position, and through it she has helped families of color feel more comfortable navigating a once highly inaccessible education system for people who often feel disenfranchised.

Liana Diaz is a bilingual resource specialist. She interprets, translates and makes sure students understand language, culture and curriculum in the classroom. Three years ago, when Diaz came to Whitehorse, there was no Latino parent involvement, she says. They did not come to meetings or understand the language. They felt lost and forgotten. Then Diaz told them she would be a voice for them, but they had to show up. Like Robinson, Diaz supports parents by helping them navigate the system she once navigated without support through community resources. Diaz, coworkers and ESL staff developed courses for parents, peer-to-peer mentoring (specifically for Latinos) and have “lunch-ins” with Latino guest speakers to provide cultural awareness.

“I find various ways to reach out to them,” says Diaz. “One of the tools I’ve been using has been texting. I remind them, tell them the importance of being here. One of my secret weapons is student leaders. I get them on board to plan academic seminars for parents or cultural lunches.”

Closing the Gap

To help close the cultural achievement gap, Diaz developed a curriculum the students named Youth United For a Better Future. The program is a homework club for Latino students (but will be open to students of other races in the future) through which students agree to be placed on contracts for learning. If they receive below average scores in a core subject area, the contract goes to the principal, teachers and families. This allows the school and families to monitor the student’s progress in a collaborative fashion. Since it was implemented in January 2014, the district says seventy-three percent of Hispanic students at Whitehorse reached their math growth goal, compared to sixty-one percent the previous year. So more students were meeting their goals for math and exceeded the school’s goal of sixty-six percent.

Oscar Mireles, Madison’s first Latino poet laureate and director of Omega School, an alternative high school through which students can learn and complete their general education diploma or high school equivalency diploma, says he already sees change for Latino families throughout the district. He says the MMSD strategic framework outlines a structure for diversity and equity that provides steps for support and guidance at the local level.

“I have been at recent events, including the multicultural night at Hawthorne Elementary and Madison East High School Latino Club’s Noche en Mexico, which showcased this effort,” says Mireles. “There is now a willingness to work with diverse children and their parents by bringing them in and respecting their cultures, as well as making families feel welcome at their children’s school.”

Whitehorse has built into its improvement plan a method to analyze achievement for Spanish-speaking students. It also has support systems in place, such as Youth United For a Better Future plus an active and engaged Latino advisory council and a website written in Spanish.

Ptak credits the improvement plan for much of the success. She says it has allowed the staff to dig deep on root causes of why students weren’t excelling and provides a way to track academic performance more effectively.

For students like eighth-grader Jateona Howard, who felt comfortable enough to participate in pranking her social worker, the supportive environment for academic equity is working at Whitehorse. “African American people were not really accepted,” says Jateona, referring to her previous school in Milwaukee. “So for schools to change like that, that we feel comfortable with teachers who are not our color, it’s kind of amazing.”

Social Studies

At Lapham Elementary, in downtown Madison, little feet dart to lockers at 2:20 p.m. as kids get ready for a hallway dance, a one-day celebration as part of a once-a-month all-school celebration. Some children shyly clap in glee while others move to the rhythm pounded out in what sounds like the chicken dance.

Kyle Koenig’s second-graders, the school’s upperclassmen, are a little too cool for this school event, so they hang back in the classroom, getting ready for what Koenig calls a community circle. This is a time for students to share a positive event that happened during their day. Sometimes it’s something as simple as being included in a game or getting a new book at the library. But sometimes they express an important emotional event. Koenig also conducts the circle in the morning and says the kids who miss the morning session are visibly disconnected throughout the day. “It’s an empowering experience,” he says. “We start our day together and we end our day together. I really try to [build] in enough time to do it because I can see how much the kids care about it.”

This practice is part of the school’s focus on social-emotional learning for students and teachers. It coincides with other mindful practices like giving the kids a brain break at key times of the day. Social-emotional learning is one of six goals laid out in Lapham’s school improvement plan. Data from the school show that gains have been made.

Since the strategic framework was implemented, almost every elementary school student group, including Latino students and African American students, have had nearly ten-point gains in reading and math proficiency (see annual report data for fifth grade).

2015 Report: The State of our Schools

The folks at Lapham feel strongly that their social-emotional learning strategies have helped them improve. This year the staff collectively defined equity to create a shared understanding about what it means. The district works with the National Equity Project and has a leadership institute four times a year. Lapham staff members use what they learn from the National Equity Project to carve out next steps for the school. Meanwhile, the school is making changes to raise its own equity standards.

Two years ago, during principal Tammy Thompson Kapp’s second year at Lapham, data showed that there were more than six hundred behavior referrals. Most of them were kindergartners who left the classroom as their coping mechanism. Thompson Kapp, the school-based leadership team and the entire staff used the data to determine how they could keep students in class and maximize learning.

