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Sunday, September 14, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 57.0° F  A Few Clouds
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The search for a new Madison schools superintendent: Can anyone meet our expectations?
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Everyone in Madison seems to have an opinion about who the next superintendent of the school district should be.

Suzanne Swift, president of the Franklin Randall Elementary School PTO, wants a superintendent who can motivate a "demoralized staff," develop relationships and advocate for the district at the state and national levels.

Education policy expert Sarah Archibald says a future superintendent should be willing to make tough decisions about allocating shrinking resources.

Eugenia Highland, program coordinator at Centro Hispano, wants someone who will focus on reducing the achievement gap.

School board member Ed Hughes says the district needs a leader who can "navigate the political shoals of serving in a place like Madison."

Outgoing Superintendent Dan Nerad, who began his Madison tenure in 2008, insists his replacement must care about students and the community.

As the school board searches for Nerad's replacement over the next year, it will have to juggle these competing priorities for what the community wants to see in a new leader. But two clear themes stand out: The community wants someone who can address the achievement gap and unite the warring factions that have sprung up around it.

Expectations are high. The new superintendent may have to be nothing short of a miracle-worker.

New ideas needed

As a member of the first generation of African Americans to study in racially integrated public schools, Fabu Carter, a former Madison poet laureate, was certain she knew how to prepare her son Woodie to attend a predominantly white school.

She knew his primary exposure to his African American heritage would be through the lens of oppression, where he would be taught the history of slavery and the civil rights movement, but not much else.

So Carter took it on herself to give him a "parallel education." She plastered his bedroom walls with colorful posters of "great kings of Africa," gave him a broader view of African American history, and helped him develop a strong sense of his culture and heritage.

"I did for him what they did during segregation," she says. "You did not trust your entire education to anybody else, but to your family and your community."

But despite her best efforts, soon after starting kindergarten Woodie came home and told his mother he wished he were white.

"In three months they managed to undo everything I had done in five years," Carter says.

Woodie, with Carter's help, grew to appreciate his own heritage and went on to graduate school in public health. But the achievement gap between white students and students of color continues to weigh heavily on Carter's mind.

Graduation rates remain dismal in the city. The four-year graduation rate for African American students is 50%; the corresponding rate for white students is 84%.

Finding a superintendent with experience addressing similar achievement gaps is a top priority for some.

"A lot of the conversation among students over the last year has been focused on continuing the diverse perspectives we have," says Libby Scholz, student representative to the school board for the upcoming academic year. "I think they see the achievement gap as a problem. So we're looking for someone who's going to continue that [conversation], but bring their own ideas to the table."

Uniting the factions

Carter was a vocal supporter of Madison Prep, a charter school proposed by the Urban League of Greater Madison in 2010; the school was aimed at reducing the district's achievement gap. Although the proposal changed over the year, the school was initially designed to educate young African American, Latino and low-income boys; feature longer school days and years; follow the International Baccalaureate curriculum; and use non-unionized teachers.

The debate over Madison Prep turned vitriolic, as every piece of the proposal was scrutinized, including its all-male focus and the decision to use non-unionized teachers.

The school board ultimately voted it down. But the divisions created by the debate remain. No one denies the achievement gap exists, but they don't agree on what the problem is.

John Matthews, executive director of Madison Teachers Inc., thinks teachers face an unwinnable battle against such social ills as poverty and hunger. If students are worried about where their next meal will come from, or how they can get health or dental care, school is not their top priority, Matthews says. And as teachers deal with larger class sizes and decreasing budgets, they are stretched as thin as they can go, he adds.

But for policy expert Archibald, teachers - or at least teachers' unions - have been part of the problem. Archibald works for state Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon), a former chair of the Senate education committee, and previously worked for Gov. Jim Doyle's administration. She says a new superintendent will have to be willing to make hard decisions to implement policies like evaluation systems to measure teacher effectiveness.

"We need some bold leadership at the public schools," Archibald says. "With the strong union leadership bucking a lot of the changes that would benefit kids - for example, fighting four-year-old kindergarten - decisions that aren't made in the best educational interests of the children have been costing us."

In 2010, Madison Teachers Inc. intially opposed the creation of four-year-old kindergarten, which would have been taught in schools and childcare centers across the city. The union objected because many teachers in childcare centers were not unionized. In 2011, the school board agreeed that less than 50% of four-year-old kindergarten teachers would work in childcare centers.

Carter and Centro Hispano's Highland see the problem as more fundamentally ingrained in the educational curriculum. Highland says there are also cultural miscommunications between school staff and Latino students.

The two advocate reshaping the curriculum to systematically emphasize non-white history and culture, and hiring teachers who can relate to all students.

"School is not a wonderful place for [African American students]," Carter says. "We're in 2012, but you can't open up a book and read about blacks in Wisconsin and their history. African American history is not threaded through the curriculum; it's not a part of what they learn in schools. So they're learning about everyone else except themselves."

A new superintendent will need to reconcile these competing achievement gap priorities and chart a course acceptable to all.

"[We need] somebody who can relate and be accepted in the many factions of Madison's community," Matthews says.

Demand and supply

Madison apparently wants a new superintendent who has strong leadership skills, a community orientation, experience working with diverse populations, an ability to unite warring factions, political savvy, and a commitment to advocating for students and teachers. Finding all these qualifications in one person seems a tall order.

Such candidates exist, says Dennis Ray, president of Northwest Leadership Associates, a superintendent search firm based on the West Coast. But there aren't a lot of them. Ray says the number of candidates for a typical search is about 20 to 30, down from 50 or 60 a decade or so ago. When you factor in candidates with significant experience addressing achievement gaps, the pool shrinks even further.

Gary Ray, president of Ray & Associates, the firm selected to lead the search for a Madison schools superintendent, says that the No Child Left Behind act has made "people with achievement gap experience a high commodity."

The board is paying Ray & Associates $30,975 for its services, excluding advertising and travel expenses for finalists.

Gary Ray warns that some candidates may not be too keen to work in a city that serves as both a university town and a capital.

"Some candidates know their forte is not working in that kind of a fishbowl atmosphere," he says.

Another complicating factor is that Madison is not the only district looking for the ideal candidate.

"Virtually every school district is looking for someone with good communication skills, for somebody with a collaborative leadership style, and for someone with proven leadership experience," says Dennis Ray. "And in suburban and urban districts, achievement gaps and diversity are a part of almost every search."

Still, Gary Ray is optimistic. "We can definitely compete for good candidates," he says.

Dennis Ray adds that Madison has some advantages over other districts in attracting the right person. The city is known for its excellent standard of living and has a reputation for paying its leaders reasonably well.

But school board members will play a key role.

"The board needs to be really clear in what it is they're looking for," says Dennis Ray. "The more clearly they can identify the leadership profile that they're seeking, the better their chances are. The other factor that candidates will be looking at closely is the composition of the board and their willingness to do what they have to do."

At a meeting on Aug. 6 the board laid out the timeline for hiring the new superintendent. Although members did not establish a list of priorities for the search, they did agree not to limit the applicant pool by establishing prerequisites for the position.

The board expects to start receiving applications in January 2013 and in February to hold public forums where residents will get a chance to meet the finalists. There is no clear deadline for making a decision, but Hughes says he hopes the board selects a candidate in the spring so that the new superintendent would be in place for the new school year.

In the big picture, says Hughes, the board needs to create "the best possible working environment for our teachers and have a supportive and respectable realationship with our employees." At the same time, he adds, "We also have to ensure that our primary interest is in what's best for students. We have to work towards a common vision of where we want to go."

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