Initial Thoughts on the Madison Prep Proposal

As I have written before, I’m not a big fan of having charter schools for the sake of having charter schools. I think of them as a strategy rather than a solution.  If there is a particular issue with our schools or with groups of students that the School District has proven unable or unwilling to address effectively, or a particular opportunity that we are unable to pursue for some reason, then a charter school proposal aimed at addressing that issue or opportunity could be a beneficial and welcome strategy.

This approach appears to have been borne out so far.  For example, Nuestro Mundo, a District charter school for elementary school students, has proven to be an effective way for the District to explore the opportunity of dual immersion instruction.  As one would hope to be the case with successful charter programs, the District has learned from Nuestro Mundo’s experience and has begun replicating the dual immersion program in other schools.

The current Badger Rock proposal for a charter middle school is also consistent with this approach.  Badger Rock promises the opportunities to piggy-back on a great project spearheaded by the Center for Resilient Cities, to explore more project-based and placed-based learning with an environmental focus, and to provide a neighborhood school to an area that could benefit from one.

The Urban League’s Madison Prep charter school proposal has been presented as one approach to the grievous issue that students of color, and particularly African-American boys, have not been flourishing in our schools. The Madison Prep proposal is designed to tackle this problem head-on with a charter school serving 6th to 12th grade boys.  The school is designed to inculcate a culture of hard-work and achievement among its students through a whole host of innovative practices, including longer school days and school years, intensive mentoring, obligatory parental involvement, and ample role models for the students among the school’s teachers and staff.

I welcome the Madison Prep proposal.  I can think of no better focus for a new charter school than addressing the underperformance of our students of color.  I like the emphasis on individual accountability and hard work.  The proposal recognizes that it is not enough for an underperforming student to decide that he or she wants to succeed academically.  The student then has to undertake the hard work of learning, and will have to work even harder to catch up to his or her high-achieving peers, who may have a many-year head start and aren’t going to sit around and wait for the other student to catch up. The proposal for longer school days and school years appropriately acknowledges the time and effort required for students to make up lost ground.

I understand that the model Madison Prep proposes isn’t compatible with the terms of the District’s collective bargaining agreement with MTI.  Accordingly, the school proposes to be a non-instrumentality charter school, which means that it would operate independently of the school district.  It would hire its own teachers, establish its own rules, define its own approach and be accountable to the District for the results it achieves rather than for the means its employs to get there.

The non-instrumentality component of the proposal isn’t a deal-breaker for me.  It certainly does necessitate a close look at the implications of going in this direction, however, which is relatively unusual for charter schools in Wisconsin.

I have now had a chance to review Madison Prep’s initial proposal, which will be presented to the School Board’s Planning and Development Committee on Monday.  The proposal is quite well done.  It does raise a number of questions in my mind, though.  Here are some of them.

First, Madison Prep is designed to be for boys only.  I’m okay with this in principle.  (I, in fact, attended an all-boys high school way back in the day.)  It’s not at all clear, however, that state law is okay with this approach.

Single-gender schools or classes are only permissible under state law if “schools or courses that are comparable to each such [single-gender] school or course” are “ma[de] available to the opposite sex, under the same policies and criteria of admission.”  Wis. Stat. § 118.40(4)(c).  The proposal states that the Urban League “intends to develop and operate a school for girls in grades six through twelve using a curriculum and methods similar to that of” Madison Prep.

Intending to offer comparable opportunities for girls in the future isn’t the same as making them available on the same timeline as they are offered to boys.  This suggests that the Madison Prep proposal in its current form may be contrary to state law.  If it is, the Board cannot endorse it. The sponsors of the proposal will have to demonstrate to us that this isn’t as big a stumbling block as it seems to be.

Second, the initial proposal for the school doesn’t identify what the District’s financial obligation would be.  It looks as if the school will be relatively expensive to operate.  According to the proposal, “the targeted student-to-teacher ration is 17:1.”  This is considerably lower than the District’s current student-teacher ratios for middle and high schools.  The proposal also states that “Madison Prep will staff slightly heavier in its first year than charter schools generally do.”

Madison Prep plans on a number of administrative positions.  Those listed in its proposal include: President & CEO; Head of School; Dean of Students; Business Manager; Special Education Coordinator; Skills Mastery Center Coordinator; Director of Family & Community Partnerships; Development Coordinator; Athletic Director; Office Manager; Administrative Assistant; and School Security Officer.  Some of these 12 positions are not projected to be full-time.  Nevertheless, the number of administrative positions stands in stark contrast with Badger Rock, which doesn’t even plan on having an on-site principal at first and does not appear to be budgeting for any administrative positions.

So, where is the money going to come from?  The Board is currently wrestling with the prospect that in its first year Badger Rock may cost the District somewhere between $200,000 and $300,000 in incremental expense, or somewhere between $4,000 and $6,000 per student, based on an initial enrollment of 50 students.  We don’t know yet, but I am guessing that Madison Prep will be looking to the District for much more than that per student to help pay for the expenses of the school.  Even if we find Madison Prep to be the most exciting and welcome proposal the District has ever seen, it will still be an enormous challenge to find the level of funds that the school is likely to need from the District.

