The state of our schools 2014
Our annual education report
On a cool day in October, the shouts of students rushing for buses can be heard through the window of a small room in the main office of Black Hawk Middle School, located on Madison’s north side. For the small group of staff and teachers inside, the day isn’t over.
They’ll spend the next hour and a half in deep conversation, debating and weighing the pros and cons of new course strategies and the school’s future. The gathered staff members–including the school psychologist, teachers from different grade levels and disciplines, special education aides and others–make up Black Hawk’s school-based leadership team. They are the architects behind the school improvement plan, which outlines the school’s goals for literacy and math for all students and specific groups of students, as well as the strategies and steps the school will use to reach those benchmarks.
Each of the forty-nine schools in the Madison Metropolitan School District–the thirty-two elementary, twelve middle and five high schools reaching 27,000 students–has both a team and a plan.
The concept isn’t new. Schools have had improvement plans for more than a decade. But superintendent Jennifer Cheatham, who came to the district in April 2013, and her central office staff have unified the plans and schools’ focus across the district–and it’s had a dramatic effect on teachers and administrators, who are putting strategies into play in classrooms across the city.
In the past, administrators say the plans have served sometimes for only as little as a year. But the district hopes to have them last longer now and bring about change that could be transformational for children, teachers, schools and the community.
Alex Fralin, chief of secondary schools, a position that supports middle and high schools, says staff members have come a long way in not just implementing the plans, but making them into “something that lives and breathes.”
“They have taken to heart the impact that it’s not only going to have on teachers, but ultimately close the opportunity gap that we’re grappling with,” Fralin says. “We’ve got a long way to go, but I think we have school staff and principals that are resilient and committed to this work to make sure it benefits all students.”
Building the improvement team
Before beginning the discussion at Black Hawk on that brisk October day, Kris Howard, a learning coordinator and the team’s facilitator, passes around sheets of paper depicting a “blob tree.” The drawing consists of a tree with twenty-one humanlike shapes–some hiding behind the base of the tree, others supporting one another to reach the higher branches. Howard asks the team members to consider which blob reflects them as a leader that day. It’s a team-building and engagement tool that will help break the ice and allow the group to develop camaraderie and trust as they work on the challenges that lie ahead.
The members break into pairs to discuss. Sitting in a circle around a small group of tables pulled together, they are surrounded by handmade posters reflecting on responsibility that cover the walls, along with a print of the Empire State Building with the slogan “Stand a little taller. Make each day a little better than the one before.” Behind a signed cardboard cutout of Green Bay Packers wide receiver Jordy Nelson, on a large sheet of white paper, are the goals of Black Hawk’s improvement plan and the school’s mission statement.
Inscribed at the top are the goals of the district’s strategic framework, a blueprint for the future of the schools now in its second year, initiated by Superintendent Cheatham: “Every school a thriving school. Every student ready for college, career and community.”
Administrators say those goals will be addressed by the school improvement plan–created, implemented and monitored by the school-based leadership team. Team members analyze data, develop ideas on how to address the challenges the district faces, debate how best to meet the plan’s goals, and then share their ideas with different teacher teams throughout the school.
Another large piece of paper taped to the wall gives six levels of consensus, numbered zero to five, ranging from “I don’t agree and feel I must obstruct” to “Yes, and I’m willing to advocate/champion.” During the meeting, staff members will occasionally say they are feeling like a three or a four, in reference to the poster.
Howard calls the staff back together and asks each team member to share which one of the blobs reflects them as a leader that day.
“Right now this is me, with the workload, hanging on by my fingertips,” answers one.
“I feel like I’m all the blobs at some point of the day. I can’t make up my mind,” says another.
“I’m the blob that’s running around the base of the tree so fast you can’t see the blob,” says Sean Storch, Black Hawk’s principal.
After sharing, the staff members discuss using interpreters for parent-teacher conferences and goal setting with parents. Storch recommends drawing up a list of all children in the school, then having teachers write down the students’ strengths as well as their parents’ names.
Howard says they can set aside time during the next professional collaboration development period–after school on Mondays when teachers have ninety minutes to collaborate on teaching strategies, student work and lesson planning–to accomplish both tasks and determine the students “we know and who might be falling through the cracks.”
Something’s happening here
To address those students, schools follow a cycle. Leadership teams meet to design and then monitor progress on the school improvement plan. They examine data on both implementation and outcomes and make adjustments to the strategy when necessary.
