Neil Heinen

Heinen: An appreciation for Jen Cheatham

Cheatham is leaving Madison in August

Several days after Madison Metropolitan School District Superintendent Jen Cheatham announced her resignation, I was out on my daily walk with the dog when I encountered a fellow dog walker I see occasionally. Claire was just finishing up her last year of student teaching in a Madison elementary school. As speculation about the reasons for Cheatham's decision were running wild, I asked Claire what she was hearing from other teachers at her school. Not much, she said. Most of the teachers had not met Cheatham. What talk there was, she said, was about how hard it must be for Cheatham to take her son out of school as he was doing so well. 

The contrast was just striking. So much of the immediate public response to Cheatham's announcement was weighed down with rumors and innuendo; some of it pretty nasty stuff. And here was a future teacher, talking to other teachers doing the hard work in our schools, and whose reaction was concern for Cheatham the mom.

My appreciation for Cheatham is similarly broad in scope, certainly much broader than the typical public perceptions portrayed in the media — social and otherwise. As I have gotten to know her, I have grown increasingly impressed with her as an educator and a leader, and even more impressed with her as a person. I don't expect Cheatham's critics or mine to agree with the first half of that equation. That's OK. We can respectfully disagree. Besides, it's the second half that matters most to me, and on that I don't care what anyone else thinks. 

My impressions of Cheatham are drawn from five years of formal interviews, informal conversations and observations in a variety of places under a variety of circumstances. I have been impressed with her honesty, intelligence, compassion, strength and vulnerability. Interestingly it was a discussion of vulnerability — an asset most folks fail to understand or appreciate in Cheatham — which deepened my respect for her. Recognizing and accepting our own individual vulnerabilities, she argued, was essential to changing how we view the very difficult challenges of educating our children, supporting families and caring about each other. If we're ever going to heal the racial divide, we must accept the fact we are going to feel very uncomfortable and vulnerable at times. I'm hard pressed to think of other public leaders so in touch with their basic humanity that they can admit to feeling vulnerable, to say nothing of recognizing its value.

Cheatham is criticized for top-down management. Her Strategic Framework — that's right "her" Strategic Framework — for the success of every child, was the most comprehensive. It was the most research-grounded blueprint for district-wide excellence I've encountered in more than 40 years of writing about Madison schools. 

No superintendent will ever win the approval of every teacher or staff member. However, Cheatham won more approval from both groups than any of the previous seven or so superintendents I've covered. Those who did not approve made themselves heard. But dig a little deeper and the respect and appreciation was easy to uncover. 

Perhaps most critically, Cheatham enjoyed the support and affection of a remarkable group of civic leaders. Centro Hispano Executive Director Karen Menendez Coller, Urban League of Greater Madison President and CEO Ruben Anthony, Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce President Zach Brandon, United Way of Dane County President and CEO Renee Moe, Madison College President Jack E. Daniels, 100 Black Men of Madison President Floyd Rose and Bishop Harold Rayford, shared with Cheatham a sense of collaboration and collective vision built on earned trust and commitment. They believed in Cheatham's long-term, passionate, no-excuses, risk-taking strategy for the success of every child. 

If we as a community can build on that strategy, Cheatham's six years here will be remembered as the foundation of that success. If not, we will miss her more than we know.

Six Years of 100state
Given this magazine was one of the earliest supporters and partners with 100state, it's hard to believe Madison's first coworking community is celebrating its sixth anniversary. 100state, which is now two moves removed from its original home at 100 State St., is now Wisconsin's largest coworking community with growing influence on the startup scene now energizing the Madison economy. With more than 1,000 members and almost $75 million in funding raised by member-run companies, 100state's future looks bright. Happy birthday.

Exact Sciences Discovery Campus
Congratulations are also due to Madison's Exact Sciences on the grand opening of its new Discovery Campus on Madison's southwest side. The biotechnology company's growth will have significant and intentionally inclusive impact on Madison's economy. But more important, it will save lives. The new, 169,000-square-foot clinical laboratory will allow Exact Sciences to process 7 million Cologuard colon cancer detection tests a year. As president and CEO Kevin Conroy claims, Madison, Wisconsin, is the home of earlier cancer detection.


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