Madison is home to an increasing number of rootless young people who have dropped out of school, are unemployed and are often at the heart of many of the community's social and neighborhood problems.
We've asked the Madison school board candidates to identify what Madison schools can do to prevent these kids from dropping out and a related question: How should the Madison schools serve students who are not interested in attending college.
Isthmus' cover story this week addressed the rise of "disconnected youth" in our community -- kids who aren't in school, who don't have jobs and who don't have supportive families to help them. These kids often get in trouble. Is there more that Madison schools can do to address their needs before they drop out?
Throughout my campaign, I have stressed that Madison schools must reach every child and, by definition, "disconnected youth" are not being reached. We must reconnect with them well before high school through early education, neighborhood centers, one-on-one mentors, Big Brothers, Big Sisters, and Outreach programs.
Alternative programs serve students who are not successful in the traditional school environment. For example, we have REPLAY, a partnership with Dane County Human Services and run by the Neighborhood Intervention Program; Cluster-MMSD, a program for middle school 7th and 8th graders; NEON, a program for special ed students; the Online Learning Labs on Northport Drive; Credit Recovery and Increasing Skills at West High; SAPAR classes centered on parenting, child development, and fetal development with child care on site; AERO, a program for students transitioning between middle and high school; and Work and Learn which includes core academics along with work experience using the National Accelerated School Model.
These programs are usually successful for the students able to access them. To prevent our students from going on long waiting lists, I will encourage the MMSD staff to vigorously research and apply for more grants and community sponsored programs that "reconnect" these youth, and restore to them the same dignity in their skills, work, and personal lives needed by all to succeed. Our schools need help from the city, state and federal governments, and I will spearhead partnerships to improve the general social fabric.
As noted by Laura Dresser of the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, the face of Madison schools is the face of Madison's future. We must do our best, not just as a school district but as an entire community.
The numbers are daunting: 41% of our student population qualifies for free/reduced lunch and close to 25% of our third grade students don't read at grade level. In addition, we know that approximately 27% of low-income children who dropped out of our high schools were academically successful in the elementary grades. I believe that further reductions in dropout rates will come about through sustained, comprehensive reforms that target all ages and grade levels.
Two types of interventions for the dropout problem exist: programmatic interventions (support and alternative programs) which we have in place, but need to evaluate on a regular basis; and systematic interventions (comprehensive school reform along with school and community collaboration) which need to be part of our long-term vision.
I would like to see a comprehensive plan that includes readiness for kindergarten, reading at or above grade level by the end of third grade, support for student mentoring programs, and a more relevant, yet challenging high school curriculum.
We face the challenges of a growing metro/urban school district and there are many factors that we can't control. That is why an important message of my campaign is the potential of this community to get involved in our schools. School boards cannot solve these problems alone.
Our schools, says former county executive Jonathan Barry, do well with motivated, college-bound students, but are increasingly failing students who don't see college in their future. Do you agree or disagree with his assessment that the Madison schools should be doing more with vocational education, and why?
Old time voc tech no longer exists. Today it is vocational and technical education with challenging courses that do not preclude higher-level education. Therefore, these classes can be appropriate as well for college bound students, and they connect the school experience to work and career preparation.
For those who say that Madison schools are not doing enough, let me list the relevant classes that our high schools offer: Agriculture, Business Education, Family/Consumer Science, Marketing Education, and Technology Education. In addition to these vocational and social core areas, sequenced course work is starting to appear in the areas of Aviation, Computer Networking, and certain Medical Occupations such as Nursing. These programs help students focus on their own interests, and potential careers. There are also partnerships with MATC and trade unions, which foster apprenticeship programs.
There already exist career and technical opportunities through such vocational classes that have clear applications to our students, showing them how to develop careers that can provide living wages and create successful, productive lives, thereby connecting them to the realities of their future.
In spite of budget constraints, I will advocate and lead in developing even more partnerships with colleges, companies, and labor unions that expand opportunities for these students. These partnerships will surely be welcomed throughout the community because when all stakeholders benefit, the community benefits.
We need to remember that different children have different academic needs, and our school curriculum needs to recognize and provide for those different needs. Clearly, the schools serve a much greater role than simply preparation for college.
I don't know if I would necessarily agree that our schools do well for all motivated, college-bound students. Increasingly, I see that with budget cuts and state caps we are not meeting the needs of many students.
We use many strategies now to reach students of all abilities. The district invests in professional development for staff, after-school opportunities, service-based learning and alternative schooling. We need to partner with the state, county and city to find additional funding for these programs.
I would encourage the district to do more to promote school-community collaboration (especially with the technical colleges); build our capacity for more family engagement; provide for more safe learning environments; increase adolescent literacy development; and promote mentoring/tutoring in the middle schools.
We must be willing to engage all members of the community, from parent to child to business to the schools. We are all equal partners in this vast and important work of educating and engaging our young people.
I would also like to explore the issue of increasing volunteerism by students. Getting students out into the community as part of their school curriculum would serve the dual purpose of providing students with real-world experience and benefiting the community at large.