YWCA CEO says Sun Prairie School District lied about partnership following assignment on slavery

SUN PRAIRIE, Wis. — At a Sun Prairie Area School District board meeting Monday, a district staff member said SPASD is working in consultation with YWCA to eradicate racism and promote racial equity following a racially insensitive assignment given to three sixth-grade classes asking them how they would punish a slave.

Director of Secondary Teaching, Learning and Equity Sarah Chaja-Clardy presented the information via a PowerPoint slide that addressed action steps the district was committed to making. YWCA CEO Vanessa McDowell said he was shocked when she heard her organization’s name used and said there is no partnership between the YWCA and SPASD.

“We have no formal or informal partnership with the Sun Prairie School District at all,” McDowell said.

YWCA is known for its work to combat racism and empower women. When asked if McDowell would consider a partnership in the future with SPASD, she said, “We take the work that we do very seriously. We are an organization dedicated to eliminating racism, empowering women and promoting peace, justice, freedom and dignity for all. And what that means is we don’t just check the box. We do real work and we do work with people that are ready to do the work. So at this point, how things have transpired and how things have been going, we wouldn’t be interested in partnership at this time.”

McDowell said she sent an open letter to the district Monday afternoon expressing her outrage to the assignment that Patrick Marsh Middle School students were given. She said the SPASD board president responded to thank her, and then she received another email an hour and a half later from Chaja-Clardy stating she shared her sentiments of outrage towards the assignment and mentioned she discussed it with a YWCA staff member. But McDowell said that conversation with the YWCA staff member didn’t have anything to do with establishing a partnership with the YWCA.

“I was really disturbed that she would use a conversation that she had with a staff member that was totally between them, off-the-record as YWCA is partnering with them,” McDowell said. “I really felt like they took advantage of us as YWCA in our name and reputation to validate that they’re doing something.”

McDowell said she has not heard any sort of apology from a district member since the board meeting.

“That says glaringly to me that they’re not ready to do the work,” McDowell said.

YWCA Madison: Letter to Sun Prairie School Superintendent and Board

February 8, 2021,

Dear Superintendent Saron and…

Posted by YWCA Madison on Tuesday, 9 February 2021

Parents said the fact that the district lied when publicly explaining their first plans of action to rectify the situation was frustrating.

“If they’re not honest in their response and yet, we’re supposed to take their word for the actions that they’re doing to resolve their scenarios and already, those actions prove not to be true,” said Melanie Hawk who has three children of color in the district. “You go back to questioning the whole situation and I feel like we’re back to square one.”

In the same board meeting, district staff also committed to hire a position focused on equity by July 1.

“The first step we will take is to engage our racially and culturally diverse community in the development of a system wide culturally responsive framework,” a district staff member said.

Tracy Bever Frank, who has two children in the SPASD, said that role raises a lot of questions for her.

“What does that look like? How is that connected with other roles in the district? Is it one position or is it a department? Where does the money come from? Where is the oversight? How is the community involved in the process?” Frank said in an interview.

News 3 Now reached out to the district for a comment regarding Monday’s board meeting. You can find the district’s response here.

“I hope our kids will have the opportunity to (see the district) step up and do better,” Hawk said. “No school district is perfect. No teacher is perfect. We’re not expecting perfection, we’re expecting progress. Significant measured progress.”

“I really hope Sun Prairie takes an inward look and acknowledges and takes ownership for what they have done,” McDowell said.

In an open letter to the district following their disappointment with how SPASD handled its response, members of the African American Parent Network of Sun Prairie are demanding the following action take place going forward:

1. An Equity Department Formed:
-This should include a Team consisting of a Director, Administrative Assistant, and sufficient equity coaches to cover all 15 schools.
-Having a preference for hiring, promoting and utilizing the great talent already found within staff in SPASD
-This department to be hired before Fall of 2021 school year begins.
-Community involvement in the interview process ( more than 1 person of color )
-If the batch of candidates do not fit the criteria and demographics of an ideal hire to meet the intended goals of the program, the position is put back open to receive applicants.
-The newly formed Equity Department should have an operating budget.
-This Director should be on the same level as the other Directors of Education and Operations. This Director should only report to the Superintendent and the School Board.
2. A Full Independent, outsourced audit of all aspects of equity in Sun Prairie Schools
-Including but not limited to : Math, Reading, Discipline, and IEP Data as well as looking for Key Performance Indicators for all equity consultants.
3. The Investigation into this incident is transparent, thorough and equity-focused.

4. The District Leadership will incentive teachers and staff that attend equity training at a high level, with special recognition for Teachers, and Staff that are closing the achievement gap incrementally.