Incoming Madison School District Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham handles conflict, according to a former colleague, like a skilled martial artist calmly redirecting an opponent's energy.
"You'll never see her throw a punch, yet people will feel the impact of her art," said Derek Mitchell, CEO of San Francisco-based Partners in School Innovation. "I'm used to superintendents who go head-to-head with people. Jen gets the same outcomes without having to induce fear."
Cheatham's abilities will quickly be tested as the 41-year-old former Chicago Public Schools administrator on Monday begins her first superintendent assignment in a district facing an onslaught of challenges. Among them:
- A difficult budget cycle looms with a projected $8.7 million, 15 percent state aid reduction and $1.2 million federal funding cut;
- The future of the district's plan to raise achievement among low-income and minority students remains in flux;
- Gov. Scott Walker has proposed expanding the state's private school voucher program to Madison;
- A new standardized curriculum and a variety of tests meant to gauge student progress are raising concerns among parents and teachers;
- The role of charter schools continues to stir debate after the School Board rejected a contentious proposal in 2011.
Cheatham also will have to balance an array of competing interests — parents demanding more options, an influential teachers union, disgruntled taxpayers, and a growing population of low-income and minority students with lagging achievement. Added to that are an aging infrastructure and increasing demand for new classroom technology.
Cheatham has already begun meeting with board members and community leaders. Over the next 90 days she plans to gather community input and develop a multiyear strategy with measurable goals.
Though the district faces numerous challenges, Cheatham said in an interview with the State Journal that she sees accelerating the achievement gains of low-income and minority students as her primary challenge. Doing that will require a high-quality work force, the right instructional tools and making high school more relevant and engaging for students.
"I have no doubt that the way we're going to improve student achievement is by focusing on what happens in the classroom," Cheatham said.
Clash with unions
Madison Teachers Inc. executive director John Matthews and others say poverty drives the achievement gap more so than classroom factors.
"We do have a high-quality teaching force in Madison — it's been that way for years," Matthews said. He added that one challenge he'd like to see Cheatham address is the administration's tendency to adopt new programs every few years.
Cheatham's salary will be $235,000, 17 percent more than predecessor Dan Nerad. Unlike Nerad, a former Green Bay social worker and superintendent, Cheatham has never led an organization. She also hasn't stayed in the same job for more than two years since she was a teacher in Newark, Calif., from 1997 to 2003.
Mitchell, who beat out Cheatham for the top job at Partners in School Innovation where she worked for a year before moving to Chicago, said Cheatham has the talent to become schools chief in a major city like Chicago or New York in seven to 10 years. That's a benefit for Madison because Cheatham is on the upswing of her career and must succeed in order to advance, Mitchell said.
"The thing about Madison that's kind of exciting is there's plenty of work to do and plenty of resources with which to do it," Mitchell said. "It's kind of a sweet spot for Jen. Whether she stays will depend on how committed the district is to continuing the work she does."
Cheatham said eliminating Madison's achievement gap will require "serious cultural change" which will take many years.
"I'm absolutely committed to being in Madison for the period of time it will take to make that kind of sustainable change," Cheatham said.
Chief of instruction
In Chicago she spent two years overseeing 25 near-south and west side schools before becoming chief of instruction for the district. Her department had a $500 million budget — by itself more than Madison's $393 million budget — and 450 staff members serving a district of more than 400,000 students.
Cheatham said she closed a $50 million budget hole by reviewing every spending item in her department. She said she may need to take a similar approach in Madison, though not necessarily this year as the budget process is already under way.
While in Chicago she also introduced teacher leadership teams in the schools she oversaw and promoted a controversial extended school day plan.
Tracy Barrientos, a middle school teacher and union representative in Chicago's Pilsen neighborhood, said Cheatham excelled at promoting ideas that many teachers philosophically opposed, such as using student test results to gauge teacher performance.
"She's certainly doing her job well for people who believe she's doing the right thing," Barrientos said.
Benefit for Madison
Carl Cohn, director of the Urban Leadership Program at Claremont Graduate University in California, who Cheatham calls her mentor, said one gap in her resume is she hasn't had to lead an organization.
"I used to kid her about the fact that there's more to the superintendency than being an outstanding instructional leader," Cohn said. "From that point on, both in San Diego and Chicago, she has set out to prove me wrong."
Cheatham interned for Cohn in the San Diego School District while enrolled in Harvard's Urban Superintendents Program. Cohn was so impressed by a paper she wrote criticizing his decision-making that he immediately hired her as executive director of curriculum. In that role, Cheatham developed a strategy for raising student achievement that emphasized a standard curriculum and student assessments that had buy-in from educators.
"Clearly she has an approach that mirrors one of 'Lets roll up our sleeves, let's get people engaged in the process, let's have a sense of urgency around kids who historically haven't been well served,'" Cohn said.