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Madison School District begins public hearings for achievement gap plan

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Achievement gap plan unveiled, Dan Nerad

Superintendent Dan Nerad pitches a plan to close Madison’s achievement gap on Feb. 6 at the Fitchburg Public Library.

About 50 people from a variety of backgrounds and expressing a diversity of opinions attended Tuesday night’s first in a series of public conversations about the Madison School District’s plan to close its achievement gap.

At a dozen tables at West High School’s library, participants debated whether students need more time in class or less, whether schools should have more flexibility or more consistency, and whether parents or the schools are doing enough to engage low-income and minority students.

"What I’m seeing is a sense of empowerment for a lot of people," said Andreal Davis, the School District’s assistant director of equity and family involvement.

Shakia Turner, a black mother of four children in Madison schools, who at one point sent her son to a private school for a year because he wasn’t getting the attention he needed in Madison schools, urged the district to train all of its teachers in culturally relevant practices.

"If they listen and understand and want to do something," the process will be a success, she said.

Bill Ryan, who is white and has no children in the district, became interested in the issue while mentoring a black East High School senior. Ryan said the student is on track to graduate with a sixth-grade reading level and no indication in his transcripts that he might have a learning disability, which reminded him of his own experience when he graduated from East 32 years ago.

"I want somebody to be held accountable for this," he said.

Earlier this month, Superintendent Dan Nerad announced a preliminary plan to close the district’s persistent racial and socioeconomic achievement gap, calling for an estimated $105.6 million over the next five years for a mix of new and existing strategies.

During an overview at the beginning of Tuesday’s meeting, Nerad said he couldn’t promise every idea from the public would be included in the final plan. But he did promise that every idea would be looked at.

"Whether it is this plan or another plan, if we are to make things right for our children and eliminate achievement gaps, we must invest," he said.

The plan recommends adding an extra early-morning class period for struggling elementary schools and middle and high school students, and developing an early warning system to identify such students; designating a model school for culturally relevant instruction; creating theme-based career academies within high schools; and establishing a "parent university" to help with parenting skills, among several things.

The plan would cost $12.4 million next year, or about $130 on a $250,000 home, said Erik Kass, assistant superintendent for business services.

The group discussions were more focused on specific elements of the plan rather than the overall cost. Each table began with a different focus topic, such as instruction and support, college and career readiness, safe and positive school environments, family engagement or culturally relevant practices.

For each category, participants were asked to consider what programs would have the greatest impact on the achievement gap and what elements were missing from the preliminary plan. At the end, they filled out a questionnaire asking them to rate on a scale of 1 to 5 how effective 29 different strategies would be in closing the achievement gap.

The hearing at West was the first of 13 forums scheduled through the end of March. As of last Thursday, there were 156 registered for the 12 forums, including about 30 registered for Tuesday night’s event.

After the district processes the public input, Nerad plans to incorporate the comments into his budget recommendations to the School Board.

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