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Jennifer Cheatham, superintendent, speaks Tuesday during a Madison Metropolitan School District progress and strategic plan press conference at Nuestro Mundo Elementary School.

Touting gains over the past five years, particularly among African-American students, Madison Metropolitan School District officials on Tuesday rolled out a new strategic framework that focuses on raising the bar on academics and closing achievement gaps.

District officials reported significant gains in literacy and math since the district hired Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham in 2013 and launched the first strategic framework to raise student achievement generally and narrow the gulf between white students and students of color.

Statistics released Tuesday show that some of the largest gains were made by African-American students, but student achievement benchmarks rose across the board. That, district officials said, sets the stage for a new framework.

“Our first strategic framework helped put our school district on an upward trajectory, but more important set the foundation that we can make even more progress in the future,” said Cheatham at a press conference announcing the new framework, which was approved by the School Board on Monday.

The press conference was at Nuestro Mundo Elementary School, a dual language immersion school in Monona and one of two schools that last year adopted a community school model, which provides coordinated services to students and families to reduce barriers to learning. It was also one of five elementary schools that saw 20 percent or more gains in reading proficiency.

Nancy Hanks, chief of schools for the Madison School District, said over the past five years, African-American students saw a 7 percent gain in early literacy, a 9 percent gain in elementary reading, a 10 percent gain in elementary math, a 7 percent gain in middle school reading and math, and a 10 percent increase in those earning a GPA of 3.0 or better.


Nancy Hanks, MMSD's chief of schools: "We’re out to prove that we as a community can pave the way for our black youth to live up to their full potential."

African American students also saw a 13 percent gain in fifth-grade reading proficiency on the Measure of Academic Progress, or MAP test. English language learners saw a 17-point gain.

The outlier was fifth-grade advanced learners, who saw a 6 percent decline in reading proficiency. Cheatham attributed some of the decline to a widening pool of students who are being classified as advanced learners, particularly low-income students, students of color, English language learners and students with disabilities. 

Overall, fifth-grade reading proficiency was up by 10 percent, with Lindbergh, Van Hise, Emerson, Nuestro Mundo and Mendota improving by 20 percent or more. With a 34 percent gain, Lindbergh on Madison’s north side saw by far the most improvement.

“In student achievement, we’re out to close gaps and raise achievement for all,” Hanks said. “In culture and climate we’re out to ensure that every child and adult can thrive in their school. And specifically for African-American youth, we’re out to prove that we as a community can pave the way for our black youth to live up to their full potential.”

Officials hope the gains will be a springboard for even more success. The new framework calls for a more inclusive, school-centered approach in a district of 27,000 students, of which more than half are minority and nearly a third are learning English. The framework was developed after nearly 100 meetings involving some 2,000 students, families, community members and educators, according to Cheatham.

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The plan would put more effort into readying students for college or careers by boosting reading and math proficiency, graduation rates and post-secondary enrollment rates.

“It’s anchored to our vision that every school is a thriving school that prepares every child to graduate ready for college, career and community," Cheatham said. "It is anchored to a set of core values that represent our commitment to anti-racism, to inclusion, to being allies to every child and every family member. And it sets out a new set of ambitious goals that all students achieve academically.”

The plan focuses on school climate, with efforts to retain staff and boost the number of minority teachers. Emphasis would also be placed on “culturally and linguistically responsive teaching” and districtwide training on structural racism and implicit bias.

The district plans to increase efforts to close the achievement gap by targeting issues like school readiness, advanced learner participation and student climate for African American students.

Overall, the district plans to develop a curriculum that moves beyond basics in literacy and math and provides more advanced, or deeper, instruction.

To cut down barriers to school-based innovation, the plan calls for streamlining the process by which schools develop their own school-specific plans. The plan also proposes assigning several school support teams made up of experts in various areas to work with clusters of schools.

The plan also proposes creating systems that boost parent involvement, get at-risk students re-engaged, expand the community school model and develop stronger relationships with preschool families to get kids ready for school.

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.