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James Howard, president of the Madison School Board.

James Howard is one of those people who came to school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and ended up making the city his home. Today an economist with Forest Products Laboratory, Howard grew up poor in Milwaukee, raised by a single mother. That life experience informs how Howard, president of the school board of the Madison Metropolitan School District, sizes up plans to more closely engage African-American parents in their children’s school lives. As the parent of three children who have graduated from or are attending Madison schools, he says he knows parent involvement is the most important weapon in the district’s arsenal to knock down the persistent achievement gap that separates black and white students in Madison schools.

Capital Times: Let’s catch up on the superintendent situation. Jane Belmore has been named as a one-year interim superintendent following Dan Nerad’s resignation. How’s the search for a replacement going?

James Howard: We’re in the early stages, interviewing firms to conduct a search. We hope to make a decision on Monday (July 16).

CT: The board plans to have a replacement in place for the start of the 2013-2014 school year. Does work based on Nerad’s plan to close the achievement gap stall in the meantime?

JH: Jane was an assistant superintendent in the district; she has followed what’s going on and has her opinions about our initiatives. So her selection makes us able to not lose a step and continue to work on some of the initiatives in the gap plan.

CT: Will a commitment to closing the gap be a priority in selecting a new superintendent?

JH: The community at large has been invested in the conversation around closing the gap, but we have a commitment to raising attainment for all of our students; that includes those at the bottom as well as the top.

CT: Has there been too much attention to the achievement gap; have things gotten out of kilter?

JH: I don’t think things are out of kilter. My hat is off to Kaleem Caire (president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison and architect of the plan for Madison Preparatory Academy, a proposed charter school directed at improving academic achievement of African-American students) for getting us focused on an area we should have been paying more attention to.

But Madison has to come to the important realization that this is not a small town anymore. We have big city problems, children with all types of problems; we are in fact a very diverse urban district with some students who are very poor. We need a superintendent who understands what that means, who is able to lead a district like ours and is committed to it.

CT: Getting parents more engaged in their children’s academic achievement is one part of the district’s gap plan. How important do you think that is to a child’s success?

JH: I work on the national level of the Parent Teacher Association and I am the federal legislative chair for the Wisconsin Parent Teacher Association. That means I’m engaged in legislative work about how to raise attainment for children.

One thing mentioned more than anything else is how to improve parent engagement. National research shows us that if you can get parents engaged in their kids’ educational process -- to be advocates -- it raises attainment for the kids. When you have poor children, you have poor parents, and a lot of times that means parents who are not well educated. And it’s a challenge for those parents to come into our schools and speak with a very well-educated workforce. Sometimes it’s intimidating. So, we have to figure out how to be welcoming and how to get parents into the schools. We can do that.

CT: How?

JH: It’s very important that we have people on staff that understand who those people are and how to communicate with them. You might have to go into their homes and have conversations with them about going into the schools and being part of their kids’ education. I look at this from experience. I was raised in a single parent household with three brothers; my mother had an 8th-grade education. But my mom was very engaged, she worked very hard to make sure we did what we needed to do in school. I also know that there were a lot of challenges for her, and the right person on the school staff would have been very helpful.

CT: Do you think it’s parents’ attention to say, homework, that makes the difference, or just giving a kid the confidence that they can do well in school?

JH: I think it’s the whole gamut. It’s the homework, it’s the love and the communication that “we’re behind you.” That’s why family units are so important. When you look at schools and students who are successful, your most successful kids are kids with family units. Obviously we have more single parents today, so we have to figure out how to help them be more successful. I say to single parents who talk about how difficult it is: “Yes, it’s difficult but you don’t get a free pass. You have to step up to the plate and do the work.”

CT: The assumption in the discussion of parent engagement and academic achievement is that it is African-American parents who are not engaged.

JH: I think that’s the reality of it. The question is: why aren’t they engaged? The latest survey we had showed that roughly 40 percent of African-American high school students were not engaged. Why? What happens to the kids? We seem to lose them over time, and we lose the parents.

CT: That’s a pernicious thing for black youth, isn’t it? Why do you think it’s happening?

JH: I think one of the things is that we need to create a culture in our schools that these kids can feel they are more a part of. For example, we don’t present “American” history -- there’s a lot of African-American history that never makes it to the books. So, if we as a country, as a community, would depict the true picture and make them part of it, I think kids would remain engaged longer.

CT: What about the school teachers and staff?

JH: We have to do a good job bringing a certain diversity on staff -- it doesn’t have to be all racial diversity. For example, someone from an urban district -- it could be a white person -- if they have the background, they could be valuable to our district. We have 2 percent African-American staff and we’re 25 percent African-American, over 50 percent minority students.

CT: Has the Madison School District been accountable in its education of African-American students?

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JH: African-Americans in the district are the worst performing group -- I think that means you have to have direct intervention. That’s been very difficult to get. The administration has not brought forward initiatives to the board, and remember, the administration did not support Madison Prep.

The strategy has been: we have all these programs in place, and hopefully you’ll be able to lift yourself up. But if it’s anyone else, we have special programs for them. We have a dual-language immersion program primarily for Latino students -- we’re doing the right thing there. But look at the African-American population -- I have some discomfort that we haven’t been able to get focused on them.

CT: Was the plan put forward by former Superintendent Nerad to close the achievement gap a good plan?

JH: Like all plans, we’ll have to wait and see the results. The problem is that the African-American community is tired of waiting -- it’s been 40 years. I’m included in that. Look, we don’t have a lot of money, instead of doing a $100 million program, let’s start small and incremental. The two things I promote are parent involvement and diversity hiring. Let’s see how that works out. Then implement something else.

CT: Last month, at an event in Warner Park inviting families on Brentwood Parkway to sign up their kids for a Boys and Girls Club summer program, you said you were disappointed not to see more parents. You live in that neighborhood. Why do you think so few parents came out?

JH: Maybe we have to put them on the spot. Say, look, for betterment of your kids, you have to get involved in their lives. I know some of them are struggling socio-economically, but they don’t get a pass. Where were those parents? We need to answer that question.

CT: You’ve personally taken some steps to help kids in the neighborhood, correct?

JH: My daughter has a lot of friends, I see kids whose parents are just not there. We do our best to help them. Most mornings, we have three or four young black boys who just come in and get breakfast -- my wife wouldn’t have it any other way.

CT: Can individuals do something to help families in the community make the connection with the schools?

JH: The kids in my neighborhood know me. I’m teaching them -- and their parents -- what a school board is. It takes me aback, they don’t have a clue about this institution that is so important in their lives. The more they know about it, the more they can take advantage of it.

CT: Is it incumbent on black professionals to do what they can to help the black kids in their communities?

JH: It’s incumbent on the entire community. Look at civil rights organizations; people think they’re supposed to solve the problems. No, they’re supposed to illuminate the issues; everyone has to solve the problems. That’s the same with the Madison community, we all have to solve the problems.

It’s not just black people. There are non-African-Americans working very hard to solve this gap -- my wife is one of those people. But it would help to have a little more diversity in our schools, in our administration, in our committees and councils. Our life experience has a lot to do with how we make decisions. If we have diversity, we have a broader discussion and the outcome should be more reflective of the community.