“We spent the better part of the year chasing kids around, kids who learned that if things got too hard, they just fled the classroom,” she says. “As we responded to it with all different people on behavior response, there was no continuity. We didn’t have the relationship there. We didn’t have the luxury of knowing what each person did the day before consistently. So we decided last year to make adjustments so we had more consistent people on staff, because if our students’ social-emotional needs weren’t being met, they weren’t able to access academics.”

But she isn’t content waiting a whole year to dive deeper. “The first three years were a lot of learning about what all kids needed. Some important lessons were learned along the way that have helped us create the conditions for kids to have access to both academic and social-emotional experiences.”

Emotional Intelligence

Terri Belz’s job came out of that learning phase, after the school identified its need for someone to take a closer look at behavioral data. Once a part-time special education teacher, Belz was hired by Thompson Kapp this school year to be Lapham’s full-time social-emotional learning coordinator and positive behavior support coach for teachers. Thompson Kapp also hired a full-time social worker. These two full-time positions will create consistency for kids who need more social-emotional support to conquer inconsistencies. The tools Belz used when working with special-needs kids are similar to the ones she uses with the kids at Lapham, many of whom come from families dealing with homelessness or constant mobility. Her training came through personal development opportunities offered through the district.

“We decided it was important for our little students to have access to learning every day. So this position has grown,” says Belz. “What is important with social-emotional learning is to make sure that all kids know how to interact so they can stay within their classrooms, so they [aren’t] just there, but [are] engaged.”

Belz works with kids through existing programs such as “REACH,” a districtwide program that gives students an extra half hour to work on subject areas–arts, music, technology or math. Belz uses REACH time to work on social-emotional exercises, such as a schoolwide initiative called Zones of Regulation that helps kids identify their emotional responses by color. Green is where kids do their best learning, red is when they’re out of control, blue is down, low, sick or sad and yellow is in between the green and red zones.

“They’ll tell us they’re in the red zone, so they’re better able to recognize their feelings and what they can do to get back into the green zone,” says Belz, who maintains an electronic record for teachers to add their own insights about a specific child.

Woven into the social-emotional training is also calming mindfulness and yoga strategies. The school has partnered with a program called Breathe for Change, through which teachers can add a half hour of yoga per week led by Christa Peterson, a first-grade teacher and yoga instructor who completed two hundred hours of personal development training to lead the program.

“Each day we do active mindful movement–moving our bodies with breath and yoga, and we also have a CD where the students are quietly listening and feeling their breathing,” says Peterson about techniques she uses with students.

Meeting Needs

Literacy is another area Thompson Kapp had identified as needing attention in her first year at Lapham. Yet while she recognized the need to strengthen the school’s core literacy practices, she also realized that if staff were not addressing kids’ social-emotional needs, it didn’t matter how strong the literacy program was. “There are some kids who need social-emotional support, such as coping or friendship group, but we also look to address sensory needs or movement breaks as other strategies meet individual and/or group needs.

“We shifted those things around,” says Thompson Kapp. “We have an intervention time that we call WIN, which stands for ‘What I Need.’ It’s a time four days a week that is outside of core that kids get an extra dose of whatever it is they need–academics that could include enrichment or phonics for fluency or social-emotional–and we use all adults possible so that groups are small and kids are getting focused instruction.”

Through the school improvement plan, Lapham has been able to reduce the number of behavior referrals. “A unique challenge is that every fall, one-third of our kids are new to school,” says Thompson Kapp. “That’s just because they’re kindergartners. So our highest number of behavior referrals continue to be in kindergarten because those kiddos are learning school–[they’ve] never been in a full day before.” Still, the number of problem-solving situations outside the classroom is significantly less than it was two years ago because the school has shifted to problem solving in the classroom, says Thompson Kapp.

“Sometimes Terri will come in and assume the role of the teacher so the teacher can meet with the student to fix [the problem] versus someone else taking the child out and then back, and no one really knows what they did or if the child is ready,” says Thompson Kapp.

Overall, Lapham’s improvement plan has been shaped with the help of Cheatham’s leadership, says Thompson Kapp. “What she has done is set a very clear vision for the district. We have had the flexibility within parameters about what our school goal needs to be. As a team, we have a stronger voice about what this building needs, based on what our data is telling us, and we’ve become stronger advocates around what our children and families need.”

Steps in the Right Direction

In the two years since the district’s strategic framework was put into place, Cheatham can point to some districtwide improvements–mostly in the elementary schools. She says excellence with equity plays a huge role in the gains made thus far.

“We just talk about setting high expectations for every child and every adult,” says Cheatham. “Parents tend to understand that pretty quickly because they want that for their kids. Many parents in our community, especially parents of color, say we haven’t been holding their kids to high expectations. Then it resonates for people … Equity is providing what students need to be able to meet the challenge. It’s okay that it’s different from child to child.”