Black Hawk’s school-based leadership team meets twice a month for an hour and a half at a time to go over data, set goals and plan next steps, Storch says. The school’s teachers are organized into instructional teams around the subjects that they teach at each grade level. They focus on planning instruction and creating assessments of student learning and reflecting on the results of that instruction. Storch hopes this practice creates a positive feedback loop, with data informing teachers of what’s working and what’s not to improve overall instruction.
The teams strive to help staff members be culturally responsive, a broad concept that includes creating a safe space to address racial and cultural identities as well as building meaningful relationships with students. They hope this will help teachers and others to better connect their students with the material.
The framework, as opposed to other approaches and structures the district has taken in the past, sustains an emphasis rather than switches strategies year to year, Storch says. This sustained focus is what has made the past few years different than before, according to Jay Affledt, the principal of Memorial High School.
“We didn’t necessarily always plan fully for what resources we needed to implement things,” says Affledt, who has worked at the high school for sixteen years in various positions. “It was sort of stop and start, hit or miss, and that led our staff to think that school improvement is just we can wait out what we’re trying this year. If you don’t like it, next year, we’ll be on to something different.”
But now the district is focused on not just what it wants for kids but how it can get there, he says. It’s not just identifying strategies, either, he says, but saying what the school is going to do, considering how to change it and holding the school accountable.
That’s been combined with an increase in collaboration too, he says, since now all schools in the district share focus areas such as content, structure, culture and climate and family and communnity engagement.
“We’re all working on the same things that we know are better for kids,” Affledt says. “Ten years ago there was a culture of competition, and now we’ve realized we can get further if we work together on it. There’s a sharing of resources and ideas.”
At Memorial High School, teachers are divided into instruction teams by department and grade level. For instance, all teachers who teach ninth grade English serve on the same team. Nancy Hanks, chief of elementary schools, sees the same process happening at elementary schools.
“We’ve really been looking at how do we best maximize the school improvement planning process as a strategy to not just have growth for all students, which is certainly the goal, but how do we accelerate performance for students that are underperforming currently?” she says.
At Gompers Elementary, leadership teams track the school improvement plan’s progress, make adjustments to strategies and visit classrooms to see the plans in action, says principal Sarah Chaja. As a result, the plan has created consistency among all of the school’s staff.
Along with improving test scores for African American students and English language learners is an effort to reach out to more parents at Gompers, a key part of its school improvement plan. “We have this slogan–we want to communicate seven times in seven ways, almost to the point of overcommunicating,” Chaja says.
Last year, schools had to implement a strategy for family engagement but had difficulty accomplishing it. Many were unsure what the district meant by family engagement, which led to the creation of standards to define the term, Cheatham says. The set of six standards include making sure that a school creates a welcoming environment for families, two-way communication between the household and the school and working with the community to recruit more partnerships for a particular school.
Deb Neff, president of the West High School Parent-Teacher-Student Organization, praised Cheatham’s efforts for making family and community engagement a priority. She says the set of standards provide support for effective engagement.
“There is a genuine appreciation for the role of families and community members as partners in the success of students,” Neff says.
Family engagement also was evident in the annual report, a document released this summer that was the first of its kind using data from the district after the strategic framework was implemented. School board member Ed Hughes says he had never seen anything like it.
“This was the first time in my tenure on the school board that we actually saw evidence of district-wide improvement in test scores for our students,” Hughes says. “The first time we could actually point to evidence that the strategies the school district is using are working and are starting to see tangible results.”
A week after the leadership team meeting, it’s quiet outside Black Hawk. A few team members and central office staff have gathered in the same small room at 7:30 a.m. for a Deep Dive, which is designed to support a school in monitoring progress and also in determining what support that school needs to be successful.
Team members observe classes, talk with students and take detailed notes using a program on their laptops. The program allows them to break down and analyze the data immediately after they finish observing. Annemarie Engdahl, one of two school improvement partners for middle schools, says the importance of the Deep Dive is to study trends.
“It’s not about individual evaluation of the teacher in that classroom or the students in that classroom, but rather a chance for us to see what’s happening across many different environments,” Engdahl tells the group.
Before the data collection begins, Storch shares data his office has collected from teachers in surveys. Teachers want to come together and ask for more collaboration time. “The willingness is there,” he says.
But teachers need more clarity on the teaching framework and more support with student behavior in the classroom, he says. As part of Black Hawk’s improvement strategy, five staff members, including Storch, serve as academic coaches in the classroom. Yet Storch says the number of calls his office gets in a day for in-class support for behaviorial needs ranges from fifteen to fifty-one.
