By Ana Will
In Madison, school officials and others have spent time and money, proposed program after program and implemented initiative after initiative to eliminate the 40-year-old achievement gap between white and minority students.
Their efforts have been unsuccessful. In fact, the gap has widened.
The Urban League of Greater Madison (ULGM) thinks it has a piece of the solution: The Madison Preparatory Academy.
This school would educate underprivileged, academically delayed students in the hopes that such attention might begin filling that ever-present achievement gap. Proponents argue that offering low-income minority students a safe place with diverse teachers, longer educational time and community support must be a part of any solution to the achievement gap. District officials, however, have already rejected the proposal once and maintain that any ideal situation must incorporate more systemic changes that resolve widespread hunger, incorporate more intense family engagement and increase staff diversity district-wide.
Madison Prep targets low-income, minority students
Kaleem Caire, head of the Urban League and creator of the Madison Prep proposal, says he was inspired to get involved because of his own experience growing up in Madison and attending school there.
“The black rights movement was big in the ‘60s and ‘70s but tapered off in the ‘80s,” Caire says. “The school system was poorly designed for us. It didn’t really support us and children didn’t really succeed there.”
The school system hasn’t made much progress since Caire’s time at school. According to the United States Department of Education, 85 percent of Latino students and 86 percent of African-American students live in poverty, and just 52 percent of African-American males graduate high school, compared to 88 percent of white males.
Caire wanted to find a way to change this, so he began working on a proposal for a charter school for low-income minorities in Washington, D.C. He decided to bring it back to his hometown to become part of the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD).
He’s had some help from Laura DeRoche-Perez, vice president of school development for the Urban League, who has worked to garner support for Madison Prep. She says the key elements of the school are what is going to have the largest impact in closing the achievement gap. Madison Prep includes two separate, single-gender schools in grades six through 12.
“It eliminates the tough middle-to-high school transition where kids can fall into the cracks,” DeRoche-Perez says. “It has been proven that the fewer transitions, the better.”
Madison Prep would offer longer school days and longer school years, with classes from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and an additional four weeks of class over the summer. The school would also incorporate mentoring and community support, as well as a prep year for those coming into school already behind. In order to get students college-ready, the charter would have a college preparatory educational program incorporating the International Baccalaureate curriculum, which DeRoche-Perez says is the best framework for students to prepare for college.
Not only would this proposal be helpful in educating children and getting them ready for higher education and the real world, but Caire says it would also help the school district in Madison as a whole.
“Our goal, besides preparing a significant number of low-income minority students for college, is to become a beacon of innovation for Madison school systems and others in Wisconsin,” Caire says. “We’re taking a model very college-focused and using a seven-core strategy, and replicating it in the Madison public school system.”
Still some convincing to do
This past year, both the school board and the teachers union turned down the proposal for Madison Prep. However, district officials still see a need for change within MMSD.
“There is a tremendous need in our community to do things differently in our schools for students who aren’t achieving,” says Joe Gothard, assistant superintendent of secondary schools. “In the end there were a lot of barriers for us to get to those things in regard to Madison Prep.”
These barriers have shifted from when the proposal was first introduced to where it stands now. The school was first established as an instrumentality charter, which meant it would be a part of MMSD, and those employed by Madison Prep would be employees of the district. Superintendent Dan Nerad says this was an issue because the perceived cost of the school was beyond the levels of funding within the district.
According to President of Madison Teachers, Inc., John Matthews, the average teacher’s wage is $55,000 annually, but the budget for Madison Prep is several hundred thousand dollars short to provide this salary. With Caire’s proposal, union teachers would be making betwee $41,000 and $47,000.
DeRoche-Perez thinks the real issue people have with the school is that rather than being seen as an addition to the school district, it’s seen as competition. Those opposed to the proposal believe the school would take away resources from the other public schools in MMSD.
Erik Kass, MMSD’s assistant superintendent of business, gives his perspective on this idea.
“The issue is the level of resources needed to be committed to that program in comparison to other programs and schools within the district,” Kass says, “and what type of impact that would have on kids in other schools.”
Caire doesn’t understand the school board’s argument on the issue of resources.
“The goal is to resource quality to get outcomes for children. Why wouldn’t we take a program as compelling as Madison Prep and resource it when we’re not currently getting the outcomes we seek?” he asks. “Why are we spending money on something that clearly isn’t working?”
To solve the issue of funding, the ULGM decided to make Madison Prep a non-instrumentality charter, which would make it separate from the district but still need its approval. Taxpayer money would go to the school with little oversight, which Gothard believes is unsettling to many members of the community. There are already three charter schools in Madison, all of which are instrumentalities and are showing success. Nerad adds that by becoming a non-instrumentality, Madison Prep would hire teachers independently rather than within the union, which is not allowed in their contract.
Matthews has a problem with the matter regarding teachers, but he says in reality the achievement gap stems from an issue far beyond schools’ capabilities: Poverty. Children living in poverty don’t have the same luxuries as middle- and upper middle-class families, resulting in lower abilities to succeed in school.
“The kids who are growing up in poverty never get any health care, and now they’re in school and have a leg ache or a tooth ache, they don’t give a damn about two plus two,” Matthews says. “Then you’ve got the problem that we have today that these kids might not have a meal at night. We have school lunch and breakfast programs, but we have kids who go home and don’t have anything to eat. This not only affects their health, it affects their learning.”
With this in mind, Matthews thinks more changes need to be made in society that would, in turn, contribute to eliminating the achievement gap.
MMSD is addressing these societal issues with its own solution to the achievement gap: The Building Our Future plan. Nerad says the district’s plan will be more effective than that of ULGM, since Madison Prep is only a school-based solution.
“It’s in recognition of the fact that there isn’t one thing alone that will eliminate our achievement gap,” Nerad says. “We need to be on many fronts of the achievement gap issues, and there are places within our plan that deal with individual school ideas and allowing innovation in schools.”
These other fronts include practices such as hiring for diversity, so that teachers and staff in schools reflect the cultures of the kids the school district serves. Another important aspect of Building Our Future is family engagement to get parents involved who may not feel they have found their place within the community.
Even with the board expecting to finalize the Building Our Future plan in June 2012, Kass believes a compromise concerning Madison Prep is possible once the Urban League re-proposes the idea for the school.
“It’s in the Urban League’s court to bring it up again,” Kass says. “I told the Urban League that I hope we can continue to work on ways that we believe could make a more cost effective program. We never got to that conversation before.”
Caire also says he and the rest of the Madison Prep supporters are open to negotiation, but he feels that his side has already sacrificed much more than the school board.
“We’ve compromised so much during development—gender and financing,” he says. “We never got that from them.”
Madison Prep not out of it yet
But Caire is not going to give up. There is still a future for Madison Prep.
“We are still going to move forward developing; we’re just getting ducks in a row and talking to certain stakeholders, but we are definitely going to come back at it,” he says positively. “We want to be an example to address achievement challenges and moving kids forward. We want to be an innovative model to show that we can have world-class schools in Madison and the rest of the state.”
It has been a long and grueling process, but regardless of the fate of the school, Gothard says things have progressed because of it.
“Though there was pain experienced by many throughout the Madison Prep proposal and all the public meetings, there was some really good that came out of it too,” he says. “A couple layers have been peeled off so now our conversations are much deeper, and we are confronting some issues that have been going on in our district for some time.”