January is named for Janus, the two-faced Roman god who looked simultaneously to the past and to the future. While I claim no resemblance to any Roman god, I share the common inclination to look backward and forward as the year turns over.
Looking back to 2012, I feel gratitude for all our Madison teachers and staff, who worked every day with skill and commitment to teach, challenge and support our students. I am also grateful for the hard work of our students themselves. Looking forward to 2013, I don’t have much in the way of predictions, but I have a boatload of wishes for how I hope the year will unfold. Here are a dozen of them.
1. At the top of my wish list is that in 2013 we hire a new superintendent capable of succeeding at the enormously challenging tasks that he or she will confront. Consider the top five qualities that emerged from the community survey of the desired characteristics of our next superintendent. We want a superintendent who: (1) possesses the leadership skills required to respond to the challenges presented by an ethnically and culturally diverse community; (2) inspires trust, has high levels of self-confidence and optimism, and models high standards of integrity and personal performance; (3) is a strong communicator, speaking, listening and writing; (4) possesses the ability to enhance student performance, especially in identifying and closing or narrowing the gaps in student achievement; and (5) is willing to listen to input, but is a decision-maker. It will be a tall order for any mere mortal to meet these and all the other expectations we have for our next superintendent. Here’s hoping we find a good one.
2. The school district suffered a loss last month when Assistant Superintendent for Business Services Erik Kass announced he was resigning to start a consulting business. Erik’s responsibilities included budgeting, finances, facilities, food service, and transportation. He discharged his important responsibilities with skill, continuously found us ways to save money, and brought increased transparency to what had been perceived as not the most forthcoming corner of the district’s operations. On a personal level, I always enjoyed working with Erik. My second wish is that we find a replacement who is equally capable and equally able to inspire confidence in the quality of his or her performance.
3. In April, we will have contested elections for three School Board seats and, with Beth Moss and Maya Cole not seeking re-election, the Board will welcome at least two new members. School board races are local elections. We are best served when the candidates share their views on how our Madison schools can function most effectively, within the larger political and economic environment that is largely out of our hands. I wish for an edifying School Board election, with relatively more emphasis on the candidates’ views of the best strategies for enhancing the achievement of our Madison students and relatively less on who is most opposed to Scott Walker or the Koch brothers.
4. Over the past six months or so, the School Board has worked together more effectively than at any other time during my five years on the Board. We have hired an interim superintendent, developed a process for hiring a permanent superintendent, gone through a lightning-round of collective bargaining, and adopted a budget without fireworks or controversy, though not without occasional disagreements. My wish is that we can continue on this collegial and reasonably collaborative path, which on occasion will require each of us (yes, including me) to subordinate our individual interests and proclivities for the good of the whole.
5. Our last three budgets have been adopted without significant cuts affecting our classrooms. I wish that we can be as fortunate again this year. We’ll have a difficult balancing act as we strive to provide overdue raises to our teachers and staff, fund the second year of our achievement gap plan initiatives, and keep up with rising costs and the ever-present maintenance needs of our aging facilities.
6. The new year is also the start of a new biennium budgeting cycle for the state. We’ll get a glimpse of what may be in store for us when the governor unveils his budget bill in the next month or two. My wish is that the governor follows the Hippocratic oath and, first, does no harm — to the schools or to the authority and autonomy of locally-elected school boards. I hope that any proposed legislation that receives serious consideration provides additional options for school districts and school boards rather than restricting our operations or supplanting our decisions. I also wish – against the odds, I know – that this doesn’t turn out to be just wishful thinking.
7. I wish for broader and deeper community understanding of the scope of our achievement gap challenge. During my years on the Board, I have come to realize that until recently (well, let’s be honest, until the Madison Prep discussion) I had been largely oblivious to the shockingly broad disparity in the experiences of students in our schools. Students who are prepared and enjoy strong family support generally do well. Other students, including many of our students of color, often do not. I have also come to believe that many community members have little appreciation – and, frankly, not that much interest – in the magnitude of the gaping differences in the levels of success our students experience, and of the price struggling students, their families, and we as a community will pay if we don’t get a better handle on the situation. For example, fully two-thirds of African-American students at our high schools received one or more F’s on either their first quarter report card or 2nd quarter progress grades. For parents who couldn’t conceive of their children receiving a D or even a C, this is a jaw-dropping figure.
8. I wish for some measurable progress on improving the academic achievement of our students of color. It’s a hackneyed image, but I view student achievement as a four-legged stool, with the corners supported by: (1) our schools, (2) our community, (3) parents, and (4) students themselves. Each has to do their part. (As I have written before, I think that we sometimes overlook the extent to which students are responsible for their own learning.) Given the key roles of the community, parents and students, I am more persuaded than ever that when it comes to student achievement, culture trumps curriculum. We all need to pitch in to help develop more of a culture of learning, achievement and hard work among all our students, and particularly our students of color.
9. That’s a natural segue into my wish for success for the Urban League’s Scholars Academy program, which, starting soon, will provide academic support, enrichment and physical activity in a two-hour extended after-school format at Toki and Sennett Middle Schools. Importantly, this is a district partnership program specifically aimed at our significantly underperforming students. The program is designed to foster academic achievement and to prepare students for college by installing excellence, pride, leadership and service. The program takes dead aim at our most pressing concern as a school district and we all have a stake in its success.
10. I wish for Badger Rock Middle School, our newest school, to continue to grow into the neighborhood asset and model of successful partnerships, sustainability and effective hands-on learning that the school is poised to achieve.
11. I wish for a successful introduction of the Mondo reading program in all our elementary schools. Superintendent Jane Belmore has particular interest and expertise in literacy and she has spearheaded the school district’s decision to adopt the Mondo Bookshop Program at the K-5 level across all elementary schools, with the purchase of new curriculum materials funded through some of the unexpected state aid that came our way this fall. The Mondo program, which is said to have clearly-focused lesson guides that are aligned to the Common Core state standards, should be a significant step forward in terms of a district-wide, aligned, early literacy scope and sequence. I also wish that now that we have made a commitment to the Mondo program, we stick with it and don’t lurch towards some other approach if the improved outcomes we’re seeking take a while to arrive.
12. I realize there is initiative fatigue among our teachers and staff, but I wish for a continued push for new student-based ideas and initiatives developed at the school level, like the drive toward converting Toki Middle School to an Expeditionary Learning school. This fall, there was discussion of Toki possibly switching to a charter school structure as a way of accessing state funds that could help accelerate the conversion. I am sorry that this charter proposal has run into complications and has been withdrawn before the Board really had a chance to consider it, but I hope that principals, teachers and staff at all our schools continue to search for innovative approaches toward enhancing the engagement and learning of our students.
Having gone this far, I’ll make it a baker’s dozen and also wish that everyone who takes the time to read what I write enjoys a new year that is full of health, prosperity and the satisfaction that comes from worthy endeavors.