Report card: Madison school district grades its community engagement

Partnerships made three years into strategic plan
Report card: Madison school district grades its community engagement
Sharon Vanorny
Leopold Elementary School

Imagine a neighborhood school that is not just a school. Imagine it is open to families and other community members to participate in a mix of activities. Maybe there’s a computer lab. Adult education courses. Job search support. A food bank. Services and support that the community needs that are not easily accessible.

This is the community school ideal, and it is what Madison Metropolitan School District is moving toward. The district took a big step in that direction this school year with its first official community schools: Mendota and Leopold elementary schools. This milestone is the result of focused work supported by a three-year grant from the Madison Community Foundation. The grant included money for planning time, which took place last year.

Community schools are part of MMSD’s focus on family, youth and community engagement–one of the five priority areas of the district’s strategic framework put in place when Jennifer Cheatham stepped into her role as district superintendent in 2013. The five priority areas are aimed at removing institutional barriers to students’ success by providing schools with necessary tools and resources to meet those goals and raise academic achievement. The other four priorities are coherent instruction, personalized pathways, thriving workforce and accountability systems. This education report takes a closer look at priority areas of family, youth and community engagement.

Since the inception of MMSD’s strategic framework in the 2013-14 school year, district officials say engagement with families and the wider community has been foundational. Nichelle Nichols, head of the district’s family, youth and community engagement department, says other communities employing such efforts are seeing academic gains for students. She says it is an approach that looks at a community’s needs as well as its strengths and assets.

In the community school selection process, Nichols says a district review indicated that 22 schools have notable needs in academic achievement and access to community resources. Those schools were invited to apply for the community school designation, from which Leopold and Mendota were chosen.

The community schools
At Mendota Elementary, a group of students called PUPs, or Peers Uplifting Peers, played a role in the creation of one of the first community schools in the district. Last year, the fourth- and fifth-graders went door to door collecting information about the community’s needs. That information was used in the school’s application. This project, with the guidance of teachers Tia Tanzer and Debra Minahan, aligns well with the community school model. “I think we’ve always been a community school,” Tanzer says. “Now it’s just official.”

Stacy Broach, Mendota’s new community schools resource coordinator, says the community school approach puts families and parents “at the center of everything we do.” Manuel Garay, bilingual resource teacher at Mendota, says that just using the word “community” when referring to the school makes it feel more welcoming.

“Everyone can come in and their ideas and their beliefs are respected. To me, that’s very important,” Garay says. Minahan says listening to students express themselves is also important. “Hearing their voices is at the core of what a community school should be,” she says. And the students say they like being heard. “They get to know what we think our community needs,” says Kiymiah Curtis, a fifth-grader and a member of PUPs.

Carlettra Stanford, the principal at Mendota, is clear that being a community school makes explicit the need for partnerships. “We know that the things that happen outside of school impact the scholars when they come to school the next day.” She adds, “Becoming a community school has allowed us to highlight the greatness of the school.”

Now that Leopold is a community school, Leopold’s partnership with the Fitchburg and Madison public libraries includes weekly programming, says principal Karine Sloan. In addition, the nonprofit Literacy Network provides English classes. Also, the school has a new community resource center that includes internet access. “We have laptops set up … if they … just need to come and send a couple emails,” says Sloan, “[or] maybe they want to apply for a job online.” That’s also where their community school resource coordinator, Sami Clausen-Ruppert, is set up.

Sloan says she sees many new opportunities now that Leopold is a community school. “I know that in order for us to support children to become the best that they can be, we have to be able to support their families.” She says the community school approach “seems like a holistic way to help change those outcomes.”

Staff at both the community schools agree that being a community school will help them better serve their students and families. “This is important because it’s crucial for our families, particularly African American families, to be able to have access to services,” says Sonia Spencer, Mendota’s parent liaison. Sloan also points out that this approach focuses on assets. “When we work together from those assets, then that child is going to succeed,” she says.

Making a difference

Michelle Nichols says that “community schools as a model is very much shaped at the local level,” so what works elsewhere may not work here in Madison. She says seeing results can take years, based on the experience of other districts nationwide that have community schools. Nichols says many community school elements are already woven into MMSD schools, and hopes that because these programs and partnerships have been in place for some time, the district may see results sooner.

“There’s no quick, easy way to change a trajectory we’ve been on for a long time,” says Sloan. She recognizes the hard work needed to create schools that serve all students. “We have to come forward with a lot of humility.”

Madison Parent Teacher Teams

Ching Thao, a fourth-grade teacher at Falk Elementary School on Madison’s southwest side, is giving instructions to his students. “So in your bags, you should have a green folder. If you can take out that green folder and have that set out in front of you as a reference, that would be great.”

Everyone in the classroom does as asked. Thao begins to describe a multiplication game. On this Tuesday night in October, his students are the parents of the children he teaches by day. The game, he tells them, is “a way to help your child practice at home. We call it the multiplication wheel. And … its purpose is to help your child work with their fact fluency and also develop strategies that would help your child become more efficient and become, hopefully, faster.”

