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Friday, September 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 69.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Dan Nerad gets it!
Madison's new superintendent is serious about listening to students
Nerad, it seems, fully understands the value of student engagement.
Nerad, it seems, fully understands the value of student engagement.

Last month, I wrote about the potential for the Madison school district's new superintendent, Dr. Daniel Nerad, to make Madison schools more receptive to students' voices ("Daniel Nerad, Stop Shutting Out Student Input," 7/24/08).

When the piece was published in Isthmus, I was traveling in central Mexico. The day after it appeared, I sat down in front of a computer at an Internet cafe in Mexico City, half expecting a barrage of messages criticizing my naiveté and idealism.

After all, how many people would take seriously a high school student who suggests not only "holding a series of listening sessions [for students] at several of the district's middle and high schools," but also "advancing students [on school advisory boards and task forces] from the confines of tokenism to a position of shared power"?

When I opened an email from my mom relating that Dr. Nerad had called our home shortly after my column was printed, I almost thought she was joking. He wants to meet with you, she wrote, to hear more about your ideas on student engagement.

She wasn't kidding -- and neither is Nerad, whom I met with recently at the Doyle Building, the school district's administrative headquarters. As he told me, "When I read your article, this first thing I wanted to know was, 'What's her phone number?'"

I arrived at the Doyle Building with plenty of memories of interactions with adults who seemed either bemused or annoyed by students wanting to have some say on decisions that affect their lives. I expected more of the same.

But it soon became clear my planned attempt to convince the superintendent of the merits of fostering student voices wouldn't be necessary. Nerad, it seems, fully understands the value of student engagement -- along with the challenges posed by our current levels of engagement.

So much for my shocking statistics. (Almost half of Dane County high school students surveyed by the 2005 Dane County Youth Assessment disagreed with the statement, "Students in my school are typically asked to help set rules and solve problems"!)

Indeed, I was amazed to find we were on the same wavelength on many issues. "Authentic student engagement requires slow social change," Nerad told me. "I'm willing to push for that change."

Nerad gave me the contact information for a state administrator who might serve as a helpful resource person. He described a community visioning session this official facilitated in at a high school in Green Bay, his former district. He proposed a similar forum for youth in Madison; it was almost verbatim a proposal I had pitched (unsuccessfully) to school administrators last year.

In Green Bay, Nerad regularly initiated meetings between a citywide student association and the school board. Student leaders set the agenda and facilitated sessions. In Madison, Nerad plans to work closely with the Student Senate, and perhaps create similar forums for youth and adult leaders to tackle education issues together.

Nerad also plans to continue a tradition he began in Green Bay, of inviting high school students to lunch, just to hear what's on their minds. That kind of connection between students and school administrators is crucial to meaningful student engagement.

I'm thrilled that Nerad seems prepared to lead the district away from the bureaucratic structure that inspires shudders in student and community activists alike, to one that embraces community outreach and transparency. Nerad says he welcomes citizens to share their ideas with him.

"I know I'm repeating myself, but I'll consider anything," he told me several times. "I'm always willing to meet with students." He encouraged me to call him directly whenever I have an idea or opinion to share.

Nerad has already been walking the talk, recently hosting two public forums on the district's budget and seeking out community input informally at community events.

With a possible referendum looming and a host of other crucial problems facing the district, this is sure to be a critical year, perhaps a pivotal one. But no matter which direction our schools take, I'm confident that students will have a say.

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