Promises Betrayed

Five years ago we moved to Madison. A big factor in this decision was the expectation that we could rely on Madison public schools to educate our children. Our eldest went through West High School. To our delight the rigorous academic environment at West High transformed him into a better student, and he got accepted at several good public universities.
Now we are finding this promise betrayed for our younger children. Our elementary school appears to be sliding into disarray. Teachers and children are threatened, bullied, assaulted, and cursed at. Curricula are dumbed down to accommodate students who are unprepared for real school work. Cuts in special education are leaving the special needs kids adrift, and adding to the already impossible burdens of classroom teachers. To our disappointment we are forced to pull one child out of public school, simply to ensure her an orderly and safe learning environment.
Unless the School Board addresses these challenges forcefully and without obfuscation, I am afraid a historic mistake will be made. Madison schools will slip into a vicious cycle of middle class flight and steady decline. The very livability of our city might be at stake, not to mention our property values.
To me the necessary step is clear. The bottom five to ten percent of students, and especially all the aggressive kids, must be removed from regular classes. They should be concentrated in separate schools where they can receive the extra attention and intensive instruction they need, with an option to join regular classes if they are ready.

Meanwhile regular schools should be populated by children who can actually remain in their seats and do school work. Money can be saved by increasing class size. Achievement of underprivileged kids would improve when harmful distractions are removed and teachers can focus on teaching instead of constant discplinary management.
I have boiled things down to three theses, which I imagine most Madisonians would agree with:

  1. I am willing to pay higher taxes to share the burden of those families who struggle to raise disabled children or other kinds of children with special needs.
  2. I am willing to pay higher taxes to provide the special educational services needed to give underprivileged children a fair chance to succeed.
  3. But I am NOT willing to sacrifice my children’s education and happiness in school for either of the goals above.

I sincerely hope we can maintain a viable city and its great schools. In the case of Madison these two are inextricably tied together.
Timo Seppalainen

30 thoughts on “Promises Betrayed”

  1. Good schools using good curriculum coupled with discipline and high expectations can teach all students. I can understand your frustration, because the MMSD does not use effective curriculum or have high expectations and strong discipline in most instances, but I could never support your suggestions.

  2. Timo’s language is harsh and the 5-10% figure is likely too high, but the fact is that we do have children mainstreamed in our public schools who cannot function there. Some of these children are clearly mentally ill and dangerous to themselves and others. They do not make progress towards normal behavior while dumped into regular classrooms. They do not respond to ordinary disciplinary measures. They need special treatment in a special environment. Their effect on the other children in the school is very strong and schoolwork is disrupted all day long every day. In particular, the at-risk kids who CAN be influenced by teachers and peers to do their work and obey the rules are irresistibly pulled into these kids’ maelstroms. We could improve the outcomes for so many if we could separate out the few who are really tough cases. I know that ‘research shows’ that their behavior only worsens when thay are pulled out. But it doesn’t get any better when they are dumped in ordinary classrooms. Instead the behavior and learning of many many kids deteriorates because of the compromised learning atmosphere. That isn’t right or fair to all the other kids. MMSD needs to develop more programs to help these kids in a more suitable environment than the classroom. I’m not talking about the cognitively disabled kids who have occasional outbursts. These are angry violent children we have here. Many of you may not believe the situation could possibly be as bad as that I am describing. I suppose some Madison schools don’t have any children like this. I wouldn’t have believed it myself if I weren’t experiencing it firsthand.

