Madison public schools in midst of transition

With less drama, better data and a determined new superintendent, Madison schools forge ahead
Madison public schools in midst of transition
Photo by Sharon Vanorny.

By Mary Erpenbach

Good stories often start in the middle.

We thought of this when setting out to report on Madison schools. Transitions are interesting because they are nothing if not revealing. And Madison public schools are nowhere if not in transition.

The question is, though, in transition from what … and to what?

If you think you know, any number of people stand ready to disagree with you. Teachers, administrators, think-tank denizens, politicians, principals, policy consultants, students, parents, step-parents, grandparents, union members, technology gurus, nonprofit directors, print and broadcast and online pontificators, software salesmen, corporate executives, city residents, suburban observers, business owners, child development experts, civic and community leaders, and elected and appointed officials in units of government from here to Washington, D.C. … all have weighed in about public education in Madison, and few of them agree with more than a handful of any others.

Intrigued, we step into this high-stakes scrum to ask teachers, parents, school officials and others a seemingly basic question: What is really going on in Madison public schools these days?


Our status update on Madison schools begins at the conveniently named Black Hawk Middle School on Madison’s north side. Like all public middle schools in the city right now, it’s filled with students metamorphosing through adolescence, midway into grades four-year-old kindergarten through twelve, at about the halfway mark of the current school year. Principal Sean Storch ticks off a nearly continuous cycle of change as he answers the “from what” part of our question.

“It’s been a challenge to maintain our focus as we’ve moved through four superintendents in four years,” he says. “In the past four years, too, every year we have built a new system or component or practice into our school, and that’s also very hard work. And we have many new staff on board—a new psychologist, a new dean of students, nineteen staff members overall, who are new within the past three years.”

Out of forty-five. That’s more than a forty-percent turnover in thirty-six months. At the same time, Storch says more students have been entering school with increasingly dire needs that go beyond academic instruction. In addition, an increasing number of students who were doing okay have suffered setbacks of some sort and are now in greater need of both academic and non-academic support. Storch also reports a greater breadth and depth of said needs caused by family stress, homelessness, hunger and other factors..

“The needs of our students are increasing,” says Storch. “We have a hunch that the past three to four years of recession have had a pretty tough impact on our families. Food stamps are being reduced, and the sequester has had an impact on our community. We don’t have a specific way of measuring it, but we feel that our kids are coming to us having experienced more home stress than in past years due to the economic recession.”

Madison is still churning out National Merit Scholars and still scoring well when it comes to college admission tests, in a state that leads or almost leads every annual national ACT ranking. It still offers an above-average number of advanced placement courses and a dizzying array of educational enhancement programs. Its teachers are still represented by an effective union, and the district still has a contract with its teachers and other personnel. In these and other respects, much of what the Madison school district has long been known for is still true.

And it is still true that parents are quick to praise their own children’s schools. Here’s a sampling of what we’ve heard from parents of school kids across the district:

“We entered the Madison public school district in 2011,” says Kerry Zaleski, whose son is in a 4K class and stepdaughter in the third grade, both at Lowell Elementary School. “The teachers we have are superb and we love Lowell.”

“My oldest son attended private school from 4K through eighth grade, so his first exposure to public education was as a freshman at Memorial,” says Marv Turner. “He is currently a junior there and we couldn’t be more pleased with how things are going. He has encountered teachers who are caring and responsive, a guidance counselor who has gone above and beyond in reaching out and a safe learning environment. We are truly impressed with Memorial.”

“My youngest is a handful. When he got to the second grade, I told [the principal] he needed the strongest second-grade teacher in the school, which he got,” says Bonnie Scales, who has two sons at Glenn Stephens Elementary School. “I also put him in karate and hired a tutor. And so second grade for him has been great. I had a relationship with his teacher from the beginning, which is important, and I have a relationship with the whole school staff.”

“My daughter is coming home with math work that I have to Google to check; her teachers have been just excellent, and she’s getting a really good education,” says Nancy Wettersten, whose daughter is in the second grade at Olson Elementary School.

“People take for granted what amazing educations kids get in these schools,” says Michele Doolan, who has two older children in the Middleton schools and a son in 4K at Chávez Elementary School. “My stepdaughter graduated from a high school in Las Vegas where they have an overall graduation rate of fifty percent. If anyone thinks the schools are terrible here, I tell them they have no idea what ‘terrible’ really is.”

Nevertheless, some aspects of Madison schools—what they are and what they do—have been changing to adapt to needs that will surprise anyone who hasn’t been in a school lately.

“We have a tremendous number of students with increasing mental health needs,” says Arlene Silveira, the longest-serving member of the Madison Metropolitan School District Board of Education. “That is not completely the role of the district to deal with—that is also a community role that needs to be addressed—but it adds to the whole array of kids that need different levels of help and support from the schools.”

Other needs can be as basic as a need for food. Back at Black Hawk, for example, the school now provides no-charge dinners, in addition to free or reduced-cost breakfast and lunch, for some students. The kids need the help of after-school academic programs held at their schools, which in turn stretches their days into the evening and triggers the need for an after-school snack and then dinner.

And Black Hawk is not the only school doing this. Bruce Dahmen, principal of Memorial High School, reports that his school served 8,200 dinners, from 5 to 6 p.m., four days a week, to students during the last school year. “As our needs change, I just look at it and say ‘I don’t feel comfortable’ when I see a young person who is involved in an after-school program and may not have a meal until the next morning,” Dahmen says. “I think that’s one more way that we, as schools, are opening our doors so that kids who are staying here and doing homework when they need to do homework, or are taking advantage of doing research in the library media center, get what they need.”

In the meantime, schools throughout the district are adjusting to life under Jennifer Cheatham, the fourth of the four-superintendents-in-four-years that Storch mentioned. Storch says her leadership has brought “remarkable clarity and focus” to the work of the schools. This is even more important than it might otherwise be, he notes, because Black Hawk and all Madison schools are set to undergo the implementation of several new state education initiatives. These include a new Educator Effectiveness System, which is already being run as a pilot program at Black Hawk. Two other major initiatives are the Smarter Balanced Assessment, which will replace the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam, and the Common Core State Standards, a national program that many states, including Wisconsin, have adopted (read more on Common Core in Madison schools here). All three initiatives are mandated to be up and running in Wisconsin schools starting next year.