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Badger Rock Middle School

Badger Rock Middle School is housed in a building owned by the Center for Resilient Cities, a Madison nonprofit that also operates out of the building and allowed organizers of a planned independent charter school to use its space at night and on weekends.

A school that would largely rely on students for its design is seeking to become an independent Madison charter school authorized by the University of Wisconsin System.

Milestone Democratic School would open in August 2020 at a yet-to-be-determined location with an initial enrollment of about 40 to 50 students, according to Michael McCabe, who has worked as a private and public school principal and co-founded the nonprofit school design firm Community—Learning—Design.

Gary Bennett, outgoing director of the UW Office of Educational Opportunity, confirmed that the office is working with McCabe’s group, and McCabe said the firm has completed phase one of the application process and was “cleared to submit for phase two,” which they did on Dec. 9.

Milestone would focus on “student-directed, project-based learning,” according to a 14-page “Iteration #1” of the school released last month, and would use one-on-one coaching and internships as part of “a democratic system where each student is able to decide what are the things that they think” are important to their “academic, social and emotional” success.

Decision-making and yearly school redesigns would be conducted via majority votes in which students have as much say as staff and administrators and other members of the school community. It would be in session year-round, but with longer breaks during each season, and enrollment could eventually top out at about 200.

McCabe made clear that the intent is to reach students who are disengaged from or not succeeding in traditional schools, and referred to Madison’s longstanding achievement gap for students of color.

“We want to design a school with youth, the most educationally disadvantaged youth,” he said, including allowing them to take a leading role in where in Madison the school is located.

Iteration #1 lists its authors as Community—Learning—Design co-founder Sean Anderson, an Edgerton Middle School technology teacher, and five youths ranging in age from 13 to 19 — two African-Americans, two Latinos, and a girl whose parents are from India. McCabe said not all of them are enrolled in the Madison School District.

“The youth, if we trust them ... they will rise to and exceed any expectations we can imagine,” he said.

Anderson took the lead on meeting with students and others last year to put together the school’s initial plan — with much of the work done on weekends and after hours at the Center for Resilient Cities on Madison’s South Side. The center is also home to one of the Madison School District’s two charter schools, Badger Rock Middle School.

McCabe said the center, not the district, allowed Milestone organizers to use the space. Center officials did not respond to requests for comment Thursday and Friday.

It wasn’t clear Friday whether district officials knew Milestone organizers were using the center to plan a school through a charter-authorizing process district administrators have staunchly opposed since the Office of Educational Opportunity was proposed and ultimately approved by Republican lawmakers in the 2015-17 state budget.

Asked about the proposal, district spokeswoman Rachel Strauch-Nelson said only that “we have not received any formal communication from the (OEO) about this proposal at this point.”

In March 2016, Cheatham said that it was her intent to make OEO “obsolete — that our schools will be serving students so well that there isn’t a need.”

Since then, the district has tried to keep tabs on any new charter proposals for Madison, going so far as to send former School Board member Ed Hughes to a September meeting of the Goodman Community Center board of directors to express the district’s opposition to another proposed charter school, Arbor Community School, which was looking to partner with the Goodman center.

Hughes gave the board a letter from Cheatham to UW System President Ray Cross that expressed the district’s dismay at allegedly being kept out of the loop on Arbor’s plans, pointed to alleged deficiencies in Arbor’s charter proposal, and asked that Arbor either be rejected or at least kept out of Madison.

Hughes also told the board that as a Goodman donor, he did not think other donors would look kindly on a Goodman partnership with Arbor.

Becky Steinhoff, Goodman executive director, later told the Wisconsin State Journal that Goodman was “experiencing a period of enormous change,” including the recent opening of a new building, and chose not to work with Arbor.

“I understand the climate and the polarizing topic of charters” in Madison, McCabe said, but he wasn’t concerned the district would attempt to thwart Milestone and he said it would “be a dream come true” if Milestone were one day folded into the district.

He said Community—Learning—Design has an application due to the state Feb. 22 for a federal planning grant.

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Chris Rickert is the urban affairs reporter and SOS columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal.