Teacher rally

Madison School District educators Monday sway their arms to music at an event to promote equity at the Alliant Energy Center. 

Call it a giant pep rally, but this one was for teachers.

For maybe the first time, the Madison School District convened all of its educators to get them fired up for the new school year, which begins next Tuesday, Sept. 3. In particular, the district wants them fired up for equity.

“We need to show up ready to create the kinds of classrooms, hallways, schools and community that will make things better and make things right for all of our students,” said Nichelle Nichols, the district’s director of equity, partnership and engagement. “Everyone wants to feel like they belong, and we are creating the hugest circle we can of human concern, right now, this morning.”

Some 5,000 educators from the district’s 50 schools gathered at the Alliant Energy Center Monday to start their workweek with the three-hour event, which featured Madison School District officials, a student poet and Bettina Love, a popular speaker on issues of race and education.

The event highlighted the importance the district has placed on black academic progress, and on erasing the alarming achievement gap that has persisted despite years of effort.

But according to the district’s annual report released Monday, progress is being made.

The report says that black students have made significant progress on key benchmarks since 2012, the year before Jennifer Cheatham was hired as superintendent to address persistent issues related to race and equity. Cheatham left this summer for a job at Harvard University, and the district hired Jane Belmore as interim superintendent while the School Board decides on a permanent replacement.

“I invite you also to open your minds and, importantly, open your hearts to today’s messages,” Belmore told the gathering, “both here and as you go back to your schools and workplaces and work with your teams and continue this work throughout the year.”

The exuberant tone of the gathering belied some of contentious issues that have accompanied the district’s attempts to narrow the achievement gap, such as the implementation of a new discipline policy in 2014 that prompted some teachers to complain that they feel powerless when facing student misbehavior.

Belmore, who takes over during the second year of a new strategic framework that stresses black excellence, acknowledged the friction surrounding equity issues.

“I know this year will be a very important year for our district,” she said. “We have many critical decisions to make as we support every day the important work that you do in your schools. I want you to know that we’ll do our very best to make those decisions with courage and with integrity, knowing that not everyone will be pleased with every decision we make.”

According to the annual report, standardized testing shows an 8% increase for grades three to five in reading proficiency for black students, and an 11% increase in math proficiency, since 2012, nearly the same increases seen overall. In grades six to eight, black students outpaced the total student progress with a 7% increase in reading proficiency, compared to 4% overall, and a 5% increase in math proficiency, compared to 3% overall. High school completion rates for black students are up 11%, compared to 4% overall.

Nichols hit the stage dancing to a heavy beat as teachers clapped and waved their hands. But the fun came with a sobering statement on confronting embedded racism.

“Racial slurs of any kind cause emotional and psychological trauma and are an act of racial violence,” she said. “And they will not be tolerated.”

Love, who spoke last year at the YWCA’s Racial Justice Summit, briefly traced the evolution of segregation in schools, which she said only got worse after Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case that declared segregation unconstitutional. Not only did 20,000 black educators lose their jobs, they were replaced by white teachers.

“You look around this room, and there’s a huge amount of white folks teaching black kids,” she said.

She challenged those teachers to evaluate their perceptions of black students.

“What do you see when you see us?” she said. “If you don’t see creativity, if you don’t see joy, if you don’t see love, if you don’t see ambition, then you can’t teach us.”

Teachers said the event had the intended effect of getting buy-in for the district racial equity goals.

“I was skeptical at first, but I do think it was very effective,” said Carli Adams, a special education teacher at Crestwood Elementary.

She said she sees the event as a response to big changes in district administration as well as publicity last school year surrounding several incidents of teachers using racial slurs in the classroom.

“There were a lot of publicized things last year around race specifically, and the district was sort of like, ‘This is our stance,’” she said.

Emily Carroll, a school psychologist at Mendota Elementary, called the event “moving.”

“You can’t just watch a YouTube video and have the same kind of impact,” she said. “You needed to feel the energy.”

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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.