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Madison Schools Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham

Middle schools in the Madison Metropolitan School District have become caring environments for students, but aren’t rigorous enough to prepare them for high school academic work, says Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham.

“We know there are quite a few things that highly effective schools do that we have not been doing in both our middle and our high schools,” Cheatham told Madison School Board members Monday during a review of a district report on coursework in the high schools.

“We haven’t established a coherent approach to instruction, as you’ve heard me say again and again, but we are making progress. We’ve all spent quality time in our middle and high school classrooms, and in middle schools in particular, we’ve made tons of progress in creating very caring environments, but the level of rigor and academic challenge isn’t where it needs to be,” Cheatham said.

“I think it’s a great opportunity. The fact that the environments in many middle schools are as caring as they are allows us to raise the level of academic challenge,” she said.

The district’s first annual report, released last month, noted the need to improve achievement in middle and high schools, particularly in mathematics.

Statistics presented to School Board members Monday included the proportion of 9th graders who got at least one "D" or "F," which averaged 52 percent district-wide from 2010-2013. When broken down to look at feeder middle schools, the proportion of 9th graders receiving "Ds" or "Fs" varied from 19 percent for students from Hamilton Middle School to 79 percent for students from Wright Middle School. Students from both middle schools attend West High School.

Algebra is the course in which most 9th graders get an F, with the proportion of students failing at least one semester ranging from 18 percent at West High School to 34 percent at East High School, according to school district statistics.

Good academic achievement in 9th grade correlates with graduating from high school, so targeting resources at helping students transition to high school is one way to raise the number of students who graduate, school officials say.

Four-year graduation rates for the class of 2013 cited by the district Monday were 94 percent district-wide for students without a 9th-grade “F” and 55 percent for students with an “F.”  The figures drop to 79 percent for African-American students without a 9th-grade “F” to 45 percent for African-American students with an “F."

The numbers show that the school district isn’t doing enough to support students in their transition to high school, Cheatham said. “We haven’t done a great job very closely monitoring freshmen — and we know it’s a difficult transition, even in the best of circumstances. We haven’t done the kind of persistent follow through, so that as soon as we see a child suffering in attendance or grades, we figure out what's going on, intervene and get them back on track.”

Among the strategies recommended in the district report are:

  • Continuing to better align curriculum and instruction of middle schools and high schools;
  • Address grading and homework practices in middle and high schools;
  • Ensuring equitable access to world language, arts and advanced classes;
  • Defining multiple career field and academic pathways for high school students;
  • Monitoring 9th grade more closely and provide support for struggling students;
  • Providing additional support for algebra teachers;
  • Increasing counseling support for students district-wide.

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School Board members, while troubled at some of the statistics, generally expressed appreciation at being given raw numbers to consider in setting policy goals. They will address the issues raised Monday at a number of meetings over the fall.

School Board member Ed Hughes suggested that after years of working top-down on it, the district consider taking a more bottom-up approach to coordinating instruction between middle and high schools.

“We’ve been talking about this forever. Maybe it just doesn’t work to do it top-down,” he said.

TJ Mertz said he is happy the school district is looking at varied ways for students to succeed, both by supporting traditional academic pathways and creating work-based pathways.

“My own instincts tell me that we have a significant number of students who need significant academic, social and psychological support than we are at this time prepared to give them,” Mertz said.