Our 2008 Spending Referendum Bears Fruit

As the summer days grow shorter, thoughts turn to the start of a new school year.   As we prepare for another year of learning here in Madison, I am struck by what a better spot we find ourselves in as a result of the school district’s successful 2008 referendum.

That hopeful day in November, 2008 when Barack Obama was elected president may seem like a distant memory now, but the School District continues to benefit in a big way from the thumbs-up verdict on our spending plans that Madison voters delivered.

The referendum authorized the school district to exceed its state-imposed spending cap by $5 million in the 2009-2010 school year, another $4 million in the 2010-2011 school year, and an additional $4 million in the upcoming 2011-2012 school year.  In all, the district can spend $13 million more this year as a result of the referendum.

At a time when other school districts are slashing programs and raising class sizes, we in Madison are fortunate to be able to make use of the flexibility the additional spending authority provides by strategically adding rather than subtracting.

Here is a list of some of the new and continuing initiatives we’ll be able to support in the upcoming year, thanks to our referendum-approved spending authority as well as the substantial financial sacrifices we have asked our teachers and staff to absorb and some smart budgeting:

  • After years of trying, challenging negotiations, and lots of planning, Madison will finally have four-year-old kindergarten starting next month, with more than 1700 four-year-olds signed up to begin their schooling at more than 50 school-based and community-based sites around the District.
  • Kindergarten readiness is correlated with reading proficiency by third grade.  A top-notch four-year-old kindergarten program may be the single best initiative we can undertake to help address our very troubling achievement gap.  We’ve also added new administrative positions focusing on family engagement at the elementary school level and the academic performance of our African-American students as additional responses to our achievement gap concerns.
  • We’ll continue to expand our successful dual language immersion program.  As Matt DeFour wrote in an article in the State Journal last Sunday, Glendale and Chavez Elementary Schools will offer dual language Spanish-English immersion classes to kindergarteners this year, joining the existing programs at Sennett Middle and Nuestro Mundo, Leopold, Sandburg and Midvale Elementary Schools.  According to an outside evaluator quoted in the State Journal article, Madison’s dual language offerings could develop into “one of the great programs in the country.”
  • Our new charter middle school, Badger Rock, will open its doors (though in a temporary location) to its inaugural class this year.   An offshoot of a productive partnership led by the Center for Resilient Cities, with help from Milwaukee’s highly respected Growing Power and others, Badger Rock promises to blossom into a model program promoting environmentally sustainable living, urban agriculture, and project-based and neighborhood-focused learning that is bound to be a jewel of the School District.
  • With a little prodding from DPI, the District finally seems to have gotten its act together on TAG programming.  As part of its enhanced TAG initiatives, the District recently hired 6.4 new TAG staff to work in our elementary schools.  They will coordinate with the current 7.5 staff assigned to the Doyle-based TAG resource team, as well as staff at each middle school with new 0.2 (or one-day-a-week) TAG assignments, all under the direction of newly-hired and widely-praised TAG Coordinator Sue Schaar.  The pieces seem to be in place, but of course the proof will be in the pudding as students and their families discover for themselves whether our new and expanded TAG approach meets their needs (as well as DPI requirements).
  • We’re told that more than half the achievement gap between lower and higher income students is directly related to unequal learning opportunities over the summer.  To help bridge that gap, the District expanded its summer school offerings this summer, promoting increased attendance by hundreds of students and designing a better integrated program structured to provide a “fifth quarter” of instruction in order to enhance enrichment opportunities and limit summer  learning losses.
  • The AVID (Achievement Visa Individual Determination) program is a college readiness system designed to increase school-wide learning and performance that focuses on the traditionally least-served students in the academic middle, particularly students who would be the first in their families to attend college. The AVID curriculum includes instruction in study skills, organizational skills, communication skills, writing, test‐taking strategies, personal development, and team building. AVID was piloted at East High School five years ago and has since found a home at LaFollette, West and Memorial as well.  This year we’ll begin to expand AVID to our middle schools so that otherwise underserved students can get an earlier start on expanding their horizons and building the skills they’ll need for success in high school and college.
  • Eighteen years of restrictive spending caps have resulted in significant cuts to the level of support we are able to offer to students with serious mental health issues that often manifest themselves in disruptive classroom behavior.  This year, we’ll pilot a program intended to start addressing this need.  A small number of middle schoolers in the LaFollette attendance area (Sennett and Whitehorse), particularly those with emotional behavioral disabilities (EBD), will be eligible to take classes in a school-based alternative setting at Whitehorse.  In addition, the school will have a transition room available to all Whitehorse students who could benefit from fluid, flexible, time-limited and focused support outside of the traditional classroom setting.  If this pilot program meets our expectations, the plan is to expand it to all our middle schools.

One of the more pernicious effects of the tight spending cap imposed on school districts for the last eighteen years is that the effort to preserve current offerings tends to overwhelm consideration of promising but costly new initiatives.  We are fortunate in Madison that our community believes – and expresses its belief by approving referenda – that spending money prudently on sound new school initiatives promising better student performance is a smart public investment.  The School District in turns bears the responsibility to exercise the spending flexibility the community has provided in thoughtful ways that reflect our community values and promise better student outcomes.

So, here’s what we’ve got to show for ourselves in the way of new initiatives for 2011-2012:  Getting our youngest learners off to a good start in 4K; growing the opportunities for our students to develop bilingual skills; opening an exciting and innovative charter middle school; beginning to implement the kind of TAG programming our students have deserved for years; expanding the college-preparatory AVID program to middle schools, bringing new resources and focus to our serious achievement gap concerns; moving towards an expanded summer school approach better integrated into a year-round curriculum; and taking our first steps toward a more effective and humane approach to the mental health issues of vulnerable middle schoolers.

Not a bad list.  These haven’t been good days for education in our state.  But thanks to the foresight of our 2008 referendum supporters, we’re still able to move forward in Madison with new ideas and initiatives, green shoots of hope pushing up against the general gloom.

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