The importance of parental involvement in Madison schools and how best to accomplish that was one of a wide range of topics covered at Wednesday night forum featuring three members of the Madison School Board.
School Board President James Howard, Treasurer TJ Mertz and Board Clerk Dean Loumos are all running uncontested in the spring election, which takes place April 5. The terms are three years.
The event, moderated by Taylor Kilgore, a University of Wisconsin-Madison student and editor and book club coordinator at the Simpson Street Free Press and Katie Dean, city editor of the Cap Times, which sponsored the forum, was held at the Meadowridge Library on the city's southwest side.
Crucial to closing the achievement gap and improving academic success for all students is getting more parents involved in their children’s education, panelists said.
“We need more parents to be aggressive about their child’s education. We need an engaged public to tell us what the priorities are,” said Mertz.
But not all parents feel there is a welcoming climate for them to advocate for their child’s education, Kilgore said.
She asked what board members can do to make sure that the voices of parents of color are heard. She said after speaking with several parents of color whose children are involved in the SSFP after-school program, the general sentiment was that their voices and opinions aren’t considered in and out of their children’s schools. Because of that, some have stopped attending school-related events.
Howard began addressing the question by stating he wasn’t sure of that concern due to lack of data that proved it. But Tutankhamun Assad, a parent in the audience, said many black parents feel they are not listened to.
“Many black parents, especially working class black parents, feel we are not heard by the School Board,” Assad said.
Howard said limited access to public transportation, lack of time and resources were potential reasons why parents of color could not come to school meetings, but Assad stressed parents want to be there are but are ignored when they show up.
Questions surrounding the incident of a sixth-grade Cherokee Middle School student who faced expulsion for allegedly bringing a BB gun to school were raised at the panel, which led to board members discussing the district’s recently revamped Behavior Education Plan, which has moved away from zero tolerance policies.
Regarding that particular case, which led to a groundswell of support for the student, members on the panel said they were unanimous in voting to uphold the expulsion but approved early reinstatement. They emphasized that the student was able to immediately return to school after the board decision.
Still, Loumos acknowledged the case was one that shouldn't have reached the board level.
The three board members all agreed suspending and expelling kids can be more harmful than good, and the expulsion case has prompted the School Board to review the BEP again in depth.
But Mertz said in each discipline case, there needs to be consideration for what is appropriate for the punished student, as well as other students and the school as a whole. He gave an example of an assault case, noting that an assaulted student should not have to come to school and see his or her attacker.
Mertz acknowledged that the BEP has been implemented unevenly in the schools, and that it is working well in some schools, but not others. He said more training is needed.
Concerns over the district’s persistent achievement gap between students of color and their white peers were raised, with the public wanting to know what is being done to close it.
Loumos said prioritizing the needs of the kids was essential to help close the achievement gap. He also added what he thought were key points to help close the achievement gap: keeping students in school longer, not criminalizing them, and finding things that will motivate them.
“There is no silver bullet when it comes to the achievement gap,” Howard said. He said one area of focus is getting students to be proficient at their grade level in reading once they enter third grade. He said that was essential to closing the gap, especially for the district’s African-American students. If they pass third grade and aren’t reading at their grade level, he said it becomes increasingly difficult to get them on track.
He also commended MMSD Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham for her work in this area, noting that: “You need a leader that believes in all kids."
In its December quarterly review, the district outlined five priority areas to address disparities in student achievement among African-American students. They are reading by third grade; an engaging, meaningful, and personalized high school experience; all families are essential partners; outstanding, diverse educators; and keeping ninth grade students on track.
For older students such as high schoolers that are behind on reading, for example, Howard said it was important to be realistic about what is possible and that it will take intervention services to help get kids back on track.
Mertz noted that there are different gaps as well that need attention, too, like those with special education needs.
School board members also expressed concerns about the newly created Office of Educational Opportunity, which will oversee the creation of independent charter schools in Madison and Milwaukee without board oversight, and will pull money from public schools.