Fralin, chief of secondary schools, is attending this Deep Dive. He asks Storch how the teachers are receiving coaching strategies in the classroom. Storch replies that some teachers are interested. But he stresses the coaching strategy is novel and says it’s challenging for teachers to make changes to their approaches even with support. Combined with the new behavioral education plan and educator effectiveness, “they’re being spread thin and they’re feeling stressed.” Another teacher calls the situation “overwhelming.”
Engdahl advises staff members that if the students ask what they’re doing in the classroom, they should simply say, “We’re learning about learning.” Fralin, Storch and another central office member are in one group. Their first stop is a science class held in Black Hawk’s library. They immediately split up once they enter the room, to type notes on their computers and talk with the children.
Students in the seventh grade class are making PowerPoints, most of them focusing on national parks. Storch talks with a student working on a PowerPoint slide titled “Abiotic Factors.”
The next visit is to a sixth grade math class. About twenty students are completing a worksheet about prime factorization. The three intermittently sit or balance laptops with one hand as they move through the classroom. Storch asks a student, “What does that mean?” pointing at the term prime factorization. The student points to the sections of his textbook saying, “It’s this, it’s this.”
Almost every student in the seventh grade language arts class that the group visits next are reading or going to the library, one by one, to pick out books. Once most of the students return, the teacher calls the class to order and they walk through the learning objectives, which include goals such as “I can analyze how the conflict changes over time … I can identify the different story elements in my novel.”
The teacher asks students to identify the major and minor characters in the books they are reading. As the bell rings and the students pack up to leave, she says, “Group work was excellent.”
In the passing time between classes, Fralin begins talking with a student in the hallway headed to a science class, which is going “so-so,” the student says.
The final stop for the Deep Dive is a seventh grade social studies class. Students are working individually on worksheets with a timeline. As they finish, the teacher poses a question, asking her students to vote thumbs-up or thumbs-down on whether the assignment was hard.
Many give the thumbs-down and the teacher explains it was a difficult assignment because up to that point, they’ve only seen horizontal timelines, while this is a vertical timeline. “So remember,” she tells them, “when in doubt, problem solve.”
After this final observation, the Deep Dive team reassembles in Black Hawk’s office and examines the data they’ve collected. They pull it up on the screen and see that the data is roughly evenly split on a wide variety of topics based on experience in the classroom. As Engdahl, the school improvement partner for middle schools, explains, “Different groups had different experiences across the classrooms.”
But the group saw things that concerned them. Storch says students were focused on individual assignments and, rather than working collaboratively with a group of students, teachers were working one-on-one with them. From there, discussion among the group and its members begin. They respectfully listen to one another, question and discuss the results.
Fralin asks the team how it defines collaboration. Storch argues that collaboration involves the teachers working on the leadership team as well as the teacher teams at every grade level. He envisions students observing the teachers interacting in and outside the classroom and mimicking it. “We are setting standards on how we want to work together, just as we want kids to do,” Fralin says. Other staff members see collaboration differently or are confused about whether the term applies to what students should be doing in the classroom or what teachers should be doing.
Engdahl suggests the leadership team spend time explaining why collaboration is important and model leadership for teacher teams that in turn will model it for students. She types this suggestion as well as others the group produces into a Word document during the meeting, which is projected onto the drawn shades.
The discussion moves on to focus on communication between the leadership team and the school. Storch says what the team decides during its leadership team meetings is often “not complicated for us here, but outside it’s causing a lot of stress.” Ensuring effective communication between the leadership team and the rest of the school becomes an additional action item, which enters the list along with six other items discussed and developed at the meeting.
As the Deep Dive ends, Fralin shares his own experience as a principal. Soon after he started in the position, the administration did a walkthrough of his school. Fralin called it a “total failure,” but he says it was a learning experience for him. He praised the leadership team for sustaining its focus and working toward its goals.
“It’s going to be difficult,” he adds. “But we can push the needle forward.”
Time of change
Since the beginning of the year, staff members have undertaken two major changes in the form of a new behavior education plan and the implementation of the educator effectiveness evaluation system.
The behavior education plan moves from a code of conduct based on a punitive model to one that provides students the chance to learn positive behavior skills. At the heart of the plan is removing a longstanding institutionally racist barrier that has resulted in a dramatic disproportionality in suspensions and expulsions, according to the district. It has a quarterly review process at the board level, among other methods of monitoring, and at the first review in October staff members aired concerns about the plan’s implementation.
