When Wayne Strong was on the Madison Metropolitan School District’s strategic framework committee in 2009, “the number one priority was the achievement gap.”
“That is a gap that still exists for us, that still continues to plague the district,” the School Board Seat 7 candidate said in a February interview. “I want to take a very pragmatic approach to really look at some real strategies that will really help us get at some of the root causes of why these disparities, particularly in terms of discipline, continue to exist.”
Strong is running against incumbent Nicki Vander Meulen for the seat, which is one of two Madison School Board seats contested on the April 7 ballot. The other is a race between Maia Pearson and Christina Gomez Schmidt, who emerged from the three-way primary race in a bid to succeed Kate Toews in Seat 6.
This is Strong’s third campaign for the board, having lost in his previous bids in 2013 and 2014. He is currently a program associate at the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.
To close the achievement gap — a goal all of the candidates have expressed during this campaign cycle — Strong said it will take “a collective effort in terms of community.”
“It’s not something that the school district in and of itself can solve,” he said. “It’s not something that one particular policy is going to solve.”
One of his top priorities in that effort is improving school safety, which he said is something he’s heard about regularly during his campaign.
“If kids don’t feel safe, if staff doesn’t feel safe, it’s not going to be a good learning environment,” he said. “School safety is really the cornerstone of academic achievement.”
A retired Madison police officer, Strong was among the first school resource officers — then called educational resource officers — stationed at Madison high schools. He supports keeping officers in schools, a practice that was approved last year on a four to three vote. One of those three votes against was his opponent.
“We’re always going to have cops in schools, it’s just a matter of the role that they’re going to play,” he said.
That role should be maintaining safety while also “using every mechanism possible before a citation is issued” if there are ordinance violations in a school, including restorative practices that get at the root causes of misbehavior.
“That’s the real challenge is getting the behavior to change and making sure that we’re providing these kids with the resources that they need to stay in school and giving the staff the resources that they need to help keep the kids on the track to learning,” he said.
The longtime Southside Raiders youth football head coach said he’s seen players come through that program dealing with some of the challenges in their personal lives that come with them to school. How to handle those, and redirect those students toward their strengths, is a key among his priorities if elected, he said.
Some of those strengths will be in areas that could lead to work in the trades field, which Strong said is something he’d like to see emphasized more.
“I want to make sure that we identify a group of kids who are interested in those fields, making those fields known to people, to students so they see it as an option,” he said. “Maybe I’m not quite ready for college but I’ll try this field and see how it goes. Giving kids options and choices to attain a well-paying job so that they can support themselves, and ultimately when they have their own families they’re able to take care of their families.”
To find those opportunities, though, kids need to be in school, Strong stressed. He hopes that if elected, out-of-school suspensions would be reduced by the end of his three-year term, because, “When kids aren’t in school, they’re not learning.”
“When kids aren’t in school they’re getting into all sorts of other things,” he said. “When we talk about the school-to-prison pipeline, that’s where the school-to-prison pipeline is, is kids out of school, getting in trouble, getting involved with the law and ending up in our juvenile and ultimately our criminal justice system.”
Strong is still optimistic that with the right leadership, the district can make headway on the goal he helped set out years ago: close the achievement gap.
“It’s a good time, we’ve got a new superintendent coming in,” Strong said. “If I’m elected on the board I’m going to work with him and the other board members to make sure that we’re doing things and making policies that are beneficial to all of our students and that we’re as open and transparent in our practices as we can be.”
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