Replacing Superintendent Art Rainwater will dominate the Madison school board's agenda in the next 18 months, a task board members rightly view with trepidation.
'For me, there is an appeal to finding a new person,' says board member Carol Carstensen. 'But a lot of me just says this is going to be really, really difficult.'
Rainwater's retirement announcement this week gives the board until June 30, 2008, to find a replacement. But he's leaving mighty big shoes to fill.
Rainwater took over Madison schools nearly nine years ago after predecessor Cheryl Wilhoyte was run out of town. Avoiding her missteps, he won at least grudging respect from most quarters, managing tight budgets while maintaining student achievement gains. His candor, plain talk and work ethic have helped build good will with unions, politicians and the media.
'Madison might not know the range of Art's leadership until he's gone,' says board president Johnny Winston Jr. 'He's not the type to toot his own horn. But his leadership has been crucial, and he's going to be very difficult to replace.'
The issue promises to play big in this spring's school board elections, where the winners will be among the seven board members who'll make the hiring decision. The board will likely hire a consultant to hone a profile for the next superintendent, and agonize over the process.
No obvious internal candidate stands out, as Rainwater did in 1998. Rainwater's chief of staff, Mary Gulbrandsen, 56, has garnered some buzz, but she's already announced her retirement and lacks superintendent certification.
Other possible contenders: West Principal Ed Holmes, Assistant Superintendent Sue Abplanalp, former Assistant Superintendent Valencia Douglas, former La Follette Principal Mike Meissen, New Glarus Superintendent Barbara Thompson, Verona Superintendent Dean Gorrell, state schools Superintendent Libby Burmaster and her deputy, Carolyn Stanford-Taylor.
But all are considered long shots, and a national search is a certainty.
In the meantime, board member Lucy Mathiak is confident the process will not supplant an ambitious list of board priorities or stymie achievement gains.
'We won't let that happen,' she says. 'It's also not in Art's nature to sit back and twiddle his thumbs. For better or worse, no one can deny he's always engaged and poised to make decisions.'
West knows best
On Monday, parents at West High heard a gushing evaluation of the school's three-year effort to build 'Smaller Learning Communities.' This is part of a national movement to break big schools into smaller groups of kids who remain together over four years, sharing teachers and support staff.
West's plan includes core classes that combine the lowest- and highest-achieving students. The theory is that these heterogeneous classes will reduce the racial and economic achievement gap.
'Our scores continue to be higher than just about any other high school in the state,' declared Principal Ed Holmes, citing annual gains among all racial groups. 'All of the trends are moving in the same direction.'
Some parents, though, continue to fret about the effect on high achievers, who studies say do better in classes of like-minded peers. For academically advanced kids, West may become a 'colossal waste of time,' said parent Michael Olneck, a UW-Madison education professor.
A similar debate at East last fall caused Rainwater to put a halt to reform efforts pending a two-year, system-wide review. Board members expect that process to proceed, despite Rainwater's retirement.
Do the math
If only 5% of middle school math teachers are certified in math, what is the probability of success for their students? These numbers are driving a professional-development class for middle school math teachers taught by UW-Madison math and engineering professors.
Of Madison's 109 middle school math teachers, only five are certified in secondary math, a ratio that mirrors other Wisconsin school districts. This exacerbates concerns that Madison's curriculum favors real-life problem-solving at the expense of fundamentals and drills that reinforce key math concepts. Some parents have complained of skill deficits when students reach college.
'It may well be that we do have the very best math curriculum in the nation, as we so often hear,' says Mathiak. 'But I say we have to move beyond simply asserting it and start demonstrating it.'
Rainwater is seeking a federal grant for experts to review the district's math curriculum and possibly develop it as a national model.
In the meantime, the training for middle school math teachers remains a priority. UW-Madison math professor Terry Millar says the program benefits the district and the university: 'We provide content knowledge and expertise, while we simultaneously learn more about pedagogy than we ever knew.'
What a concept: math teachers learning about math and professors learning about teaching.