Liz Donnelly, who teaches four-year-old kindergarten at Elvehjem Elementary School, attended the meeting. She says she supports the idea behind the plan, but right now the district lacks adequate levels of staff to make it work. Based on staff feedback, the district has identified four key areas of focus, such as increasing overall understanding of the plan and providing “intensive support” to high schools to develop the new practices. It will assess the success of these efforts at a Board of Education meeting this month.
During the development of the behavior education plan, the YWCA Madison provided feedback on several drafts to better align the plan with principles of restorative justice, says CEO Rachel Krinsky. Restorative justice involves a different approach that focuses on who or what has been harmed, what is needed to repair the harm and who is responsible, rather than ascribing fault and punishment.
Krinsky calls the behavior education plan a “huge culture shift” for school staff, parents and students.
“And it’s been a little rocky,” Krinsky says. “We feel that the plan is one of several critical and necessary tools to reduce racial disparities that exist in our schools, but we also care about the teachers and we recognize that teachers need some additional support, training and tools to make the plan successful.”
Another major change this year is the implementation of educator effectiveness, an evaluation system put in place by the state. The evaluations are fifty percent teacher-practice based and fifty percent student-outcome based, with measures set by teachers and potentially adjusted mid-year. The program raised concerns when it was initially introduced that it could be used to punish teachers who couldn’t improve their students’ scores enough. But administrators like Storch say the program will be used as a tool, not a punishment.
“We’re using this tool for their professional growth so that all of our students will grow and learn,” Storch says. “It’s not a hammer here. It’s a professional development tool. It’s got its quirks that we’re working through, but it’s a learning year and we’re making progress.”
With the combined teacher effectiveness evaluations and the new discipline plan, Arlene Silveira, school board president, says staff members are feeling stressed and tired.
“I’m hoping as we go into next year and people become more familiar with some of the things that are happening that it’ll certainly be less laborious and less stressful for our staff,” Silveira says. She says the recertification of Madison Teachers Inc., the teacher’s union, was especially emotional.
Recertification is required as part of Act 10, legislation passed in 2011 that curbed collective bargaining rights for many public employee unions. The recertification process, which happened in November, required that fifty-one percent of the union’s members vote to keep the union. More than eighty-five percent of members voted, nearly all of them to recertify.
John Matthews, executive director of Madison Teachers Inc., and others launched a campaign to let staff know how the union has helped them in past legal situations or by bargaining for better wages. He says MTI will continue to represent union members in all work-related matters and bargain base wages, as authorized by Act 10 after the 2015-2016 contract expires. Mike Lipp, MTI president and athletic director at West High School, says the district is the last in the state to have a union contract that extends into the 2015-2016 academic year.
“There’s a reason why unions were formed, and they’ll come around again,” Lipp says. “As the collective bargaining contract fades away, there’ll be a time where things become intolerable again and laws will change and come back around. I think there’s a pendulum to this thing.”
Elvehjem’s Donnelly, who also serves as the secretary of the teacher’s union, says the district’s goals are important, but feels the school improvement plans are sometimes too data-driven.
“They want everything to be quantified, and everything is driven by data,” Donnelly says. “From my perspective, some things are hard to quantify by data. I think that some of those things are getting ignored.”
The push for more data ties in with Common Core State Standards, which Donnelly says asks some young students to do things that they are not able to accomplish and does not take into account developmental appropriateness. Common Core is a set of academic standards in math and English literacy that outline what a student should be able to do at the end of each grade. The standards, developed by the federal government to guarantee consistent learning goals and bolster students’ academic progress, have been adopted by more than forty states, including Wisconsin.
Yet they have been politically controversial. Republican legislators have said they will push for new state standards, explaining in their agenda that “Wisconsin schools are better with Wisconsin-based academic standards.” Gov. Scott Walker has expressed a desire to remove “any mandate or requirement that requires a school district to abide by Common Core standards,” adding that he wants schools to have maximum flexibility.
Tim Slekar, dean of the School of Education at Edgewood College, questions the effectiveness of Common Core or any standards to prompt improvement. The approach–of developing standards, assessing whether they worked and basing rewards on the assessment–has been tried repeatedly before and has failed, he says.
“Every dollar that is spent on a standard, every dollar that is spent on a curriculum piece, every dollar that is spent on a test should be spent on health care, books for kids that don’t have access to books, nurses in schools, smaller classrooms,” Slekar says.