Thao and his colleague Scott Hmielewski, also a fourth-grade teacher, are part of Falk’s inaugural Madison Parent Teacher Teams, or MPTTs. This program, which started last year in some Madison schools, is a new way of engaging parents as partners in their child’s education. It’s part of the district’s focused effort on family engagement to foster academic and social growth in students. In the MPTT presentation, Hmielewski talked about why Falk’s fourth-grade classes are moving in this direction. He shared his frustrations with the time limitations of the traditional one-on-one parent-teacher conferences. He also talked about what he consistently hears from parents: “What can I do for my kid at home to help? What can I do for my kid to help them in school?”

While parents can still meet with teachers one-on-one, the MPTT presentations will be the primary focus of parent-teacher interaction. They will take place three times during the school year for Falk fourth-grade families and twice a year for first-grade families. (Teachers and schools decide whether MPTTs are right for their students.) In each presentation, parents will receive data about how their child is doing in comparison to other students. They will learn an activity they can use at home and they will be able to network with other families.

At the October MPTT at Falk, parents were very intent on learning the math game. Thomas and Lisa Williams, whose son is in Thao’s class, found the night helpful. “It lets us know what the precise goals are when they do the testing,” says Thomas. “And it shows us how to reinforce what they’re actually using in class to help them to reach those goals.”

These teachers “are so open to parents … I think that’s wonderful.” -Nicole Nelson, parent

Nicole Nelson, another parent, agrees. She also is glad there is still the chance to meet with a teacher. “You know, if it was totally just replacing the traditional [parent-teacher conference], I probably wouldn’t have been so receptive to this new meeting philosophy. But because both Mr. Thao and Mr. Hmielewski are so open to parents taking that time outside of these meetings to meet one-on-one, I think that’s just wonderful.”

Falk’s principal Adam Zingsheim wanted to help make it easier for parents to participate in the MPTT, so in October he combined it with the monthly Open School House event that has activities for children and a community dinner. Parents were free to attend the MPTT while the kids hung out with animals and their handlers from Vilas Zoo, or took part in some other activity. There were also activities for parents who weren’t attending the MPTT, including a focus group about the neighborhood and an open food pantry. The school plans to hold future MPTTs at an Open School House night.

Family engagement efforts
The Open School House is part of Falk’s effort to engage with families. Zingsheim says it’s a wide-ranging effort intended to “better bridge any gaps that exist and remove any barriers to access that our families have stated that they need.” He says Falk helps with basic needs, “things like food and shelter, and job support and medical support.”

Just as with the community schools, this level of engagement is happening across the district as another way to address one of the five priority areas in the strategic framework. The Family, Youth and Community Engagement department, headed by long-time Madisonian Nichelle Nichols, oversees the work.

When Nichols was working at the Urban League of Greater Madison more than four years ago, she remembers someone suggesting that she seek a job within the school district because of her focus on equitable education. “Because of just the heartache I was having with my own kids,” Nichols says, “I was like, you gotta be kidding me. I would never work in the school district–because I was not convinced of its leadership, its direction.” Nichols says her own four African Americans sons were not being served well at that time.

When Cheatham came on as superintendent, Nichols says she saw the potential for transformation. And now she’s part of Cheatham’s team. “I feel like we have an opportunity to show people that we can be a school district that is different,” she says. And a big part of that effort has to do with family engagement.

At the district level, there are six advisory groups. Cheatham says the parent advisory groups are a vital part of the family partnership strategy being implemented this year. “They helped us look at some of the tools we would be using with schools and gave us feedback,” Cheatham says. “We would not be in the position to implement the strategy that’s now in action without them.”

In addition to the advisory groups at the district level, each school has a family and community engagement team, better known as a FACE team. The schools and their FACE teams develop strategies to meet the needs of their community.

FACE action teams

Tony Dugas, principal at Georgia O’Keeffe Middle School on Madison’s east side for the past three years, sees the school’s FACE team as a way to ensure equity. “You often hear about an achievement gap,” he says, “but there’s also access gaps. And that’s something that we are trying to work hard to close.” One of the changes that has come from the FACE team: Some of this year’s parent-teacher conferences will be in community centers (such as the Salvation Army community center on Darbo Drive and the East Madison Community Center near the Madison College Truax campus) to make it easier for parents to attend. They’ve also changed how families sign up for conferences to make the process more equitable.

Dugas sees the FACE team as a priority for O’Keeffe, a way to open up and deepen authentic relationships between the school, families and the community. Because, he says, “ultimately what we’re doing is serving the community.” When it’s being done well, the web of relationships supports children, helping them to be successful. Not just academically, Dugas says, but holistically.

Family and community engagement
Dugas emphasizes how things like access to services support a strong learning environment. He says families who are actively engaged in their kids’ education are a key component of creating that learning environment.

MMSD’s students and families have a lot of strengths, Cheatham says, and that’s why family partnerships work. “We believe that every parent has dreams for their children, [and] we believe that every parent is capable of supporting their child,” she says. “And we believe that the responsibility for organizing that so that it can happen in partnership with schools is on us; is on the school district.” This work is so important, she says, “because it’s about every individual child’s life outcomes.”

“It’s going to require everybody in this community to see that they’re part of the family and community teams,” says Dugas. “Everybody. Because we will not be successful if we’re not actively involved.”

Mary Kay Glazer is a freelance writer, spiritual director and retreat leader living in Madison.

This special report was published with support from Madison Gas and Electric and Summit Credit Union.