MMSD Unveils New Strategic Framework:
Black Student Excellence
Front row: Kelly Ruppel, chief financial officer (l-r); Jen Cheatham,
superintendent; Nancy Hanks, chief of elementary schools Middle row:
Nichelle Nichols, director of family, youth and community engagement; Sue
Gorud, executive director for professional learning and leadership; Rachel
Strach-Nelson, director of media and government relations; Lisa Kvistad,
assistant superintendent for teaching and learning Back row: Chad Wiese,
director of building and technical services; Andrew Statz, executive director
for accountability; Ricardo Jara, chief of staff; Karen Kepler, chief of school
operations; Matt Bell, legal counsel; Deirdre Hargrove-Kriegoff, chief of HR;
Alex Fralin chief of secondary schools
All too often in its history, MMSD has focused on Black youth deficits and treated Black parents as if they didn’t belong in the schools or have something to contribute
to their children’s education. “Leave the education to us,” seemed to be the slogan of the district. The focus on Black Excellence is meant to change that.

“We know that the work that we have planned will certainly benefit Black youth,” Cheatham said. “But we don’t have all of the answers. We need to be working arm
in arm with Black students, with Black staff members, with families of Black children to find and implement those strategies over time. We’ve made a commitment to
doing so, which you will see in the framework as well. I think that is the commitment that we are making in this next framework, a recognition of the assets that Black
youth, Black staff members, Black families bring to our community, which is essential to our success. We’re not going to get there if we don’t believe in Black
students and their intelligence and capabilities.”

In order to achieve its visions and goals, MMSD will be focusing on five strategies or levers. The first is “We will empower school communities.” In essence, the
district will continue to have the point of decision-making be on the building level as much as possible.

“We’re building on the coherence that we’ve established these past five years by supporting schools and fostering creative and innovative solutions that address the
particular strengths and use of their own school communities,” Cheatham said. “We want to create more flexibility for schools to meet the needs of the students we
serve.”

The second lever is “We will invest in people.”

“We know that our staff is the major investment that we make in students,” Cheatham emphasized. “They are 80 percent or more of the budget. People do the work of
serving young people, so we want to invest in them not just as individuals, but also in the collective efficacy of our teams. It is teams of people who support young
people and their families. And we are investing in people as culturally-responsive, anti-racist, inclusive educators. We think that if you’re an educator, if you are
signing up for this job, you signed up to be an anti-racist and culturally-responsive educator. And we are all somewhere on the journey to become more so. And we
want to invest in our educators so that they can be successful on that journey.”

The third lever is “We will streamline priorities.” In essence, the central office will be conscious and proactive of what it is asking the schools to do.

“Central office exists to support schools and we want to make sure that they are playing their role extraordinarily well,” Cheatham said. “The central office team is
prioritizing its work around deep and rich learning experiences for students, which includes making sure the curriculum is historically accurate. They are prioritizing
their work around building strong student, staff and parent relationships, which has a lot to do with fostering parent, teacher and student leadership. And they are
prioritizing their work around expanding personalized opportunities for students to prepare themselves for post-secondary. Those are things like the pathways work
at the high schools, the early college STEM academy at Madison College and new options for ‘at-risk’ youth. The central office is working on a more targeted set of
priority actions in support of schools.”

The fourth lever is ‘We will plan for the future.”

“We don’t think we’ve done a sufficient job planning beyond the next few years,” Cheatham admitted. “And if we are going after transformational change, we have to
have a multi-generational view. We’re going to be digging into early childhood, which could look like expanding our half-day 4K programs to full-day 4K programs.
And it could look like doing more work in the area of birth to three-years-old in collaboration with our larger Madison community. Long-term planning looks like the
possible expansion, over time, of the community schools model, which is all about strengthening neighborhoods. And we think that long-term planning has to have a
focus on facilities. Our buildings are 50 years-old, on average. And we have to take good care of them. That means regularly updating them, renovating them as
needed to make sure that our students are served well in those facilities. There will be a big focus on long-term planning as it relates to facilities.”