Cheatham called a proposal to develop new school standards that was introduced last year “distracting.”
“One of the challenges we’ve faced in recent years, and we’ll continue to face as a result of the larger political climate in education, is how to keep the focus on children, keep the focus on supporting our educators and boosting the morale, while protecting people from the political noise around us,” Cheatham says. “We’ve done a good job so far of keeping our focus on what we know works for students.”
Reflecting on race and equity
Perhaps the political climate hit home hardest in November, when Walker won his third election in four years, defeating a member of the Madison School Board, Mary Burke. Her defeat is on the minds of attendees at the district’s first Leadership Institute of the year, held the day after the election at the Alliant Energy Center. The quarterly institute is a forum for staff members across the district to discuss the progress their schools have made and the challenges they still face and plan their next steps. A handful of members from the school’s leadership teams meet with staffers.
“It was hard to be here today and not at school, just knowing how my teachers are feeling right now,” says Gompers principal Chaja. “We’ve worked a lot so far this year on staff climate and culture, which isn’t in our school improvement plan. But it’s very important in order for the school improvement to be carried out. So what is our leadership team going to do with information we garnered to help our teachers do this hard and challenging work when media and social influence and the political climate is what it is?”
Addressing the gathered faculty, Cheatham opens her remarks by mentioning Burke. She calls it a point of pride that the district had a board member run for governor: “It says something about us, I think the sophistication of the school board, the sophistication of the school district, and the fact that she put herself on the line to try to do something not for her ego, but for the good of the state.”
From there, Cheatham continues on to call the start of the year a “doozy.” She says the year was unique, partly because of being in the midst of a transformational change. “Doozy” has a reflective quality since it’s often used when looking back and describing something. But it also has a quality of resilience, of regrouping to move forward. A year ago the teachers had just turned in school improvement plans, but this year they had already been working at implementing the plans since the start of the year.
She asks them to consider their expectations, their biases, the institutional barriers and their accomplishments, among other factors. The agenda for the day included understanding the progress the teacher teams and leadership teams have made, using outcome data to adjust the school improvement plan, and identifying the next steps.
One of the first tasks for the Leadership Institute is reflection about race and equity, led by Rodney Thomas, special assistant to the superintendent.
“This is our current challenge,” Thomas tells the audience. “This is what we’re faced with as school-based leaders, as individual leaders within a larger team. Look at the challenges that exist not as opportunities for failure but to be able to grow and to be able to learn.”
The attendees review an article on race and equity and then divide into partners to discuss for half an hour before sharing their discussion points. They are split up around circular tables spread throughout the room, with two schools to a table. When they meet up again among their fellow school-based leadership team members, they discuss how to continue to have high expectations for students in a year of dwindling resources. Engdahl, the school improvement partner for middle schools, is assisting the team in their discussions and asks them how they plan to address these concerns as a team.
“My immediate response, it’s like we’ve lost the forest for the trees kind of thing because we’ve spent so much time talking about systemic stuff that we have not rolled up our sleeves and done the curricular,” asks Peg Coyne, a special education teacher at Black Hawk and former MTI president, who has been elected to again serve as president in the 2015-2016 academic year. “I feel like we are just jumping from bandwagon to bandwagon.”
She says the Common Core standards are causing teachers to shift their curriculum away from other units. Black Hawk’s principal Storch is uncertain whether the team is taking a long-term view. “In seven years from now, when our sixth graders are walking across as seniors in high school going on to college, how is the time that they are going to spend at Black Hawk going to help them develop a clear sense of identity?”
“That’s curriculum independent, but it’s taught every day in math, science, language arts,” he adds. “Every day, we’re helping them move forward or not.”
“But it’s almost like we have two paths,” Coyne interjects. “We have to help them understand themselves and then broaden their worldview.”
Engdahl praises the team for developing that viewpoint and having on-the-ground support. But she encourages the team to think about the paths that Coyne described in parallel, warning that if they get lost in the high-level view or lost in the ground viewpoint, they won’t be able to support one another.
Other districts face many of the same challenges Madison’s district does. Monona Grove School District, which serves roughly three thousand students in Monona and Cottage Grove on the southeast side of Madison, put in place a strategic plan in 2011 to halve gaps in outcomes for students of color by 2014.
The plan has been extended for another year under the leadership of superintendent Dan Olson, who is in his second year in the district, as they begin to write a new framework to continue bridging the equity gap.
