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Saturday, July 26, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 77.0° F  Overcast
The Daily

EDUCATION

Madison school board candidates Mary Burke and Michael Flores discuss the achievement gap and Madison Prep
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School board elections are usually sleepy affairs.

But the proposal this year for Madison Prep, a single-gender charter school, has sparked a lively, and sometimes controversial, conversation about one of the most pressing problems facing Madison schools: the achievement gap between students of color and their white peers. The debate has, in turn, sparked interest in the school board.

In the race for Seat 2, which is being vacated by retiring board member Lucy Mathiak, philanthropist Mary Burke is running against firefighter Michael Flores.

While there are an unprecedented number of candidate forums and listening sessions under way, we thought we'd pose our own questions to candidates. This week we ask the candidates how they would address what might be the primary issue of the election: the achievement gap. What would they do to address this gap, and balance the needs of both high and low achieving students? More specifically, we ask about their view of Madison Prep, and whether they would vote for or against it in the future.


What is the best way to address the achievement gap? How would you balance the needs of high achieving and low achieving students?

Mary Burke
Parents want their child to be engaged, challenged, and learning. To sacrifice the success of one child for that of another is not fair or smart. For Madison to be strong, safe and vibrant, our children need to be educated, connected and thriving.

We can address the needs of low achieving students without making any sacrifices for high achieving students. A good example of this is the AVID/TOPS program, which an East High teacher and I co-founded. This program, a partnership between the Boys & Girls Club and Madison school district, has over 450 students in all four Madison high schools. They are 80% students of color, and nearly 75% are from low-income families. The AVID/TOPS results are impressive: 100% of seniors go onto postsecondary education; grade point averages are 30% higher; better school attendance; and, fewer disciplinary issues. These results were achieved while improving the learning environment for all students. In fact, AVID study skills are being used by teachers to improve the learning of all their students.

Certainly, closing the achievement gap will not be easy and this is a community issue, not just a schools issue. I am currently co-chairing a new initiative called the South Madison Promise Zone. We are building a new way to connect and coordinate schools, city, county, non-profits, and neighborhoods to improve the achievement of children in low-income neighborhoods, and help prepare them for the workforce.

I would encourage the district to:

  • Be strategic and focused; targeting our resources where they are most likely to yield results.
  • Be open to using technology, assessment, and feedback to improve.
  • Look at new ways to engage parents as partners in their child's education that are neighborhood-based rather than school-based.
  • Focus on early childhood literacy, so every child is reading at grade level by 3rd grade, as this foundation supports all their future education.

Incorporating these can also encourage the achievement of other students, and does not replace meeting the needs of high achieving students. Together, as a community, we can provide a challenging, engaging education for all students.


Michael Flores
In order to begin bridging the achievement gaps in schools, we need to formulate new ways of looking at our students.

I plan to introduce an individual achievement tracking process for each student. A simple, computer-based, weekly or monthly test for students, similar to MATC's COMPASS test, with its focus on the student's own educational growth. If we can see how each student learns, and how they improve over the weeks, months, and years, we will be able to target the individual needs of students at all levels.

I would also introduce a rapid intervention team for kids at high risk of not graduating. This plan involves a group effort including peers, teachers, parents and community leaders. Using the community resources that already exist and have funding can help ease the financial burden on MMSD. This will offer a well-rounded educational experience for our students.

Implementation of some or all of this will not only help kids at risk but all students, because this will give teachers time to focus on ensuring all students are challenged. We also need to delve further into effective identification of TAG students.


What's your view of Madison Preparatory Academy? Would you vote for the single-sex charter school aimed at helping minority students?

Mary Burke
I believe that as a community, we can and must help all our children learn and thrive. The Madison Prep proposal was created when no plan existed to correct woefully low graduation rates for African American and Latino students. Students of color now represent over 50% of our school district's population, yet closing the achievement gap wasn't a top priority.

Because I do not believe that the status quo is acceptable, and as no other option was on the table, I supported Madison Prep. I pledged financial support to ensure that creating Madison Prep would not pull resources from existing Madison public schools.

Our community simply cannot thrive without addressing the achievement gap. It is felt in every classroom in every school in our district. It affects every child and every family -- it hurts our whole community.

Now with Superintendent Nerad's Achievement Gap Plan, we should evaluate all our options, including Madison Prep. I would judge each option by whether it:

  • Clearly addresses the achievement gap, and is accountable to the school board and community.
  • Uses strategies with a proven track record.
  • Is cost effective.
  • Has little or no negative impact on existing schools.
  • Has a high probability of long-term success.

While the Madison Prep debate has divided many in our community, I believe we can come together and address this issue. Now we have a public focus, whereas before, many did not know this was a serious issue in Madison.

Madison is caring and can overcome challenges, which I have seen in my work with our schools and local non-profits. I saw Madison come together for a new Boys & Girls Club in Allied Drive. People knew the Allied Drive neighborhood was in desperate need of change with high crime rates and high poverty. With partnership and involvement from across Madison, this neighborhood has seen tremendous change and is a better home for families and children.

The spotlight is now on the achievement gap. Working together on this issue, we can make Madison a brighter, more hopeful place for all of us.


Michael Flores
I had a number of apprehensions about Madison Prep. I agree that there are many issues we need to resolve. We need a more diverse staff in the MMSD. This would not only benefit children of color, but all children. Also, I like the fact it acknowledged that the parents needed to be in the schools. It went as far as demanding that parents enter a contract with a minimum amount of required time involvement. When it came to certain separation of students, I was not sold.

I know there are some studies that endorse single sex schools, but that is a concept I do not agree with. It is not the real world. I believe children need to be exposed to as many diverse experiences as possible as they grow into adulthood. Then they are better prepared for the lives they will live as adults. Through the years in school, we learn to socialize with one another -- this is a major concept in most work environments.

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