Some community leaders of color say the relationship the schools have forged with their communities is impressive. They also say they appreciate the partnerships that are encouraged between community organizations and schools, and how this brings everyone into larger conversations.

“These are initial steps at building trust, but with superintendent Cheatham’s leadership they are vital to the next, more comprehensive level of parent and community engagement,” says Mireles.

Karen Menendez Coller, Centro Hispano executive director, points out that these relationships add value because community organizations understand disparity and gaps through the neighborhood family side of things.

“Equity underlines everything [Cheatham is] putting out there,” says Menendez Coller. “For equity to move in the schools, it’s important to include community partners.” Menendez Coller says the strategic framework is intentionally and effectively reaching diverse populations. Along with other organizations across Madison, Centro Hispano staff members meet weekly with school administrators. Menendez Coller also regularly participates on an advisory panel. She says she thinks these efforts will pay off.

Urban League of Greater Madison CEO and president Ruben L. Anthony Jr. says he sees a proactive district that gets in front of the issues. He says Cheatham’s willingness to bring in community leaders to vet and talk about their concerns works because Cheatham listens.

“She’s transparent,” says Anthony. “When members come in and say, ‘Hey, I don’t think this is working,’ we have a discussion about it and she changes her plan.”

“I think we’re making good progress,” says Cheatham. “It’s not perfect; it never is. But in a district that pays close attention to our results along the way, when we’re not getting results in a particular area, we don’t shrug our shoulders and say, ‘That’s too bad.’ We dig into it and understand why and adjust the strategy. But overall we’re seeing positive progress and in some respects more than what we would have expected in two years’ time.”

The District’s Three Core Values:

1. Sustained focus: We must stay incredibly focused on the day-to-day work of great
teaching and learning for all students. Laundry lists of ever-evolving “initiatives” are the enemy of progress. Organizing district and community support around our schools and classrooms is the key.

2. Schools at the center: Teachers, principals and their families know their students best and have the will and skill to be successful. We must engage, affirm and empower them to solve problems together on behalf of all children.

3. Excellence with equity: We must hold all children and all adults to high expectations and provide the unique support they need to meet and exceed that high bar. With high expectations and strategic support, our students will rise to the challenge of college, career and community readiness.

Since the launch of the strategic plan two years ago:

Elementary schools continue to make progress, with nearly ten point gains on all measures over two years and improvements for almost every student group, including Latino students and African American students, since beginning work on the strategic framework.

High school graduation rates continue to move up for almost all student groups, and with pockets of accelerated results. At La Follette High School, the four-year graduation rate for African American students increased to 75.3 percent.

Based on school climate surveys, students, staff and families all ranked their schools at an average of four out of five on feeling safe at school, signaling positive perceptions of safety.

Many student groups are starting to see positive results. English language learners saw

improvement on almost every metric, from elementary reading to middle school math, to high school GPA to graduation rate.

More students than ever are taking the ACT. With participation rates 25 percent above the national average, scores are in the sixtieth percentile nationally.

The average growth in reading and math as measured by Measures of Academic Progress has increased over the past two years so that now, the district is far above the national average for growth–from the eighty-second percentile for fifth-grade reading to the seventy-third percentile for fifth-grade math to the seventieth percentile for eighth-grade math.

School Improvement Plans

To close achievement gaps and raise achievement for all children, schools must be at the center. That is why every school develops its own school improvement plan, within clearly defined parameters to fit the unique needs of the school.

School Improvement Plan Process


Plans were more focused with specific strategies for focus groups of students.

For the first year, all plans included strategies for both climate and providing students with access to a well-rounded education.

The school support system was improved, providing more targeted, specific support to schools based on their plan.

Next Steps

Schools still need greater support to plan and execute family engagement strategies.

For this coming school year, schools will set specific goals for increased access and participation in the arts, world language and advanced coursework across student groups.

Information provided by Madison Metropolitan School District.

Strategic Framework

Madison Metropolitan School District Strategic Framework is anchored to a simple

but bold vision – that every school will be a thriving school that prepares every
student to graduate from high school ready for college, career and community.
It strives to close the gaps in opportunity that lead to different
results for different children, and to be the model of what a strong, successful
public school district looks like. The framework consists of three major components:

The School Improvement Plan, which establishes the disciplined way of working necessary for each school to meet the needs of all children.

A Common Approach to Professional Learning that ensures that every educator across
all schools is knowledgeable about our district’s shared definition of great teaching that is culturally and linguistically responsive.

Five Priority Areas for central office focused on providing schools with the high quality tools and resources they need to be successful and removing institutional barriers to student success.

This special report was made possible with support from Madison Gas & Electric, Summit Credit Union, and CUNA Mutual Foundation