“We put a lot of things in place during the last three years and we’ve seen some improvement, but very modest improvements,” Olson says. “We absolutely need to continue that with our new plan.”
The Verona Area School District is also looking at different ways to reach students than the traditional curriculum approaches. In 2013, their school board adopted a four-year goal to create a personalized learning plan for each student in the district for the purpose of increasing the achievement of all students.
“Learning is personal, it’s individual for every kid,” Superintendent Dean Gorrell says. “They learn and operate in different realms and that’s true of the 5,500 kids that we have here. That’s really our focus now, to look at each student as an individual learner and to tailor their learning needs around them and their interests.”
He called the traditional way of treating third and fourth grade students a “batch process” that does not recognize students may learn at different speeds. No two students are going to learn valuable skills at the same rate, he says.
To address the same challenges other districts in the Madison area are facing, the Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District has a long-term goal-setting process, which is updated on an annual basis, says the district’s superintendent, Don Johnson.
“We have a bottom-up and a top-down process for developing goals,” says Johnson, whose district serves more than six thousand students. “So rather than saying everything comes up from grassroots or everything comes down from on high at the board level, it’s a little bit more organic. We generate our goals and our priorities from both.”
For instance, the district’s goal is to have every high school student involved in a minimum of one co-curricular each year. By joining these organizations, students develop friendships that in turn help them with academics, Johnson says.
Even with other districts engaging in similar techniques, Cheatham emphasizes that the process Madison is using–a districtwide emphasis on school improvement plans in each of the district’s schools, with help from the central office–and the quality of the work are atypical.
“I’ve never worked in a school district or have gotten to know a school district that has been using the school improvement planning process as well as we are right now,” Cheatham says. “It’s something that’s a point of pride for us that this disciplined way of working, of knowing intimately each of our schools’ strengths and challenges, setting goals, implementing strategies and observing them closely. That this process has taken hold so soon in the way it has is very exciting for us.”
Culture of excellence and equity
Back in Madison, at the Leadership Institute’s conclusion last fall, schools considered what they had accomplished during the first quarter of the school year, reviewed newly collected data from student outcomes and weighed the impact of the school improvement plan.
Black Hawk has made improvements, and Storch points to a forty-five percent drop in the number of suspensions compared with fall 2013. They exceeded their goal of thirty-five percent.
Proficiency for math and literacy improved overall from the past fall by a small percentage, Storch shares with the team. Unfortunately, the percentage of students meeting expected growth targets was less. He says achieving those target numbers needs to be a big focus for the year to ensure the school meets its proficiency goals.
For her part, Cheatham emphasizes that teachers and staff must hold high expectations for both the children and the adults who work with them. They must provide everyone with the unique support they need to be successful and to meet those expectations.
“Underneath or threaded through all the work that we’re doing as a district and in the strategic framework is a development and cultivation of a culture of excellence and equity,” she says.
It’s that culture that compels staff, students and administrators to make the changes they need to ensure that students thrive–and that the greater Madison community supports and encourages these reinvigorated learning environments.
And while school districts around the country emphasize career and college readiness, Madison’s strategic framework includes a third element, community readiness, in its vision for the future, says school board member Dean Loumos.
“Not every kid is going to know what they want to be, the kind of work that they want to do when they leave high school,” Loumos says. “But we’ll prepare them to go out there and figure it out. Go have some experiences and learn where you want to end up and how to get there when you find out. We can teach them that too.”
Armed with the new strategic framework, a consistent school improvement plan and an annual report tracking progress, Black Hawk’s leadership team used these new and improved tools as a building block to create a mission statement last spring, making it less than a year old.
“When we walk into a classroom, that’s what we want to see. We want to walk in and see all students engaged in learning,” says Storch. “We want to see every kid with a book, a pencil, a piece of paper, talking to each other, asking each other questions, questioning the teacher. And that all of those kids and teachers in the room are collaborating and sharing accountability and responsibility for that learning. And that’s our mission, that’s our focus.
“It’s not yet a year old. But I would say as we move into year two, year three, year four, year five, our work is going to solidify that so that five years from now there’s not a square inch of Black Hawk where you don’t see kids engaged in learning.”
Madison schools target ‘subgroups’ to advance learning and success
While the District’s first annual report showed some academic improvement overall, it also identified “subgroups”–African American and Latino students and students with disabilities–as part of a more targeted effort to ramp up and enrich the education experience.
