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Achievement gap dominated Madison school board races that netted wins for Arlene Silveira, Mary Burke
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Burke (right): 'Just because you were born into poverty doesn't mean that has to be your path in life.'
Credit:Judith Davidoff

The achievement gap seemed to be the singular issue of the Madison school board races and some say it will be the greatest test for the board when newly elected Mary Burke takes her seat and Arlene Silveira returns after winning a third term.

"The achievement gap is the greatest challenge that this school district and all urban school districts face," says Adam Gamoran, UW-Madison professor of sociology and educational policy studies.

Tuesday night Silveira, a sales director, beat Nichelle Nichols, vice-president of learning at the Urban League of Greater Madison, 65% to 35%, for Seat 1. In Seat 2, Burke, a philanthropist and former state Commerce secretary, bested Flores, a Madison firefighter, 60% to 39%.

The Urban League's proposal for Madison Prep, a single-sex charter school for minority boys, put the issue of the achievement gap on the front burner. The proposal was rejected by the school board on December 19 but, as the school board races showed, a desire to address the abysmal achievement gap in Madison's schools is not going away.

In 2010, according to the Department of Public Instruction, just 48% of black students and 57% of Hispanic students graduated from Madison's schools compared to 87% of white students and 82% of Asian students.

John Matthews, who has been head of Madison Teachers Inc. for 44 years, says that closing the achievement gap is not something that will be done by the school board.

"I'm a firm believer that poverty is the main cause of the achievement gap," he said Tuesday night at the Harmony Bar, where Flores was gathering with supporters.

Matthews said that the two candidates the union supported -- Flores and Silveira -- understand the roots of the achievement gap. He says Michael Flores grew up poor and hungry and saw school as a refuge.

"I don't think anyone can close the achievement gap until we take care of the societal problems," said Matthews.

But Silveira doesn't necessarily agree. "I think poverty is important but you have to take a multi-pronged approach," she said Tuesday night. "I think race is an issue. I think we need to have conversations about cultural competency and programs for early literacy. We're losing kids at the middle-school and high-school level. We have to ensure that we're keeping kids engaged in schools and that we're providing alternative programs for kids not meant to be in larger, comprehensive high schools."

And Burke, who gathered with supporters at the downtown Great Dane, said the school district has already had success improving minority achievement with such programs as AVID/TOPS, which she co-founded.

"Schools need to be a strong part of addressing the issue," says Burke. "I'm hopeful we can address the achievement gap without necessarily addressing poverty. Just because you were born into poverty doesn't mean that has to be your path in life."

Silveira says that there are three big items, in addition to the achievement gap, on the school board's plate.

The board will have to conduct a search to replace Supt. Dan Nerad, who announced he would leave when his contract runs out in 2013. But he is looking for a new job so he might depart earlier. "It's hard to know if we will have a full search or whether we'll need an interim [superintendent] if he's looking for other options."

The upcoming budget and the transition from a collective bargaining agreement to an employee handbook will also be top priorities.

Silveira says the process for creating the handbook should begin shortly after the budget is finished in late May. "Then we'll have a year to work through it at a good pace and in a collaborative way."

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