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In March 2014, a report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that black children face enormous barriers to educational achievement in Wisconsin; in fact, the report classified the state as the worst in the nation for African-American children generally. 

The grim findings are not unique to that report. The achievement gap between black and white students here is the largest among all 50 states, according to the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress, the test known as the "Nation's Report Card." While Wisconsin fourth- and eighth-graders scored at and above national averages in reading and math, eighth-grade reading scores for black students were the worst of all 50 states, by any ethnic group. Black students' fourth-grade reading scores were the second-worst, and math scores of both fourth- and eight-grade black students were the third-lowest of any state.

"We’ve been at the bottom in one or two (areas), but this is the first time we’ve been at the bottom of the heap in all of them," Bradley Carl of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research said about the results, in November 2013. "The other thing that’s really bad news: I think for the first time on at least some of those measures, our black students performed worse than some states that traditionally have the lowest achievement rates."

Schools in the Madison area, specifically, have grappled with an achievement gap between African-American and white students for decades. More recently, the profound disparities in Dane County were documented by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families in its October 2013 Race to Equity report. The report found that compared to their white peers, black third-graders were 4.5 times more likely not to meet reading standards, a wider gap than elsewhere in the state and the nation.

Data from that same report revealed that half of all black high school students in Dane County don’t graduate on time, compared to 16 percent of white children. In the 2011-12 school year, African-American seniors were half as likely to take the ACT than whites. For those who took the exam, blacks averaged a score of 18 while whites averaged 24 (with 22-24 considered about average for college admissions).

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Lilada Gee


These facts led Rev. Lilada Gee, a member of the Justified Anger Coalition, to observe during a roundtable discussion of African-American leaders: “When I walk up to the schools and I see these huge banners — ‘School of Excellence’ — I'm thinking, ‘OK. So if you can hide behind those laurels that you're a school of excellence, where is your challenge to face the fact that that is not true for all of your children? ...

“Do you even look at ... these racial inequities that are going on, that there are droves of these black students that are not succeeding?"

The situation is so dire, black parents have said they are in a struggle to save their children.

Contributing factors to the achievement gap discussed among local leaders, parents and teachers include low expectations put on black children from the time they begin school; a discipline policy (revised in April 2014) that disproportionately affects African-American kids; few minority teachers in the district to act as role models; cultural barriers; poverty; lack of parental involvement; and the need for supportive after-school groups. Discrimination, whether intentional or not, and white privilege, have also played a role, some say.

The issue has become more pressing as Madison schools adjust to changing demographics, moving from a predominantly white school district to more than half minority kids. 

In 1989-90, the student population in the Madison Metropolitan School District was 21,905. Of that total, 81 percent of students were white, 11 percent were black, 5 percent were Asian, 2.5 percent were Hispanic and 0.5 percent were classified as American Indian-Alaskan.

In the 2013-2014 school year, the race breakdown of the student body of 25,107 was 44 percent white, 19 percent African-American, 19 percent Hispanic, 9 percent Asian and 8 percent two or more races.

In addition, more children in the district are living in poverty. For the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 school years, half the students in grades K-12 qualified for free or reduced-price lunch. That percentage was 36 percent in 2004 and 22 percent in 1994. 

The statistics on African-American achievement have been so grim throughout the years that in 2010, Kaleem Caire, at the time the CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison, put forth a proposal for a charter school designed to help African-American students surmount the achievement gap. It was ultimately rejected by the Madison School Board in 2011 after a bitter fight. 

It’s against this backdrop that Madison School District Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham took over the top job in spring 2013. In her first year, Cheatham earned favorable remarks from many in the community for her smart, focused and flexible approach, with a talent for connecting with teachers, the School Board, parents and city leaders alike. 

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Madison School District superintendent Jennifer Cheatham listens during a meeting at Madison Central Library. 

In the 2013-2014 school year, she revised the discipline policy to reduce the number of suspensions and expulsions in favor of practices that let students stay in school, own up to misconduct, and learn how to better conduct themselves in the future. Many education equity advocates see changes in school discipline policies, like those adopted under Cheatham, as key to closing the achievement gap.

She also negotiated a new contract between Madison Teachers Inc. and the district making it easier to hire from the outside, which some say will make it easier to hire more teachers of color — seen as a key part of the strategy to close the achievement gap.

Mayor Paul Soglin noted that Cheatham has worked with the city to jointly fund a coordinator for the Madison Out of School Time (MOST) initiative to get the most out of after-school programs around Dane County.

“We’re working in a collaborative manner to address this element which is so important to children’s education — what happens in 80 percent of their waking hours when they’re not in school,” Soglin said in a May 2014 story about Cheatham's first year.

Various community centers like the Vera Court Neighborhood Center and Goodman Community Center are among those that offer a range of programming for out-of-school time. The Simpson Street Free Press has been cited as an example of an out-of-school program that has boosted academic achievement of minorities.  

Cheatham's predecessor, former Superintendent Dan Nerad, had put forth a plan for addressing the achievement gap, but some African-American education experts said better leadership was needed to address the problem. Nerad announced he was leaving for a superintendent job in Michigan in 2013; the controversy over how to address the achievement gap was one of the factors leading to his departure.

Highlights of his tenure include the beginning of the district's 4-year-old kindergarten program, which is regarded as one step in addressing the achievement gap.

Part of the achievement gap plan crafted under Nerad, like the expansion of the successful AVID/TOPS program, offered by the Madison School District and the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County, has been completed. AVID/TOPS prepares students in the academic middle for college, and helps level the playing field for minority and low-income students. 2014 data show the program has succeeded in keeping many of its participants enrolled in college.