By Victor Skinner

MADISON, Wis. – The Madison school district has an ugly and persistent achievement gap between white and minority students, and district leaders claim they want to address the problem.

The school board recently took a step in that direction by hiring a new superintendent, Jennifer Cheatham, who has been developing a plan to combat the achievement gap.

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But the board also took a step backward by adopting a new policy making it difficult for independent charter schools to open within school district boundaries.

One of those proposed schools – Madison Preparatory Academy – was rejected by the school board in 2011, largely due to opposition from Madison Teachers Inc., the powerful local teachers union.

Madison Prep, as the proposed school is typically called, was specifically designed to attack the achievement gap. It would cater to African-American students, be segregated by gender to reduce distractions among students, and would have longer school days and years.

The Urban League of Greater Madison, the sponsor of the school, had been hoping to bring a new proposal before the school board in the near future. That hope has been dampened by the new anti-charter policy established by the board.

Now organizers are closely watching various efforts at the state level to make it easier for independent charter schools to open without the blessing of local school boards. That could be Madison Prep’s ticket to opening its doors and operating the way it was intended.

In the meantime, Kaleem Caire, CEO of the Madison Urban League, said he’s guardedly optimistic about Cheatham’s determination to address the achievement gap within the district schools.

“We still want to get the school through, but we’re taking our time to let the new superintendent get her feet under her,” Caire said. “I think she’s focusing on the right things … where the biggest challenges are.

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“She’s done a pretty good job of reaching out to people in the community.”

Cheatham wants to deal with the problem

While achievement gaps between white and minority students are common in many urban districts, it’s particularly bad in Madison.

District data shows that while nearly 85 percent of white students in 2012 graduated in four years, barely half of black students did the same. The statistics for other minority and low income students are similar.

Cheatham is demonstrating an eagerness to deal with the problem.

She spent the last two months touring Madison’s 48 schools, meeting with school employees and developing a team and plan to address what she describes as a lack of focus across the district.

Many agree that lack of focus is a major factor behind the persistent achievement gap.

“We are beginning an aggressive planning phase so that we can start the next school year strong,” Cheatham wrote in a 10-page report earlier this month, according to the Wisconsin State Journal. “Rather than go through a long strategic planning process, we are going to move swiftly to decisive action.”

Cheatham’s report highlights five areas of concern, and her team of local and national experts will reveal more details this week, the State Journal reports.

Cheatham’s priorities include: developing well-rounded culturally responsive instruction; engaging students to chart a personalized approach to their education; engaging families and community members for support; cultivating a positive work environment; and ensuring accountability at every level of the district, according to the news report.

The reorganization and new focus are welcomed changes, said Caire, but he believes systemic change in the district will only occur with more direct involvement from community groups.

“For the most part, non-profit groups like ours have only a marginal impact on students if they’re not in schools,” Caire said. “We don’t believe Madison schools are organized in a way that will produce” improvement with students.

“There is not a lot of coordination from the school district, but they also … didn’t have a plan to address the issue.”

Board policy blocking school choice

Cheatham’s plan is at least partially designed to address the achievement gap within the existing school district.

But school choice is another tool to combat the problem, and Madison Prep is designed to be a strong option for black families looking for alternative educational opportunities.

Caire said the proposed school would better serve struggling minority students for a number of reasons, including a planned 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. school day, a longer school year, and the involvement of community groups that are focused on helping minority students.

The plans for a longer school day and year led to the fateful 2011 decision to hire non-union personnel. Madison Prep originally intended to hire union teachers, before organizers discovered how much compensation those teachers would demand for longer working hours.

Without a promise from the Urban League to hire union staff, the Madison teachers union pressured the school board to reject Madison Prep, regardless of what it might offer struggling students.

Caire said Madison Prep organizers had “well over 100” interested families on a waiting list when they presented their plan to district officials in 2011, and interest in the school remains strong.

That’s why Caire and other supporters are frustrated by the new policy adopted by the school board, making it tough for independent charter schools to find a home in the district.

To gain school board approval, potential charter school operators are now required to hire unionized district employees, and illustrate a path to success that Madison’s public schools have yet to achieve themselves.

“They’re basically trying to discourage … charter schools in Madison,” Caire said.

New hope at the state level

Caire said the protect-the-status-quo attitude of school officials was personified by the district’s prior superintendent, and he’s hopeful Cheatham will look beyond the union’s self-centered concerns and reconsider Madison Prep as one way to tackle the achievement gap.

But he’s not holding his breath, particularly considering the district’s new policy, which demonstrates the teachers union still wields a great deal of influence over district decisions.

The best hope for the eventual birth of Madison Prep may come from the state.

Wisconsin lawmakers are currently working on alternative routes to authorize independent charter schools.

Most Wisconsin charter schools outside of Milwaukee are mere extensions of nearby public schools. That’s because state law makes it almost impossible for charters to open without the blessing of local school boards, and those boards typically force the new schools to hire union personnel and operate much like traditional schools.

Many charter school officials complain that operating like traditional schools takes away the innovation and creativity necessary to make a difference in children’s lives.

State lawmakers considered creating a statewide entity empowered to authorize various non-profit organizations to open charter schools without local school board approval. That plan was part of Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed budget, but was shelved when the final budget was approved last week.

Lawmakers are now developing stand-alone legislation that could give universities, technical colleges or other institutions the ability to sponsor independent charter schools, though details aren’t expected to be finalized until late summer or fall.

Those details may play a major role in the future of the Madison Prep project.

“We’re not sure if we’re going to bring it back to the board this fall,” Caire said, regarding the Madison Prep proposal.  “If there is a second authorizer or another authorizer allowed (by the state) … we would do that.”