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Tuesday, October 21, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 51.0° F  Overcast
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Jennifer Cheatham takes charge of Madison schools
The new superintendent has a plan to "get the job done"
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Credit:Narayan Mahon

Jennifer Cheatham doesn't have the countenance of someone who has stepped into a maelstrom. Madison schools superintendent since April, Cheatham, 41, has already visited every school in the district and rolled out a "Strategic Framework" to tackle some of the district's thorniest issues, including the achievement gap. So far she's generated considerable excitement around her plans and raised hopes, even among skeptics.

Kaleem Caire has even put off plans to file a federal civil rights complaint against the district for the school board's rejection of a charter school geared toward low-income minority students. The CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison, which spearheaded the proposal, says he's now content to play a "facilitative, supportive role" and get behind Cheatham's plan to "bring order and structure" to the district.

"Personally, I've been hanging back, letting her get her space," says Caire. "The superintendent should be the leader of education. All of us should be supporting and holding that person accountable.

"Right now we're happy with the progress that's being made," adds Caire. "I'm thankful we've got someone who wants to lead. We need leaders."

Cheatham's arrival coincides with a perfect storm of challenges for the Madison Metropolitan School District: shrinking state aid, legal and political turmoil for the teachers' union, the looming threat of privatization via vouchers, and -- most pressing -- a stubborn achievement gap that has put schools under increased scrutiny for improving outcomes for students of color.

Professor Gloria Ladson-Billings, an assistant vice chancellor of academic affairs at UW-Madison, is considered a national expert on educating people of color. She says Cheatham's background and her laser focus on curriculum may be just the kind of leadership the Madison schools need to move forward.

"She isn't trying to do everything," says Ladson-Billings. "You don't accomplish anything if you're running and trying to accomplish everything."

Teacher roots

Not everyone dreams of the glamorous life of a public school teacher, but Cheatham grew up in the Chicago suburbs hoping to someday teach in the inner city. With that goal in mind, she graduated from the University of Michigan only to find the Chicago school district was changing in ways that made it difficult for a new teacher to break in.

Tipped off to a teacher shortage in California, Cheatham packed her bags for the coast and landed a position teaching eighth grade language arts in the Newark Unified School District, south of San Francisco. She stayed there from 1997 to 2003, before taking on a coaching and professional development role for the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative.

"I would say that my teacher roots have been a theme throughout my career," says Cheatham. "I loved being a teacher. I became a professional developer and coach because I loved working with teachers, supporting them in doing their best work."

"Jen's a teacher at heart," says Ed Hughes, president of the Madison school board. "She started in the classroom, and that really shapes her thinking about what she found were the most effective practices."

These include identifying clear goals, setting parameters, and giving teachers the freedom to shape lesson plans, says Hughes. "When she talks to other teachers, they're talking the same language."

Hughes says Cheatham is "well-informed, direct and easy to communicate with."

From the Bay Area, Cheatham moved south to serve as executive director of curriculum and instruction for San Diego City Schools. After completing her doctorate with Harvard's Urban Superintendents Program in 2010, she was able to finally achieve her dream of working in the Chicago public schools, albeit not as a teacher. In 2009 she was hired as chief area officer or "mini-superintendent," overseeing 25 schools. In 2011, she became chief of instruction, pushing through new standards for math and literacy, a longer school day, and a controversial plan tying teacher evaluations to test scores.

After moving often for her career, Cheatham says she's looking forward to staying in Madison for the long haul. "I believe this deeply, as does my husband, that this is a place we can really envision putting down roots and raising our family," says Cheatham.

Her husband, Reginald, is a stay-at-home dad who cares for their 15-month son, Theo. Their west-side home, says Cheatham, with a yard, trees and "birds chirping," feels far removed from their former city digs.

Hands-on administrator

When I sat down to interview Cheatham, she immediately quizzed me about my sons' educational experiences. Which schools do they attend? How do they feel about their elementary and middle schools? What are they expecting of East (where they had just enrolled)? Sports? Music? Her intense curiosity (and ability to remember their names after 45 minutes) struck me as a sign of a hands-on administrator.

Cheatham did a lot of homework before the first bell of the new school year. First, she solicited help to determine what the district's priorities should be. Her 90-day "listening and learning phase" began with visits to more than 48 schools, alternative programs, after-school programs and early childhood care centers. She held four community meetings to field questions from staff, parents and students. Then she convened a Strategic Framework planning group that included 60 people of diverse interests and backgrounds.

Cheatham says the takeaway from all those meetings and visits is that Madison's schools have potential. "It's not a broken school system, which is different from what I've experienced in places like Chicago. We're not a district in crisis."

Cheatham unveiled her blueprint for improving Madison's schools at a July 25 press conference. School board members, Mayor Paul Soglin and the team that developed the Strategic Framework were there.

