A Good Man Calls It Quits

In light of his announcement today that he plans to retire when his contract expires in June of 2013, I want to thank Dan Nerad for his service to the Madison school district and acknowledge his many accomplishments.

As I said at our Board meeting tonight, I think that overall Dan has done an admirable job in one of the most challenging positions around.  He has clearly based his decisions as superintendent on what he thought was best for the 27,000 students in our schools. Dan has also endured the slings and arrows that come with his position with professionalism and grace, far more than I could muster if I were in his position. I would enthusiastically vote to extend Dan’s contract and I’m sorry that his decision means that I won’t get that chance.

Our achievement gap discussions remind us that we have much work to do in the district.  But it shouldn’t blind us to the fact that, under Dan’s leadership, there has been change afoot.  Here’s a paragraph from an earlier blog post that sums up what we’ve got going this year:

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.

Details here.  And with his achievement gap plan, Dan also managed to shift discussion away from the post-Madison Prep divisiveness and toward a genuine community conversation on our achievement gap problems, an accomplishment that I didn’t think was possible and that is Dan’s alone.

Dan has always had a clear-eyed view of the accomplishments our school district can claim and, more importantly, the areas where improvement is needed.  He has talked up the district but has not sugar-coated our challenges or suggested that necessary changes won’t come at a price.  Occasionally ruffling some feathers in the process, he has pushed the district to forge the kind of change that is absolutely required if we are to be the type of school district we like to think we are.

Dan has demonstrated a perhaps unfounded faith in our community by acting as if we could all move toward consensus on needed school changes simply by talking through our differences.  I think the past year or so has provided opportunities for us to question whether that kind of approach can work here in Madison, but Dan has flattered us by consistently appealing to the better angels of our nature.

About fifteen months ago, Susan Troller wrote a long and not particularly flattering Cap Times article about Dan’s performance. Here’s how I was quoted in the article:

 “I think Dan finds it exasperating to get criticized for talking issues to death or seeking too much input because that is his style. That is what we knew or should have known we were getting when we hired him. His style assumes that the community can talk issues through, reach compromises and move forward. If he’s unsuccessful, that’s a reflection of the community as much as of him.”

Hughes gives Nerad points for being refreshingly honest about the problems facing the Madison School District. “He doesn’t shy away from the challenges posed by Madison’s changing demographics and he knows we have to persuade middle-class families that it’s in their best academic interest to stay in Madison rather than heading to suburban districts.

“He’s well-read on the current thinking regarding effective urban schools and I think he’s trying to push us in a better direction districtwide,” adds Hughes. “And I suspect he’s far more open to real innovation than what we’ve seen in the past.”

My views haven’t changed.

It’s a privilege to serve on the School Board. But there are days, like today, when it’s just not much fun.

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3 Responses to A Good Man Calls It Quits

  1. David Cohen says:

    Ed, it’s ironic that those same folks in the community that took Nerad’s predecessor to task for ignoring community input have been taking Nerad to task for seeking too much community input.

  2. argette says:

    I know Dan by reputation up in the Green Bay area, and he was extremely successful there, at least from my perspective. I’ve also had the chance to work closely with five other school superintendents in other communities. It is not an easy job, and even the most highly-acclaimed professional can become a moving political target overnight, no matter what he or she does. It’s not professionalism at play here, it’s politics. Dan Nerad’s decision to step down at the end of his contract should not be construed as defeat or failure. He’s smart enough to leave before politics destroys his reputation.

  3. janeofdane says:

    Dan Nerad promised us 4-year-old Kindergarten and he delivered. I’ve waited many years for Madison to catch up with the rest of the state on this.

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