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Memorial panel

Students with Memorial High School's Black Student Union attend a panel discussion in February that included African American leaders who were the first to serve in their respective positions.

Aiming to improve the experience of black students, a Madison School District-sponsored group is putting forth a set of recommendations, such as paying parents to act as school liaisons, while also calling on the district to take a broad approach to its commitment to black students.

The Black Excellence Coalition delivered a report last week including 23 recommendations with the intent to “identify and change the conditions that have and continue to impede the expression and nurturance of Black Excellence in the district.”

The coalition formed this past winter in response to Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham’s inclusion of a “Black Excellence” commitment as one of three main goals within the district’s “strategic framework.”

The group is made up of black parents, teachers, community leaders and advocates.

Having long struggled to close academic gaps between black and white students, the district held eight coalition meetings between February and June to solicit input on improving the school environment and empowering African American students.

Nichelle Nichols, director of the district’s Family, Youth and Community Engagement Department, told the Madison School Board the coalition started with the mindset of: “You have to believe black excellence exists, it’s already there. Maybe you haven’t seen it, you don’t know it, but it does exist.”

Vanessa McDowell, CEO of YWCA Madison, was asked to serve as one of the 14 members of the Black Excellence Think Tank, which works alongside the coalition.

“It’s something that’s very important to me to see and figure out what we’re going to do to change the landscape of things currently with our African American students,” she said.

The recommendations cover nine broad categories, such as human resources, district-level accountability and curriculum changes.

Some of the recommendations include:

  • Soliciting input from black parents and teachers in the selection process for a new, permanent superintendent as Cheatham will leave the district next month.
  • Creating an independent ombudsman office “so that families have ability to share concerns and incidents.”
  • Involving black community members in the design and teaching of African American history.
  • Measuring professional learning of teachers on issues of race, culture and equity through student surveys and focus groups.

McDowell said the recommendations are a good start to the process of improving outcomes and environment for black students.

“We definitely have room to tweak them as well as make bigger asks,” she said. “Right now, we’re just trying to set a foundation for what we believe our students need, but also know that it’s going to take a whole lot more.”

When the Madison School Board approved a $463 million preliminary 2019-20 budget last week, it included $350,000 for a Black Excellence fund to go to programs and support for black students.

McDowell would like to eventually see more funding.

“If black excellence truly is a priority of the district, the district is going to have to put the money behind it, kind of walking what they’re talking,” she said.

Ali Muldrow, the one African American member on the seven-person School Board, said she thinks the recommendations represent the continuation of a long conversation on the achievement gap.

The coalition provides a unique venue for a “robust dialogue and sense of solidarity between the district, the community and students of color,” she said.

“The boldest recommendation of the coalition is that black excellence touches everything we do as a district, that black excellence is something that goes far beyond the coalition,” Muldrow said. “I think that’s a very, very radical notion, especially in a community when we so often talk about students of color, we do so from a deficit lens.”

The coalition and think tank will continue to meet to advance their priorities and advise the district and School Board, McDowell said.

“We are very committed as a group to stay engaged in this process and make sure that we continue to advocate and fight for our kids,” she said.

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