"Many districts create plans at central office and implement them from the top down," Cheatham said at the conference. "But because of the high quality of our principals and teachers, our framework centers around empowering schools to make great decisions at the school and classroom levels to serve the needs of their particular students."

The framework charges each school with developing a School Improvement Plan (SIP).

One of the framework developers, Tremayne Clardy, principal at Sennett Middle School, says working closely with Cheatham brought his school's mission into focus. "We were able to get at the root cause of the issues," says Clardy, who previously worked as an assistant principal in Harlem, Ill. "I knew exactly what I needed to do, what our building needed to do," he says. "I left the room with a sense of fulfillment."

This trust in the judgment of teachers and principals is a hallmark of Cheatham's leadership style. "We believe strongly that we are not going to be able to make great progress without empowering the people who are closest to students and their families," she explains. "We believe the school is the driving force for change in our school district."

And that includes efforts to improve education for students who are falling behind. "I don't believe we're going to make sustainable progress in narrowing or closing achievement gaps by mandating strategies from central office. This is all about knowing children by name, their strengths, their needs and planning accordingly at the school level."

This grassroots approach extends to Cheatham's relations with the local teachers' union. In a district shadowed by Gov. Scott Walker's Act 10, which limits the abilities of public employee unions to collectively bargain for wages and working conditions, Cheatham's dealings with Madison Teachers Incorporated (MTI) have been cordial. On October 2, MTI announced, along with Cheatham, that it had agreed to a tentative "successor contract" extending contracts for MTI's approximately 4,800 members through June 2015. MTI members ratified the agreements, which will come to the school board for a final vote.

"Accomplishing this is certainly in the best interest of the community, as well as district employees and students," Cheatham and MTI President John Matthews wrote in a joint statement. "We decided to enter negotiations not just to protect the status quo, but to create an environment that helps carry out positive change."

Madison is lucky in many respects, says Cheatham, because of the "level of talent in the teacher ranks, principals, central office. I feel like we've got a group of people who can get the job done. It's not for a lack of talent."

Achievement gap

Cheatham doesn't shy away from discussing the persistent racial and economic inequities that plague the Madison schools. Like many other urban school districts, the numbers are jarring. Last year, only 53% of black students and 63% of Latino students graduated from Madison high schools. And only 55% of students considered "economically disadvantaged" or "limited English proficient" walked away with diplomas.

The gaps are even more disturbing when separated by gender, says Kaleem Caire, who points out that African American and Latino boys lag behind African American and Latina girls in Madison schools. "Those numbers are generally 20 points lower than girls," says Caire. "I think Cheatham's got to home in on African American and Latino males. Those boys are just falling off the vine here."

Cheatham's vision for all students involves "focusing on good teaching and learning." She wants to work with schools and principals to better define what every student needs to learn to graduate and be ready for life beyond. And central office needs to make sure educators have "a strong set of instructional strategies they can use to teach a wide range of learners."

The district also needs to help teachers "really learn how to use their data," adds Cheatham. She uses the term data in the larger sense. "It's not just the big standardized test data, but their formative week-to-week, day-to-day student work they collect to make those adjustments in the classroom that are necessary for their kids."

Hughes says Cheatham's approach acknowledges that there isn't "any one thing" that will close achievement gaps in the schools.

"We have to make progress on a lot of different fronts, keeping students engaged in making transition from middle to high school, following them up," says Hughes. "How do you keep the student engaged in middle school? That's about being a good functional reader, and that's something you've got to develop by third grade. You have to make sure students are making the progress they need to make in 4-year-old kindergarten."

Ananda Mirilli, chair of Communities United, a coalition that works on racial and social justice issues, thinks Cheatham will need to dig deeper to get at the roots of why school "isn't happening" for so many young people of color. Mirilli, who made an unsuccessful bid for school board last spring, is looking for targeted interventions for the groups that have been falling behind.

As an example, she says, 93% of Hmong students score below grade level for reading and 74% for math. But Hmong students have the highest attendance level in the district (95%). Interventions for Hmong students should be different from those for African American students, who Mirilli points out are 15 times more likely to be suspended from school than white students.

Mirilli says Nuestro Mundo, the district's dual-language school in Monona, is a case in point. "Dual language has been a strategy that closes the achievement gap. Nuestro Mundo is not only about language; it's about culture. That's how they keep students and parents engaged," says Mirilli, whose daughter Breana is a fifth grader at the school.

Oscar Mireles, executive director of Omega School Inc., which works with students to acquire GEDs and other graduation credentials outside of the traditional classroom, thinks Cheatham is on the right path. "The proposed Strategic Framework is based on solid and well-researched ideas. It sets out an action plan that addresses achievement barriers and has the essential elements for closing the achievement gap," Mireles wrote in an email.

Mireles, who notes that Latino students now make up 18.2% of the student body, is encouraged by Cheatham's hiring of Silvia Romero-Johnson (former principal at Nuestro Mundo) as executive director of multilingual and global education.

