Madison Metropolitan School District Superintendent Dan Nerad recently crossed one more book off his reading list: Malcom Gladwell's "Outliers." It may have been a personal read, but Nerad still found ways to tie the book back to his profession: "Gladwell's book is very supportive of my belief that smart is something you become." That philosophy guides the superintendent in his role to better serve the needs of students in the district.
Now in his second year as superintendent, Nerad finds himself tackling the budget shortfall, the availability of health care for students and the implications of a changing student demographic. Recently the superintendent answered a series of questions about those challenges and his continuous effort to prioritize students' needs.
Q: What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of Madison's School District?
A: One of the things I've said about Madison is that, in many ways, we are a tale of two school districts. I'm still hanging with the concept of who we are serving when I say that. We have a very large number of very high achieving students who have, I'm generalizing, but they have resources in their lives, they have families who are supportive of education, who have very high expectations for their performance. And then we have many kids who have very little resource in their lives. Our obligation has to be serve both of these large groups of kids very well. Our agenda has to be about advancing learning for all kids. The reality of it is, I told you about our changing demographic, but what I didn't tell you is that the groups I refer to are also the groups experiencing achievement gaps. So it's not just about change in terms of different kids, it's change with a different profile of learning within the district.
As I do talks in the community and I talk about our changing economic diversity - the fact that almost 50 percent of our kids qualify for free and reduced lunch - I use that 50 percent statistic because there can be associated tipping point issues. It's not to suggest we cannot, should not and will not eliminate the achievement gap for our poor children, it merely says that there are more challenges as that percentage increases and more resources are needed to deal with that.
What can we do as an educational institution to help our community understand this change? Because a lot of the reaction I get is that there's empathy around it, but I look in people's eyes, and it's almost like I'm speaking about a different community. So how do we as an educational institution help our community understand how much things are changing and the challenges that we face?
Q: What is one of the biggest challenges facing the district now?
A: The challenge really rests with, "How do we serve these groups of kids well?" Madison has made significant reductions in programming over the past 15 years. So there's a reality to all this as well. This is not just a superintendent saying we have an obligation to serve all these kids. We've had to make decisions here about where should resources be applied. That's been very difficult, and it's becoming more difficult, and it will become even more difficult in the 2nd year of the state budget, where we're likely to face another $12 million financial challenge. There's kind of a rubber-meets-the-road conclusion. It'd be one thing if we were able to say our challenge is to serve all kids well while we're eliminating the achievement gap, if we had adequate resources to be able to do that. But the reality is there's declining resources, and there's growing tensions around that.
Q: In Green Bay, you had experiences as a social worker, an at-risk program supervisor and the superintendent. What did you learn there that you can apply to the MMSD now?
A: One of the reasons why I was interested in this position and I think the board here became interested in me was because of the work we had been involved with in Green Bay concerning the changing student demographics of the population. Green Bay historically had been a fairly homogeneous community, and over a very short period of time, became much more diverse, both economically as well as race/ethnic diversity. Very similar changes in demographics are occurring here, have occurred here... These types of changing demographics are things I hope I can add value to.
Q: What's one issue in the district that you think is not known about as much in the public?
A: I think it is that changing demographic. We see it because we live it every day, but I don't believe the community fully understands how much we've changed, especially our economic diversity, you know, family income diversity. So I think that's one of the obligations I hold, is to help our community understand that. People respond very well, but it's like I'm not talking about the same community that a lot of people here grew up in.
Q: Have you spent a lot of time going into schools?
A: Part of my practice has been to continuously visit schools. It takes quite a bit of time in a district with 50 schools to get around, but I'm a huge believer in the superintendent having to know what practice looks like and being able to be a storyteller within community... So part of my commitment to community is to be able to talk about what's happening in our schools, and the only way I can do that is to go see.
Q: When you visit schools, is there anything you make it a point to do or see when you're there?