And the last lever in the overall strategy is “We will embrace innovation.”

“We want to take more risks on behalf of the students whom we serve, especially the most marginalized students in our community,” Cheatham said. “We are going
to be working on developing a skill set around innovation, on how do you identify the problem that is to be solved, talk with people experiencing the problem to make
sure that you deeply understand the problem that you are trying to solve. How do we better come up with lots of possibilities to solve the problem before choosing
something and trying something? We think that as an organization, we tend to be somewhat risk-adverse. And we are never going to make this kind of
transformational change that we want to make if we aren’t willing to take more risks on behalf of young people.”

Cheatham feels that MMSD has made progress during the past five years. While graduation rates are not an end-all in themselves, they are important as a kind of
process objective.

“In five years time, we’ve made a 20 point improvement in the graduation rate,” Cheatham said. “Is it enough? Absolutely not! We want students to be graduating
ready for life after high school, which is critical. And yet, we are at a much better place than we were five years ago, which includes the dramatic reduction of
students who are dropping out of high school. I’m excited. Now that we have students in our grasp, they’re in high school. We’re getting them graduated. What it looks
for us in the next five years to be much more aggressive about preparing them for post-secondary options. We want them to be graduating with the skill set to be
successful and have a plan for post-secondary. I’m really excited about that.”

Cheatham said that the district has also made progress in skill attainment as measured by fifth grade testing.

“We’ve seen across the board, on average, a 10 point gain in literacy over the past five years,” Cheatham said. “That’s about what we expected, a two-point
improvement every year, on average. Seventeen of our elementary schools outpaced that target, which is phenomenal. Five of those elementary schools had over a
20-point gain in five years. They have really shown us what is possible. They include Mendota, Lindbergh, and Nuestro Mundo. I’m very proud of the progress that has
been made there. Our math progress has been similarly very strong on the elementary level.”

One of the biggest measures that the district will have to make is what percent of MMSD high school graduates go on to positive post-secondary education or career
opportunities.

“What you’ll see with the post-secondary information is you have to look at it over time,” Cheatham observed. “The tricky part about measuring the percent of
students going on to post-secondary education is some students take gap years. We’ll be not only measuring it, but will also be holding ourselves accountable on that
metric every year from here on out. Graduation rates are an important metric. But the goal is to get everyone graduated ready for college, career and community.”

The community will be waiting to see that the ultimate payoff on its investment in public education is over time. The future health of the Madison area is depending on
it.
By Jonathan Gramling

When Jen Cheatham was approved as the superintendent of Madison’s public
schools in 2013, one of her first priorities during her first few months was to develop
a strategic framework to coherently and cohesively guide district policies, decisions
and staff action toward the same objective. Last year, Cheatham and her senior staff
set out to update the strategic framework through meetings with students, staff,
parents and community members.

On July 31st, MMSD released the new strategic framework at a press conference at
Nuestro Mundo. The overall vision of the plan recognizes that it isn’t enough to just
have students graduate. They must also be prepared to engage in the next phase of
their academic or career journey. Quality as well as quantity matters.

The framework stated the core values of the district which are excellence,
belonging, racial equity and social justice, voice, focus and creativity.

In order to enact its vision, the strategic framework sets out to achieve three goals:
Every child is on track to graduate ready for college, career and community; The
district and every school in it is a place where children, staff and families thrive and
African American children and youth excel in school. The framework also stated its
belief in Black Excellence, that ”we believe in the brilliance, creativity, capability,
and bright futures of Black youth throughout Madison.

“The goal is not about simply improving outcomes for African American youth or
narrowing the gap in achievement,” Cheatham said during a recent interview with
The Capital City Hues. “It recognizes the inherent capability of Black youth in Madison
and puts the onus on all of us — the school district and the community — to do
everything we can to ensure that Black students can meet their fullest potential, that
we allow their innate capability to shine in our schools and our community.”