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The start of every school year brings optimism.

That’s especially true this fall in Madison.

The district has a new leader in Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham. And so far, she’s off to a strong start.

She’s listened to the community and staff, visited every school and utilized outside help in assessing district needs.

Madison has plenty of challenges. That’s for sure. Yet the district has a lot going for it, too, as students return to classes Tuesday.

Cheatham has embraced higher standards and will publish annual progress reports. She’s a fan of using student data to measure for results and hold educators accountable.

Yet Cheatham also talks convincingly about supporting principals and teachers. She plans to focus intently on high-quality teaching practices, shared leadership and professional development. Teachers seem to appreciate her call for more consistent priorities and curriculum.

It’s almost a back-to-basics approach, using research and results to inform strategies.

Unlike her predecessor, Cheatham hasn’t proposed a long list of new spending initiatives. Money, of course, matters. Yet Madison already has lots of resources, and it does many things well. Cheatham wants to start with what’s working and build from there.

“The really exciting news is we have all the ingredients to be successful,” Cheatham said this summer.

That’s good to hear.

Despite a drop in state aid and relatively flat spending, most Madison teachers are getting raises that average more than 3 percent (which includes increases for longevity). Unlike most public workers, they don’t have to contribute to health insurance premiums.

District officials expect a rebound in state aid next year.

Cheatham told the State Journal editorial board she’d like to let all students attend summer school classes if their parents want them to. Currently, only students who have fallen behind are invited.

That could help address the summer slide in learning.

Cheatham was surprised to learn the district sometimes releases children from elementary schools as early as 10 or 11 a.m. Though that doesn’t happen often, we hope she puts an end to the wasteful practice, which annoys many parents.

The district needs to make sure staff hired specifically to boost parent involvement are allowed to work odd hours to be more effective.

The Urban League of Greater Madison didn’t get its charter school to help attack in a dramatic way the stubborn achievement gap for black and other students. That was disappointing.

Yet the League has partnered with the district to provide rigorous after-school help for struggling students at middle schools. That’s reassuring.

The fear of private and religious school luring away public school students in Madison with vouchers was overblown. The state’s voucher expansion will barely register a blip on enrollment here.

Cheatham is wisely focusing on what she can do for her district, rather than taking on the statehouse. Madison needs to support and improve its schools, not make excuses.

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