Madison East High School

Is the city of Madison's Education Committee the best place to address services for at-risk youth?

A retired Madison East High School teacher thinks so.

Del Underbakke, who worked as a special education teacher at East with over 40 years of classroom experience, addressed the body during public comment Wednesday night. Underbakke, who regularly attends Madison School Board meetings and is passionate about at-risk or “opportunity” youth, discussed a recent report from the school district on the subject.

Ricardo Jara wrote the report and presented it to the Madison School Board on February 5th. Jara, who is pursuing his doctorate in educational leadership at Harvard’s graduate school of education, is Madison Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham’s special assistant for equity and innovation for the 2017-2018 school year.

The report is the culmination of Jara’s work in the district researching "opportunity youth," students who have dropped out, have far less than the needed amount of academic credits to graduate, or are involved with the court system.

As of October 2017, there were 1,298 fifth through 12th graders in the district considered at-risk of not graduating from high school, about 8.66 percent of the district’s fifth through 12th grade students.

Jara’s report found that alternative options are limited in size and scope for students who are not finding success in district schools. The report also found that the district does not have a strategy or plan to help students who are transitioning back to school from a corrections or treatment facility and youth who have left school for another reason and want to return.

The report also said there is no central group or role in the district dedicated to overseeing services for opportunity youth. Jara’s literature review pointed out “the need to coordinate efforts within and among district, city, county and community based organizations to deliver a concerted service delivery system for Opportunity Youth throughout the community.”

Underbakke read the line from the report to the education committee, which consists of representatives from the City of Madison, Dane County and the Madison Metropolitan School District and suggested they would be an ideal entity to pursue the work.

“I am wondering if this group could create a thread that ties its members together in a steadfast commitment to serve opportunity, or at risk youth?”

Education Committee members are County Supervisors Carousel Bayrd and Michele Ritt, Gloria Reyes representing the Madison mayor’s office, Madison School Board members Nicki Vander Meulen and James Howard, Alds. Matthew Phair and Shiva Bidar-Sielaff from the City Council and Nichelle Nichols representing MMSD.

Underbakke’s suggestion comes as the committee works to solidify its work and identity. In the last year, the committee cancelled a third of its monthly meetings for lack of quorum. At November and December meetings, members questioned the purpose and scope of the committee, which was initially created to foster communications between MMSD, the School Board, city officials and Dane County on education issues and make shared policy recommendations.

At the end of November, Mayor Paul Soglin and Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham sent a joint letter to the committee directing members to reduce to quarterly meetings and exclusively focus on three priority areas: Madison out-of-school time, the city’s early childhood zones and MMSD’s community schools initiative.

The committee pushed back against the suggestions at December’s meeting, and Nichols and Reyes updated the committee on Wednesday with more comments from Soglin and Cheatham. Nichols reported Cheatham said the letter was meant to share priorities, but the committee should feel free to focus on other things. Reyes said Soglin deferred to Cheatham’s recommendation.

The committee’s own list of priorities consisted of student transportation needs, services for homeless youth, opportunity youth and after-school programs for students with special needs.

The committee evaluated each of these topics to narrow down to the few the members want to tackle. For each topic, members asked themselves if it is an issue that has policy implications for the city, county or district, if there are other groups already working on it, and if the committee can do something to improve it.

Committee members agreed that working to improve conditions for opportunity youth checks all the boxes.

“This is a very timely conversation, there is a lot of attention and focus on this particular group of students,” Bidar-Sielaff said.

The committee plans to invite Jara to a meeting in the next couple of months for an update on his work.

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