Third, the vision for Madison Prep is of a school specifically designed to help improve the academic performance of the District’s disadvantaged African-American male students.  The extent to which the actual student composition of the school will reflect this vision seems open to question.

The initial proposal for the school states that admission will be “open to all males residing in Dane County who apply, regardless of previous academic performance.”  The proposal also states:  “[T]he founders expect that 40% of its students will be Black, 20% will be Hispanic Latino, 25% will be White, and 15% will be other.  The founders also project that Madison Prep will be 50% low-income and that 10% will be English Language Learners.”

This indicates that the founders expect to operate a school that is less diverse than the District’s current charter middle school, James C. Wright.  The table below compares the projected numbers for Madison Prep with the comparable numbers last year for James C. Wright Middle School (using the initial proposal’s terminology):

Madison Prep (Projected) James C. Wright (2009-10)
English-Language Learners 10% 41%
Low-Income 50% 85%
Black 40% 38%
Hispanic Latino 20% 36%
White 25% 13%
“Other” 15% 13%

To the extent that the school implements its vision of providing rigorous and engaging classes to underperforming African-American males that result in significantly improved academic achievement, the case can be made that the importance of the endeavor justifies additional investment on the part of the School District.  But if the make-up of the school doesn’t look much different than our other middle and high schools, the case for the additional investment seems to be undercut.

And it is important to note that the school cannot control its ethnic diversity.  It cannot discriminate in admissions on the basis of race.  To the extent that the school is perceived to provide a first-rate International Baccalaureate middle and high school education, it will draw more interested applicants from all around Dane County and the composition of its student body will inevitably move further away from the original vision for the school.

Finally, charter schools can be incubators for experimentation and school districts can learn from the results, implementing the successful practices more broadly and pulling the plug on the failures.  Given how very different from our other schools Madison Prep is designed to be – it is designed to resemble Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire more than Wright, Toki or O’Keeffe – it is hard to know how we would be able to tell which specific components of its design are successful and which are not.  There might be just too many variables at work.  If this turns out to be the case, we may not be able to learn from the school’s results in a way that would be meaningful for us and replicable in our other schools.

Thanks to the Kaleem Caire his Urban League team for shining a spotlight on the very troubling issue of the lack of success experienced by so many of our students of color.  Thanks even more for proposing a charter school intended to help address this problem.  I want the proposal to succeed.  But I need to know more about the legality of the proposal’s single-gender approach, a lot more about the projected finances for the school and the extent of the School District’s expected contribution, and more about how the school intends to remain true to its vision of serving Madison’s disadvantaged African-American boys before my sympathetic disposition can grow into active support.

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3 Responses to Initial Thoughts on the Madison Prep Proposal

  1. Rebecca Kemble says:

    Thank you for being one of the few Board members to (at least publicly) reserve judgment on this proposal until the details are revealed. Your colleagues Ms. Silveira and Ms. Passman also had the grace to ask some questions and state that they do not have enough information to vote next week. The overall tone of last night’s committee meeting, however, suggested that the decision had already been made to approve the proposal.

    In particular, I was dismayed by Mr. Caire’s statement that he showed the MMSD Charter School policy to Greg Richmond, CEO of National Association of Charter Schools, and that Mr. Richmond is willing and able to help the District rewrite it. I was also dismayed by Ms. Mathiak’s flippant attitude toward MMSD policy demonstrated by her questioning the District Legal officer whether state law regarding gender equity in charter school authorization was more lenient than MMSD policy (which was confirmed), and whether or not it “trumped” MMSD policy. She wanted to know, “because I’m wondering if we can just dispense with a big debate about changing our policy and go with the state law.” I appreciated the response to that statement, which was that it wasn’t an issue of “trumping,” but that law and policy are simply different.

    It is clear that a lot of work has been going on behind the scenes both within the administration and with School Board members to push this proposal forward in advance of state and MMSD mandated public processes. Mr. Caire himself thanked “everyone around the table for their committment of support.” I salute you, Mr. Hughes, for being the only person to challenge that by saying that you support the concept but still have questions about the details. After the presentation last night, I know I and many other community members have a whole lot more questions, which we will relate to the Board. Thank you for being willing to ask them and I hope we can count on you to continue to do so.

  2. Kristen Nelson says:


    Thanks for the update.

    The one thing I haven’t been able to figure out is the cost to the district of the proposed charter school.

    I had assumed that they were bringing in so much private funding that it would not cost the district much at all. But I’m learning that may not be the case? Do you have $$$ figures yet? And if it is a large expense, how will the district pay for it? Will you need to raise taxes or cut existing programs in other schools?

    I remember attending meeting after meeting in the MMSD budget process last year and hearing the board argue for hours over relatively small expenses. What will be the process for evaluating the costs/benefits of proposed new programs/charters?

    • Kristen —

      We don’t yet have the budget numbers. I don’t know how much Madison Prep is going to be looking for in terms of a per-pupil contract payment. This is one of the major reasons why, no matter how sympathetic we are to Madison Prep’s vision, we need to reserve our judgment and do our due diligence in reviewing the proposal once the details are more fleshed out.

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