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School Board president Ed Hughes says that the Madison Metropolitan School District remains focused on a race-based academic achievement gap that has plagued it for decades, and it is about more than families living in poverty.

“Sometimes in discussions about the achievement gap, people talk past each other. Some people say we’ve got to do better. Other people say it’s poverty — kids are coming to school with trauma at home, and you can’t blame the teachers if they’re not achieving at the same level,” Hughes told the editorial board of The Capital Times Thursday.

But even African-American children from middle-class families show lower levels of achievement than their white counterparts, often lower than low-income white classmates, Hughes said. “Income explains a lot, but doesn’t explain all of it.”

Hughes is running unopposed for reelection to the school board on April 1, and is using the occasion of the election as an opportunity to talk about the board’s accomplishments and the work still ahead.

Hughes is aware, he says, that middle-class African-American parents report that their children are labeled by teachers as students who cannot succeed from the start. “Or they assume they need help with food stamps or something,” Hughes said. “I think that’s why some middle class African-American parents don’t send their kids to our schools.”

“What’s the worst is when you talk to an African-American mom who says ‘I had to send my kid away to live with his father in Seattle just so he get out of the toxic brew that’s here in Madison, and it broke my heart to send him away but I had to.’”

Hughes said it pains him to hear such stories, which have been powerful motivators to the school board. “That was a challenge of the Madison Prep debate. People would tell us those things and we’d think, ‘We have to do something.’ But then we hear ‘If we don’t have MTI social workers, we can’t do this.’ You can see where the schisms in the community are — that was a real eye-opener to me — to hear these wholly different experiences of living here and how people talk past each other.”

The school board in 2011 rejected a polarizing proposal for the Madison Preparatory Academy charter school — designed to boost academic achievement of African-American students — put forward by Kaleem Caire, CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison. Among the issues that defeated the proposal was the fact that no social workers of color who were members of Madison Teachers Inc. were available to work at the school.

Since the arrival of superintendent Jennifer Cheatham last spring, there is more talk about excellence in the classroom than a specific prescription for race and class disparities in achievement, Hughes said.

“It’s not just one document with particular programs; much of it has been integrated in a broader sense. There is more focus on great teaching in every classroom — that’s the best strategy you can have — and to have a more coherent and consistent curriculum adhering to Common Core standards, so kids who bounce around school to school aren’t at sea when coming into a new classroom.”

Each School Improvement Plan, for example, identifies specific academic goals for all students, and calls for greater improvement by minority and low-income students, he said. In addition, some provisions of an achievement gap plan crafted under former superintendent Dan Nerad, like expansion of the successful AVID/TOPS program, have been completed. Others, like more effective outreach to parents, are in the works, Hughes said.

The district now has programs and benchmarks in place to help students achieve from 4-year-old kindergarten to third grade reading; to keep students engaged in 5th grade when some start losing interest; through middle school so they are ready for high school, Hughes said.

Yet some of those strategies have been used by the school district for years, and the results have not been good, Hughes acknowledged. “The results have been disappointing not just because African-American kids are achieving at lower rates than white kids, but because our African-American kids are doing worse than African-American kids in Beloit, than African-American kids in Racine. We ought to be able to do better than that.”

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