A: Obviously, for me, it's important that I do understand what our instructional programs are all about... But I'm also there to thank people for their work. This is very difficult work, and it's become more challenging work. The things that we've asked educators to do in our society - it's very immense, and it's becoming very onerous. My sense is that teachers and other educational staff members will always do what kids need, first and foremost, but that doesn't mean the job is becoming less complex... So part of it is an advocacy role for them.
Q: In the 2008-09 school year, you said you did visit schools. What did you see when you were visiting?
A: I saw a tremendous commitment to best practice. I saw a tremendous commitment to child advocacy. I saw a tremendous worry about mental health issues affecting children. That was a very consistent theme I heard from school to school. I heard worry about the economy and its effect on children... There's some very good things happening in the community through a collaborative initiative to ensure that uninsured children are provided healthcare. See, our job needs to be not only to educate kids well, but to do as much as we can to prepare kids for learning when they come to school. Unattended healthcare issues, unattended oral hygiene issues can be very debilitating for children. I was able to observe those nursing offices as really, tremendously busy places. In some ways, that's a sad commentary, and I think it does underscore why this healthcare issue is such an important issue for our country.
What frustrates me is that there's too many people that are comfortable with the schools assuming a larger and larger role. And my feeling is that educators will assume that role, but they shouldn't have to. Yes, we need a system of support in schools when kids aren't learning well, and we need a system of interventions that we can get about changing things. Our responsibility obviously is with education, but those interventions need to be broader than what schools can provide.
Q: I know we've been talking a lot about challenges, but in your 16 months here so far, what would you count as some of your biggest accomplishments in the district?
A: I'm very proud of our redefined strategic plan. Not only in terms of its content, but I'm probably most proud of how we engaged the community in that process. We had stakeholders involved and a very thoughtful discussion about what we need to focus on going forward... I probably feel the best about the process... because my commitment has always been to find ways to constructively engage with community. I'm willing to look at nontraditional ways of doing that... I'm very proud that the Board of Education has looked at how it does its work and has been willing to reorganize. I'm in the process of looking at our administrative organization, and I will be proposing an administrative reorganization in the next few months. There's a lot that we've done, there's a lot that needs to be done, and probably all of that pales in comparison to the fact that we need to be continuously ensuring a focus on kids and their learning. And I think the district is there, but hopefully we can develop a greater sense of consensus around what that can look like going forward.
Q: How do you receive feedback based on your performance?
A: One of the things that is in some ways unique... is that I report to the Board of Education. I have seven bosses, and they do an evaluation process of me... I'm a big believer in self-assessment, so part of my evaluation will be to self-assess. I'm also a believer in what's called 360-degree feedback, where you get feedback from others involved in the organization, so part of it will involve that... So ultimately it does come down to the Board of Education with multiple kinds of inputs that evaluate my performance.
Q: You were in Green Bay for seven years; the national average for a superintendent is only four years. Do you plan on being in Madison for an extended period of time?
A: I plan on being here for an extended period of time. Obviously, it has to be at the wishes of the school board, and that speaks to the importance of that relationship. I had been very selective about my willingness to leave Green Bay. It was very much part of growing up there, in essence, professionally. Coming here was not about a problem with Green Bay; it was about another opportunity. So I don't take that lightly. I've never been one that has said, well, I'm here for the short-term. Hopefully my contribution will be to help this organization become a better school district and do what's right for kids and gauge every day whether or not we're doing a good enough job with that.
Q: You have some connections here, too, right?
A: Right. My undergrad and my first graduate degree are from here. My wife and I met here; our two kids went to college here. So we've been here a lot over the years. But you get a different sense of community when you live here. I grew up in Kenosha, so the story is I grew up in Kenosha, I came here, I went to Green Bay and I came back here. But with a lot of years in between.
Q: Speaking of your family and your personal life, when you're not working, what are some of your personal interests or hobbies?
A: Some people say it's pretty rare that I'm not working. I think there's some truth to that. One of the appealing things about Madison is the community. It's a very vibrant place. And so, just kind of plugging into music and plugging into the good restaurants and being able to go over to the Union and hang out there every once in a while. Just being part of the community. That's been a fun part of it all.