To reach them, the district is working with community leaders and groups, such as Madison Partners for Inclusive Education, a support and advocacy group founded more than a decade ago for parents who have children who attend Madison public schools and who receive special education services. Beth Moss, whose son recently left the district after receiving special education until he was twenty-one, is a member of the group.
“Our mantra is that students with disabilities should be included in the classroom with their peers as much as possible, and probably even more than what most people consider possible,” Moss says. “I think the district embraces that philosophy, but it’s not always consistently implemented in every school.”
Moss describes her experience with the schools as mostly positive but over the years as a roller coaster. She says the new strategic framework, now firmly in place and in its second academic year, aims to bring more consistency throughout the district to address the issues. Anna Moffit agrees. She has a second grader and a third grader at Thoreau Elementary, and a first grader at Midvale. All of her children receive special education services through the district. “It’s kind of like you get one thing accomplished, and then three weeks later it’s another thing,” Moffit says. “For me personally, and I can’t speak for all parents, I’m advocating all the time. In fact, I probably spend ten hours a week minimum talking with the schools, going over documents, going to meetings.”
As interim CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison, which develops and supports educational and employment opportunities for African Americans and other community members, Edward Lee says the school district’s efforts to bridge the achievement gap for black and Latino students are encouraging.
While the district has begun diversifying the workforce at both the administration and the principal level, building leadership that is more reflective of the student body, he says it has a long way to go to ensure that its staff and teachers better reflect the diversity of the student body. Alex Gee, pastor at the Fountain of Life Covenant Church and the founder and president of the Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development, agrees.
“When we don’t have the right kind of diversity that we want to have, then it limits the exposure that white students have to black, Latino, Asian teachers,” Gee says. “Then it limits the role models that kids have.”
Gee, who authored the 2013 essay in The Capital Times titled “Justified Anger,” has been gathering community input as part of a coalition of black leaders who are seeking ways to reform Madison and address the racial barriers the city faces. Gee has been in discussion with black students about their experiences in the schools.
“Their biggest fear is that they feel that they are read before they’re known,” he says. “And that’s what’s really important to them. They use the word respect, and being respected was not code for letting me goof off and calling that cultural.”
Gee says students do not want to be limited or lumped with those who are not serious about their education. Gee calls for more interaction and giving students room to talk about their experiences.
Cheatham says part of the strategic framework is to have a thriving, diverse workforce. The district revamped a process for hiring principals last year with the dual goals of selecting the best candidates and improving diversity. A similar change in teacher recruitment, screening and selection is in process this year.
While Gee and Lee see signs of hope, they worry the focus on equity will be short lived.
“We have a long history in this community of blowing this issue up for a year or two and then letting our attention on it subside,” Lee says. “At some level, I think it’s the responsibility for the community as a whole to continue to force the school district to make sure this stays a priority.”
For Gee, community action is critical as well. “I think this is a fresh opportunity in the midst of such dismal statistical realities in Madison and the racial divide that’s being talked about in the country,” he says. “There’s a contingency of Madisonians and [people in] the surrounding area who believe we are still kind enough, compassionate enough, smart enough to address these issues; that’s encouraging to me.
“In the midst of all that’s happening in the world, I still feel this glimmer of hope that we can do something different that can make this better. And I think we have to move on this momentum and take advantage of this moment.”
Spotlight on the region: Rural innovation
Mauston school aims to prepare students for ever-changing future
Kyle Roberts loves music. The sixteen-year-old junior attending the Mauston Area School District has played guitar on a TV show in Memphis. When he was encouraged to stay there to pursue a career, he decided to return to Mauston because he wanted to finish his education at iLEAD Charter School.
“In the beginning I didn’t want to go to iLEAD; I had no idea what it was,” says Roberts, who says his mother forced him to attend. “Now, I don’t want to leave at all.”
The charter school in Mauston High School serves students in grades seven through twelve and focuses on project-based learning within an individualized approach to leadership, entrepreneurship and academic discovery. Lead teacher Gil Saylor says it’s a student-, not teacher-directed approach to learning.
“We have forty different kids doing forty different things every day, and our job is to coach them through that, to find the resources to connect them with people,” Saylor says. “We want them working with professionals. We know that if they can connect with an adult that has a similar interest, they’re going to have far more success and belief in what they do.”
Saylor started iLEAD, now in its fourth year, with two other teachers and an administrator in the Mauston School District, plus Terry Whipple, executive director of the Juneau County Economic Development Corporation, who is now the president of the iLEAD Governance Council. The aim of the school was to reach a group of students who showed potential but somehow had a difficult time reaching it. The students were intelligent and creative, but their grades didn’t show it.
