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Winston and Brew discuss poverty in Madison schools
Take Home Test 2007: Week 10, Seat 4

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The number of low-income kids coming into the Madison schools has accelerated in recent years, posing a new set of challenges for educators.

We've asked the Madison school board candidates to talk about those challenges, including the apparent loss of some middle-class families who've left Madison for suburban schools.

Here are the responses for the candidates for Seat 3: Johnny Winston, Jr. and Tom Brew.

In 1991, one in five students in the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) came from low-income families, as defined by eligibility for free or reduced-price lunch. Today, the district's low-income population is at 41%. These kids frequently do poorly in school. What are the most important things the schools can do to help them perform better academically?

Johnny Winston, Jr.
There are several important things that schools can do to help low-income students perform better academically.

First, schools need to have high academic standards for all students. A curriculum needs to be rigorous and engaging for students to learn.

Second, there needs to be strong relationships developed between students and teachers. National studies show that students who have a positive relationship with their teacher perform better, even if they don't like the course content.

Third, parent involvement is an integral part of student achievement. Schools need to make their environments welcoming for parents. This important partnership between parents and teachers acknowledges the active role that both play together in education. By developing this partnership, parents are more likely to attend parent-teacher conferences and school functions and be better able to serve as informed advocates for their children.

Fourth, schools should offer a wide variety of extracurricular activities. Extracurricular programs can be connected to the curriculum as a way of extending and enhancing the school's educational programs. Some of these programs should be culturally specific to engage a wide range of students.

Fifth, schools should try to hire staff that is culturally sensitive to the needs of low-income students.

Sixth, mentors should be recruited from the community to work with students. Organizations such as the 100 Black Men, fraternities, sororities and other professional entities should have an established relationship with schools. Mentors can be called on to assist in tutoring efforts. Regardless of socio-economic level, every student needs a quality education.

Tom Brew
Your questions assumes that because a child comes from a "poor" household, that child is going to be not as smart as one who comes from a "non-poor" household. By assuming this, I feel it just reinforces the notion that these students will do poorly in school.

We need to change the culture that instills in these youngsters that they are going to do poorly in school because they are a "victim" of poverty. Being poor does not mean that you are dumb. As a school district we have to expect and demand that all students achieve academically. This means that we must have all students able to read and write at their grade level by the third grade. As a school district we must not allow these students to fail. If this means reallocating our limited resources from administration to teaching our students to read and write in the early grades then we must do that.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, the MMSD is spending over $12,000 per student and yet we still are ranked almost last in reading at the third grade level. This means that the current methods of teaching our students to read in the early grades are not working and it is time to try new methods that work. One idea that needs to be looked at is charter schools and how they could help students achieve academically.

To one degree or another, there appears to be middle-class flight from the Madison schools, which, in turn, drives-up the percentage of poor kids in certain schools. What can the school district do to keep middle-class families committed to the Madison schools?

Johnny Winston, Jr.
There are several things that must be done in order for the MMSD to keep middle-class families committed to the Madison schools. These include providing safe schools, diverse course offerings, and the positive promotion of the school district.

First, parents need to know that their children are attending safe schools. The changing demographics of the district and media attention have lead to a perception that schools are not safe. The negative behavior by a few students that garners media attention exacerbates this perception and inhibits the district. For these reasons, I support Madison police officers and security personnel in our schools.

Second, in addition to school security, it is vital that the district have programs that address the needs and desires of middle class families. They include but are not limited to: advanced placement courses, talented and gifted programs, elementary strings and other fine arts offerings, extra-curricular activities, sports, and foreign languages.

Lastly, as a part of the Superintendent's evaluation, the board identified as a priority developing a district marketing plan and related strategies. There are numerous strengths in the MMSD that go unnoticed, like the fact that our students' ACT scores are higher than the state average and the consistent presence of national merit semifinalists annually from this district. These positive aspects of the district need to be promoted through public service announcements on radio and television and communicated to all new homeowners.

Tom Brew
The "middle class" flight from the MMSD has a lot do with how they view, rightly or wrongly, how much they are paying in taxes for schools and what return they are getting in the education of the students.

Right now a lot of "middle class" taxpayers are leaving the MMSD because of the increased costs to taxpayers, the gang violence in the schools, and the lack of education achievement of their children. To combat the flight of the "middle class" from the MMSD, we need to make our schools safe from gangs and gang influence, and a place where students not only feel safe, but are safe.

We also need to make the MMSD a place where we reach out to students that are not going to college and offer them courses that will prepare them for life after high school.

One other area that the MMSD needs to look at is the fact that the school district does not cover all of the City of Madison. As a vast majority of the new development that is taking place in the city is not in the MMSD, the district should be lobbying the state to change the law so that when the city annexes land, it is also made a part of the MMSD. This would also ensure that the MMSD does not become a "poor" district but would keep the same demographics for the school district as the city.

Okay, what are your five favorite CDs (or recording artists) of all time?

Johnny Winston, Jr.
Jay Z, Tony Bennett's latest CD Duets, Public Enemy's It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back, Frank Sinatra's My Way, and Fresh Force.

Tom Brew
[No response]

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