Commentary: What Happens Now?

By Derrell Connor Special To Channel 3000

The Madison Metropolitan School District administration and board missed a golden and unique opportunity on Dec. 19 when they voted 2?5 in opposition to Madison Prep, a charter school proposed by the Urban League of Greater Madison.

Many of the people in attendance at the Memorial High School auditorium who spoke out in support of the proposal also shared their personal and sometimes painful stories about their children?s experiences growing up in Madison, as well as their own. Some African-American parents spoke about how they and their children felt that the expectations for them were much lower than for their white peers, while others spoke about how they and their children had to leave Madison to gain the best educational experience possible. One woman even said that she would love to have her daughter and grandchildren living here in Madison instead of Houston, Texas, but knows that they are thriving and would have better opportunities there than here.

Those statements are alarming and disturbing.

In a city that prides itself as diverse, liberal, inclusive and one of the best places to live in America, those statements as well as what happened at the last MMSD School Board meeting should serve as a wake-up call for all of us.

For many who live in this community, it is a great place. Good area, good schools, nice neighborhoods, prestigious university and relatively low crime and unemployment.

But for many others, it?s the opposite. Poverty, high unemployment, homelessness, high-crime neighborhoods, a growing gang problem, soaring incarceration rates, embarrassingly low graduation rates and an achievement gap that continues to get wider every year.

Some have chosen to bury their heads in the sand and ignore the problems, while others have been oblivious to them. For years, people have spoken of two Madisons: The one that is full of opportunities for middle-class to well-to-do whites. The other for everyone else. That evidence was on full display on Dec. 19.

I believe that Superintendent Dan Nerad and the school board members who voted no to Madison Prep (except for Ed Hughes) never fully understood what was at stake. They never looked at the big picture. There was a real opportunity to connect with a section of a community that had never been fully engaged, who up until now had felt like their voices had not been heard.

That?s why, as I wrote in my last column, it was important that the Urban League, the Madison Prep Board and the MMSD administration and board come to the table and figure out how to make Madison Prep work. Many of the reasons for voting no — the administration fees, the oversight and accountability, the current contract, etc. — could have been discussed and worked out behind closed doors.

As for the non-instrumentality issue, that also could have been negotiated into a new contract for 2013. But none of that happened, and it?s a shame as well as embarrassing.

It makes one wonder if Madison Prep would have ever been approved under the best of circumstances. But it doesn?t matter now. What?s done is done. The question is: now that the proposal has been voted down, what happens next?

For the Urban League of Greater Madison and the Madison Prep board, the plan is to move forward with opening Madison Prep in the fall of 2012 as an independent charter school.

As for the MMSD, they will unveil a plan next month to address the achievement gap, as well as the creation of a minority achievement officer, a chief diversity officer and an African-American parent liaison. There will be a lot of pressure on both the MMSD and Madison Prep to succeed.

We as a community have to roll up our sleeves, become involved and do whatever possible to make sure that both are serving the students that need help the most, and that they are held accountable if they fail. The future of our kids depends on it. And the stakes could not be higher.