Personalized Pathways

A Madison student explores a table of literature at an expo at Alliant Energy Center in December designed to introduce eighth-graders to the new "Personalized Pathways" initiative in the Madison School District.

Information technology and communications are popular options for the second focus area for Personalized Pathways, the Madison Metropolitan School District's program that emphasizes smaller learning communities around a common theme.

The first theme, or pathway, is health services. About 415 ninth graders across MMSD’s four main high schools are a part of the inaugural cohort of pathways students. They applied to the program last school year as eighth graders.

At Monday's Madison School Board meeting, district officials said they surveyed administrators and teachers at Madison’s four main high schools to get their thoughts on options for the second pathway. Two of the four schools — East and Memorial — said they are interested in pursuing information technology/communications as the next option, set to start in the 2019-2020 school year.

West High said it wants to design its own pathway based on teacher interest. The district reported La Follette High asked to share thoughts in August as the school is in the midst of administrative changes.

In the coming months, MMSD said officials will reach out to community partners and middle school students and families to collect feedback on the next pathway. The Madison School Board is expected to vote on the next pathway in September.

The School Board also received a progress update from MMSD about the first semester of pathways. The district compared pathways students’ performance to their peers outside the program.

Overall, there is a higher concentration of low-income students, students of color and English language learners inside the pathway compared to the overall makeup of the ninth grade class.

Across the district, pathways students had slightly lower course failure rates, better attendance rates and slightly higher GPAs than their non-pathways peers.

However, the average GPA for a pathways student at West High was 2.58 last semester, compared to 3.15 for the ninth grade class outside the pathway. Pathways students at West also had a higher course failure rate compared to their peers outside the pathway. West High pathways students failed 12 percent of the credit-bearing courses they attempted, versus a failure rate of 5 percent for students outside of the pathway.

“I cannot sit up here and say all of the root causes in a semester’s worth of time, but we’ve begun to support West and wrap our arms around the teachers and administrators to support them on what we can do differently,” said Cynthia Green, MMSD’s executive director for curriculum and instruction.

The report also measured attrition. Out of the 14 students who opted out of the pathway that are still enrolled in one of the four main high schools, eight were from West.

The MMSD presentation showed the high schools have different ideas about when they will be ready to go “wall-to-wall” with pathways, meaning when they expect to have enough options and support for each incoming ninth grader to enroll in one.

East and Memorial expect full implementation by the 2020-2021 school year. La Follette thinks it will be ready by 2021-2022 and West by 2022-2023.

Although the high schools rolled out pathways together last school year, disparate desires and outcomes prompted conversation about how the model could function differently across the district.

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“We did health services across all four schools. There are advantages to that, but there are potentially some disadvantages,” Green said. “Advantage of everyone doing it together (is) central support bringing community partners together. Disadvantage is there might not be as much of the school voice... if they want to go to something different.”

Although the decision to have different pathways at different schools is not final, board members probed the district to share thoughts on how to handle the possibility.

“The last we heard, the second pathway at all the schools was probably going to be the same," said Madison School Board member TJ Mertz. "That appears not to be the case here.

“This will raise questions about student access to pathways at other schools, transportation, enrollment and capacity issues. Perhaps lottery issues.... It would be nice to have (the district’s) thinking on that. All of those are going to be questions (the public) asks us.”

At Monday’s meeting, MMSD also shared survey results from pathways students and teachers about the first semester of the program. Seventy-one percent of pathways students completed the survey and 82 percent of pathways teachers.

Generally, results trended positive. The majority of staff and students said participating in the pathway helped with building relationships and fostering collaboration. Students also felt they could apply what they learned in class to their future career.

Mertz questioned the how well the survey represented the opinions of all students considering the participation rate.

“(Seventy-one percent) seems kind of low to me... if the people who like it are answering versus the people who don’t, that’s something that I’d like to see broken down in a report,” Mertz said.