Q&A: Reflections on the strategic framework

This Q&A is part of a special report on education
Q&A: Reflections on the strategic framework
Photo by Laura Zastrow
MMSD Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham

When Madison Metropolitan School District Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham came aboard five years ago, one of her immediate goals was to work with her team to create a strategic framework. The plan is defined by five priority areas, each designed to narrow the district’s academic achievement gap. Now that the plan will enter a new phase next year, Cheatham reflects on the framework’s successes and challenges. The following is an excerpt of a recent interview with the superintendent.

How do you feel about where the district is regarding the strategic framework?

We have a lot to be proud of. We’ve brought coherence and direction to our district, all aligned to a common vision and goals for raising student achievement and eliminating the gaps in opportunity that lead to gaps in achievement.

I think accomplishments at the elementary school level have been the strongest. They have seen the strongest progress year after year. At the secondary level, improved graduation rates are among the major highlights.

We’ve put a lot of basics into place–district-wide curriculum for literacy and math K-8; plans to ensure our students with disabilities, English language learners and advanced learners meet their full potential; technology integration to ensure access to instructional technology; academic and career plans and personalized pathways to connect our students to engaging, self-driven learning; standards for family partnerships; a new parent-teacher conference model; the launch of the community schools model; a revamped hiring process that focuses on diversifying teachers and leaders; accountability systems; and public reporting like our annual report.

How does this help set up the next phase of the framework?

We’ve created the foundation to make even more accelerated progress in the future. We believe that it is time for better, vastly better results for our students of color–results that reflect their inherent strengths and capabilities.

And it’s not just about improving test scores, but striving for deeper learning, ensuring students have the experiences that genuinely put them back on track to be successful.

The main thing I want to do is listen and learn from our community. Through the fall, we held more than 50 sessions to gain our community’s insight into the future.

Soon we will release a report on what we’ve learned and our next steps in the planning process. I want to ensure that our framework reflects the experiences, insights and expertise of those we serve.

Why do you see culturally responsive teaching, or CRT, as a necessary step?

When we initially crafted the strategic framework, we knew from the beginning that CRT was the heart of great teaching. CRT practices have always been fundamental.

We wanted to look at it with razor-like focus. We wanted to study all of the collective experts to learn how to help students. We knew that we could probe more deeply into what it means to use the CRT approach, how that can help students and parents, and to learn ways to be responsive to all.

Ultimately, I think strong relationship building between teachers and students allows students to dive into the material. With this particular focus, more and more children can take on challenging material.
In the last 15 to 20 years, the demographics of the student body have changed quite a bit. So we have to focus on not just a single year of CRT, but making lifelong changes.

What parts of the strategic framework have not worked out as you hoped?

I think we are continually learning about how to manage the change process, which includes authorizing those who are doing the work to take calculated risks on behalf of students.

And we are learning about how important it is to build strong trusting relationships with students if they are to engage in challenging work worth doing. This is most evident at the middle school level and transition to high school, where we need to accelerate student progress.

What happens now with the strategic framework?

When we began this process in 2013, we didn’t put a formal ending to it, but we could see only about five years out at that time. Now we’re going to take a step back. We can look at the solid foundation we’ve built and develop ways to move forward with that. We’re going to use the entire school year for that process, including listening and learning and sharing ideas of where we want to go. By next summer, we will have a new framework.

Patti Zarling is a writer based in Green Bay who has written about education as a newspaper reporter in northeastern Wisconsin. This piece was part of a special report created with support from Madison Gas and Electric and Summit Credit Union. Read the full special report here.