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Friday, September 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 73.0° F  Partly Cloudy
The Daily
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Madison's new schools superintendent Jennifer Cheatham gets input from parents at first listening session
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Cheatham: "The teacher needs to identify things he or she wants to improve on and identify goals."
Credit:Joe Tarr

Jennifer Cheatham, the new superintendent of Madison's schools, held her first listening session with parents at East High School on Thursday night.

She was late.

A school official told the crowd of about 75 people that Cheatham was coming from a meeting to review the budget, and was a bit behind schedule.

The new superintendent has been on a whirlwind of tours and meetings since she started the job on April 1. But when she finally arrived in the East High auditorium, she did not seem worn out. The superintendent said that she's spent the past few weeks meeting with teachers, administrators and students as she tours the schools. But, she added, "I haven't had as many conversations with parents as I would like."

Cheatham briefly outlined her philosophy to the group, which included many parents, but also some teachers, and a few who were both. "I'm absolutely committed to equity -- holding every child to the same high bar," she said. "But I know children need different kinds of support to get there."

She also said she believes in fostering quality teaching, developing systematic approaches to improving schools, while at the same time still allowing flexibility. She wanted schools to share more about the successful things they're doing. Cheatham quickly opened the floor for comments from the crowd. She said she didn't just want questions, but comments about what the schools could be doing better and what they're doing well.

Parents raised several issues, including teacher evaluations, standardized testing, Common Core State Standards, the achievement gap, engaging parents and keeping school fun, especially for younger children.

Cheatham said that she believed teachers and administrators needed to be evaluated regularly and that it shouldn't be based only on students' test scores. She said that when she was a teacher, she once had a principal tell her to fill out her own evaluation. "I didn't want that. I wanted someone to tell me how I was doing," she said. "Most teacher evaluations, generally they're using a vague checklist and they happen so sporadically that they're not meaningful."

"The frequency has to increase and they have to be collaborative conversations. The teacher needs to identify things he or she wants to improve on and identify goals."

One parent said he wanted something to be done to hold parents more accountable for student performance. While Cheatham said that parent involvement is invaluable, "Of all the things within our control, I'm not sure it's worth our time to work on parental accountability. Some parents are not going to be involved. It's not because they don't love their children, it's because they're working two jobs."

A number of parents said they didn't feel schools welcomed their involvement -- both in trying to start initiatives or in understanding how the schools work. "Often I get faced with 'edu-speak,'" said one mother. "You get fed all this jargon and it feels like it's geared toward politics and not the student."

One mother who also teaches said she can see that students in her child's kindergarten class are already beginning to segregate by social and economic class. Those trends get worse as the kids go through the system and by the time they reach her 9th grade class "some students are very disengaged. Our system has failed them so much already that they've checked out."

She asked whether resources couldn't be allocated by need instead of numbers.

Another mother, who has taught as a substitute in many Madison schools, says the principal can make a world of difference. "The principal has so much more say over the environment than you realize until you hit on a good one," she said. "No matter how good the teachers are, the school is in trouble if the principal is a bad one."

Cheatham agreed: "We have to have good principals in every school, that's the bottom line."

At the end of the evening, Cheatham acknowledged that many parents are probably worn out by "strategic planning initiatives." But she promised swift action. "By the summer, we're going to figure out what the major initiatives are," she said. "I'm not planning on layering on a bunch of initiatives. It's about narrowing and getting tighter about our approach to improvement."

Three more listening sessions are scheduled at the district's other high schools: May 9 at West, May 16 at Memorial and May 30 at La Follette. All of the sessions run from 6:30 to 8 p.m.

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