They decided to pursue a school where students could focus in on what they learned, figuring that motivation would be a prime factor for their success.
Their discussions center around entrepreneurship, which they defined as having an idea, starting something and seeing it through to the end.
“Things are going to change so rapidly that these kids have to reinvent themselves many, many times in their own lives,” Whipple says.
Members of the Juneau County Inventors and Entrepreneurs Club, which Whipple founded in 2003 to foster innovation in the area, often serve as mentors for the students. Community work is vital to the school.
Whipple expresses hope that students might return someday to work and live in their communities, helping revitalize the area by starting their own businesses.
iLead’s founders and leaders also turned an eye toward the future and saw the world constantly changing, and realized they had to prepare students for the jobs that didn’t exist yet.
“We’ve created an environment where kids can make mistakes, fail, bounce back,” he says. “It doesn’t matter. That’s a culture we’re trying to build about how to learn, about how to succeed.”
He points to the work of Gabe Brown, now in his senior year at the school and interested in psychology. Since the last school year, Brown has been trying to do his own psychology study with volunteers from the high school. He’s tried multiple times but the study hasn’t worked out, which Saylor praises as great because Brown has continually had to learn more to fix the study and account for the variables, a difficult task.
Jacob Petersen, a junior at iLEAD, taught himself computer-aided design. He’s building an air-powered engine using a 3-D printer.
“It’s just a lot better learning process, a way I can learn easier. Here I can focus easier,” he says. “We can decide what we want to learn, and we can go at our own pace. There’s so much to it.”
Sean Kirkby is a Madison-based writer, a reporter for Wisconsin Health News, and a reporting intern at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.
You are There
Janesville schools debut immersive classrooms
In a classroom at Craig High School in Janesville, eleven students sit at desks arranged in two concentric semicircles. Their teacher poses questions, the students answer and lively discussion ensues. Yet the teacher never actually sets foot in the classroom.
This is because the teacher is miles away at Craig’s crosstown rival, Parker High School, teaching the same class, Spanish for Heritage Speakers, to a handful of students there. She is physically present at Parker, and she is “telepresent” at Craig, as well as at Rock University High School, a charter school, instructing students at all three schools simultaneously.
Using high-definition video screens and crystalline audio, telepresence technology brings together people in different locations to create what’s called an immersive experience. Or, in this case, an immersive classroom. It’s a huge upgrade from last-generation virtual reality technology, and Janesville schools are the only schools in the state using it.
How it works
Telepresence works like Internet-based video services such as Skype, in that a person can see and hear another person on a video screen, even though that person is somewhere else. But anyone who has used it knows this older technology can be fuzzy and filled with transmission delays. The onscreen picture is usually limited to a person’s head or upper body.
In Janesville, telepresence runs on the district’s existing fiber-optic network, with no extra bandwith required. The link is managed not on the Internet but by equipment housed at the school district office. Transmission from one classroom to the others is instantaneous, creating a real-time experience.
The video for all of the Janesville classrooms shows up on a bank of three high-definition video screens. The screens are large and linked together, so the result seems like a twenty-foot-long video wall. Everything and everyone in each room–teacher, students, desks, chairs, laptops–appear life-sized, and as crisp and vivid as a scene from a big-screen movie.
The Parker class can see and hear the students at Craig and Rock, and vice versa. So they interact onscreen–talking to one another, laughing, calling out answers to the teacher’s questions and correcting their classmates’ answers. The pictures are so sharp and the sound so clear, it seems like the classrooms have met to form one fully rounded, fully dimensional classroom.
In order to expand course offerings and combine small classes without having teachers or students travel between schools, the Janesville school board voted last summer to invest $500,000–one third of one percent of the district’s budget–in telepresence. The results, say officials, have been amazing.
“It’s an equalizer of education,” says Superintendent of Schools Karen Schulte. “Telepresence allows all students to have opportunities that they might otherwise not have.”
The district has opened classes to more students, without adding teachers or requiring travel. Calculus students and students taking advanced-placement music, for example, attended immersive classes.
The new technology also offers unfettered access to international educators. Last semester, for example, one hundred enthralled Janesville sixth graders talked to, listened to and interacted with a Swedish paleontologist–who came to their school without leaving Sweden, courtesy of telepresence.
– Mary Erpenbach
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