And he's a fan of programs like PEOPLE and AVID TOPS, which have increased the number of African American and Latino high school graduates. Cheatham is a fan, too.

Cheatham said at PEOPLE's recent annual banquet that she'd like to see the program "scale up" to reach more kids.

She also wants all students to have access to a "coherent and challenging curriculum," which she says doesn't happen now. "That means more than just academic school skills, which are extremely important. It also involves the social-emotional skills, the interpersonal skills, the cultural competence to fully participate in our diverse community."

Tapping into community

Cheatham's focus on community earns praise from Timothy Slekar, the new dean of education at Edgewood College and a nationally renowned critic of reforms based on standardized tests. Slekar says it's too early to tell how Cheatham's initiatives will play out. But he believes her emphasis on community is a refreshing angle in an education system that's been twisted by testing. It may position her to become a national leader.

"Community is something Madison people take seriously," says Slekar. "The idea of strengthening that is exciting. Nationally, all you hear is 'college- and career-ready.' Hopefully that is her trying her best in a federally blackmailed, state-driven standardized situation. It is the way she's trying to preserve some individuality for Madison."

According to Slekar and other critics, states are being coerced into adopting Common Core State Standards -- hence the blackmail reference. States must adopt these standards developed by the National Governors Association if they want to qualify for Race to the Top grants or No Child Left Behind waivers. Forty-five states, including Wisconsin, have approved them.

By adopting the standards, says Slekar, the state is embarking on an experiment that could lead to districts sacrificing "uniqueness."

"The state of Wisconsin has spoken for 400 school districts, which range from the north country to Madison, and has essentially said you need to do the same thing: implement these standards that have not been field-tested, have not been proven to be great or poor," Slekar says.

Cheatham disagrees: "The new Common Core State Standards are not a laundry list of skills. It's a small set of deeper, more critical skills that students need to learn at every grade level, benchmarked against the highest-performing countries in the world. I am really excited about what the Common Core can do for us as a school district."

Cheatham says Common Core can address what she calls a "lack of focus" in the district. A barrage of well-intended initiatives in past years has left teachers and administrators feeling "disconnected" and "overwhelmed," says Cheatham. She believes the standards (and the assessments being developed that are aligned to these standards) are an important starting place. And even though it's likely the new assessments will cause test scores to drop, Cheatham says it is critical to "raise the bar" anyway.

"It's important for all of us to keep in mind that we're not teaching the Common Core because we want to do well on the tests," says Cheatham. "In our district, we're really focusing on making sure that students are academically ready, but we also want to make sure they have access to a well-rounded educational experience -- exposure and learning in the arts, for example. And we want them to have the interpersonal skills and cultural competence to engage in the world as full participants in our communities."

Ladson-Billings says Common Core is only a starting point for developing curriculum and teaching methods and should be considered the floor, not the ceiling. "Is Common Core perfect? No. But we are in a situation in large urban districts where what passes for teaching and curriculum is laughable," says Ladson-Billings. "At the least, the Common Core Standards are saying there are some basic things all kids should know."

After observing the workings of the Madison schools for 25 years, Ladson-Billings says she has not known a superintendent to work as hard as Cheatham to connect with communities and constituencies in Madison.

"I think she's got a lot of energy," she says. "I think she is going to be a hands-on leader. I don't think she'll be someone sitting in the Doyle Building dictating stuff. But we're still in the honeymoon phase -- let's be real."

After the honeymoon

Cheatham brings a lot of ideas to the district, and she clearly has been listening to Madison's vocal constituencies. But in an era of continual belt-tightening, she remains cautious about attaching price tags to the initatives stemming from the Strategic Framework, and she has not addressed the as-yet-to-be-determined cost of implementing the assessments tied to Common Core.

The Wisconsin Legislature cut state aid for the Madison school district by 15% this year, so the board requested a 4.47% hike in taxes for 2013-14. Cheatham and the board will embark next on a zero-budgeting process where they examine every penny of the district's budget.

"What I've learned from the Madison community is that our taxpayers and our community members are extremely supportive of the school system and want the best for our children," says Cheatham.

Kaleem Caire agrees, adding that Cheatham is only as strong as the community that backs her up. "If we all step back and say 'she's got it,' she'll fail," says Caire, "because she can't get there by herself."

Unlike many boosters of public education, Cheatham does not worry that the expansion of private voucher schools will drain tax dollars from public school coffers. "My understanding is that we'll be holding all schools accountable for results, even voucher schools," she says.

"We want to be considered the first choice in Madison. We're going to keep our eyes on the prize and make our schools terrific places. And even if the voucher law gets expanded, it won't matter because no one will want to leave the Madison schools. In fact, it will be the opposite. Everyone will be fighting to get in. That's the plan."


[Editor's note: This article is corrected to note Tremayne Clardy was formerly an administrator in Harlem, Ill.]

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