Wayne Strong and Michael Flores, candidates vying for Seat 6 on the Madison Metropolitan School Board, are both men of color, drawing on life experiences to wage campaigns that highlight educational disparities between white students and students of color.
Both candidates are public servants and parents of public school students. Strong is a retired police lieutenant, and Flores serves as a city of Madison firefighter and paramedic.
They both coach and mentor young people in the Madison schools. Strong oversees football players and cheerleaders. Flores coaches wrestlers at La Follette High School and tutors reading.
Both are endorsed by the teachers union, Madison Teachers Inc., and they've both run for school board -- and lost -- in previous elections.
On April 1, Madison voters will elect one of them to the board. Judging by the audience response at a candidate forum in early March at Fountain of Life Family Worship Center, a key issue in the race is the district's record on educating students of color.
"What everybody in this audience knows and is not saying is that the vast majority of poor African American kids can't read, they are not job ready, they are not going to college, and in all probability the African American males are going to prison. If it were happening to non-minority kids, this system would shut down and not open until it got fixed," said Floyd Rose, president of 100 Black Men of Madison, who moderated the forum, alongside Ananda Mirilli of the YWCA's restorative justice program. Mirilli's primary bid for a seat on the school board in 2013 was foiled when top vote-getter Sarah Manski announced she was moving to California 48 hours after the primary, leaving Mirilli off the ballot.
At the forum, which also included School Board President Ed Hughes, who is running unopposed, the audience pressed the candidates for specifics on addressing the achievement gap. Several attendees also expressed disappointment in a contentious 2011 board vote to scrap plans for Madison Prep, a single-sex charter school for underachieving students championed by departing Urban League CEO Kaleem Caire.
A focus on language and culture
Michael Flores lives on the east side with his wife and three children, who attend Nuestro Mundo Community School and Sennett Middle School. Flores says growing up poor and bilingual in Madison helps him understand challenges students face. Today, Latinos make up nearly 20% of students in Madison schools. "I am who they say the achievement gap is," says Flores.
Flores says his high school English teacher, Bruce Piddington, would handpick books for his students. He handed Flores the memoir Down These Mean Streets by Piri Thomas, a Latino of Puerto Rican and Cuban descent who grew up in Harlem.
"For teachers to develop that accuracy, where they get to know you better than you know yourself and they empower you to love learning, to love reading because they can hand you a book that's relevant to you -- it's beautiful. How do you teach that? How do you pass it on?"
Flores believes dual-language programs can open up opportunities and narrow achievement gaps. "Exposure to language for all our kids will help close the achievement gap. Sometimes it's perceived as just black and white. There is a whole gamut of colors."
Flores says the district needs to get serious about diversifying the teaching pool, which is predominantly white. He also thinks it should consider more resources for arts, outdoor experiences and athletics to benefit students and to boost parent involvement in the schools.
Flores wants the district to focus on developing a culturally relevant curriculum, which can help engage students of color.
"There should not be one month of African American history. It should be all year long. Kids need to see themselves as presidents, as scientists."
A reading tutor, Flores says schools can make books accessible to kids who have limited exposure at home. "I still like to grab a book, sit down and read it. I hold them on my bookshelf like trophies because as a kid it took work for me to read."
Wayne Strong lost narrowly to Dean Loumos in the 2013 school board race. Strong and his wife raised two children who graduated from Madison schools, and he coaches football for the Southside Raiders. His campaign focuses on racial disparities, particularly when it comes to discipline.
Strong criticizes the district's graduation and suspension rates.
"I think it's a good district, but we can do a lot better. African American students are suspended at astronomical rates. If we can figure out a way to keep those students in school and not use exclusionary suspensions, we'll get at some of the root causes and see that gap closing."
Strong points to the "Race to Equity" report published last year by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families. The report documented that Dane County faces some of the most serious white-black disparities in the nation when it comes to education, poverty, employment and criminal justice. It notes, for example, that non-Hispanic black students were 9.5 times more likely to be suspended than non-Hispanic white students in 2010-11.
Strong says his experience as a law enforcement officer helps him understand the challenges of keeping kids safe and keeping them in school. "I see firsthand the result: The kids that have been suspended are the kids we're seeing entering the juvenile justice system."
Like Flores, Strong wants the district to hire more qualified teachers of color and provide a culturally relevant curriculum. "They need to see more stuff in the curriculum that looks like them, like the history of African Americans and Latinos," he says.
As for the lingering fallout from Madison Prep, Strong says, "We've got to move on from that. I know that it did create a rift in the community. We've seen the numbers; now it's time to act, to do something meaningful. Lowering suspensions, increasing graduation rates, keeping kids in school and out of the juvenile justice system will lower the achievement gap and help kids stay out of trouble."