  3. Oh my–I am insulted by the fact that many feel kids in need of help automatically need special education. They act a little different, may not learn as fast, and require a bit more attention to feel a part of a community. Oops, they don’t fit in so, let’s refer! It is no wonder Madison’s numbers are so high.
    Schools are not meant to be providers of mental health services. They are, however, the place that recognizes the needs of kids and gets the ball rolling. Then we run into insurance issues, family support mazes, and unwilling staff members. When kids behave in ways that impact the learning of OTHERS and THEMSELVES, we need to respond. While I agree that all kids/adults have the right to learn/teach and be safe, I do not believe that the only way to do this is through separation. Perhaps the structures within a school needs to be examined to see what can be done to respond to the needs of all learners.
    One observation I have made as a parent and a teacher is that there seems to be a belief that if the “bad apples” were weeded out, only the “good” ones would be left and life in school would be perfect. The reality is that there will always be more “bad apples” created by adults within the good. Adults need to change the way they perceive kids and learn to meet their basic needs in a caring way. High expectations need to be held for all kids to reach their next level of challenge–and adults need to KNOW what that is. Karen

  4. Actually, the MMSD does pull “middle school-age students with an emotional/behavioral disability (EBD) who have not been successful in a full-day program at their home school despite numerous and varied interventions.”
    You can read more about the program at
    While I disagree with Timo’s sweeping suggestions, the program makes sense for students who are “clearly mentally ill and dangerous to themselves and others.”

  5. Personally, I think people who blame others for their own child’s inability to ignore some of the crap present in the classroom are just egoists. They never taught their kids how to focus properly. Being smart isn’t everything; it’s just half the battle in the real world. How can we expect our children to manage their peers when they become employers if they were never exposed to them in public schools? Do we honestly think that once they get to college, there won’t be people with special needs in their midst? That they won’t have employers who are complete and utter morons, who are mean, nasty and angry?
    I read Seppalai’s rant in the WSJ Letters to the Editor. To him I’d say good luck to your child in the real world, and let the door hit you on the way out.

  6. David,
    That was uncalled for.
    What a joke to suggest that someone’s child hasn’t learned to focus and will be a better employer for the experience of disruptive or emotionally distubred classmates.
    Have you been in any medical or legal practices or engineering firms lately? You won’t see this kind of behavior tolerated.
    Have you been on any college campuses lately? You won’t see people acting like this (except maybe in faculty meetings :))
    You ought to be concerned that famililes like Mr Seppalai will leave because when they’re gone, our schools will look like Milwaukee in the 1970s and I doubt that will serve as a draw for those looking to bring in new business or relocate to our community.

  7. I share the concerns expressed by Timo regarding the learning environment in Madison Public Schools. Most specifically the elementary school our children share with Timo’s. I hope this discussion does not devolve into a for/against special needs kids argument because I believe this is not the essence of our challenge.
    In my opinion, at the root of the problems are the side effects of the disintegration of family support and responsibility for their children. The problems my daughter reports in the classroom are far from limited to mainstreamed children. These behaviors have persisted throughout the year. The disceplinary measures available and taken appear to have no effect. The impacts to my children’s education and enjoyment of school are significant. In this sense I am in agreement with Timo’s sentiment. We are in public school because we believe in a diverse educational experience for our children but at what point must we give up on this belief in order to provide a meaningful and enjoyable learning experience for our children? We are very, very close to this point.
    It seems to me that many of the issues we have in our schools destill down to this very problem. The resources we devote to managing children’s behavior deminish what is available for education. The constant distraction and frustration teachers and children face because of behavior issues directly impacts our ability to implement any curriculum in any subject. Again, we are not discussing the behavior issues expected with children of school age who are properly prepared to participate in school society. If we cannot effectively manage these children within the current classroom structure, other places should be found. Certainly this will happen one way or another. Either in a way where Madison Public Schools survive serving a diverse population or where parents with a choice move their children (political and financial support) out, leaving the public classrooms to these children. Sadly this is largely what we moved to Madison from Rochester, NY to avoid. This separation had already taken place there.
    Are there other choices for creating a more positive environment? Would charter schools allow parents to participate in a school that more matches their goals and expectations? Could a structure like this provide each school’s local Administration the tools to address children who will not adhere to the charter of the school? Would a change like this allow like minded and motivated parents to more easily work towards common goals regardless of income or special needs?

  8. Mr. Seppalai posting is a broad generalization of a small problem at our schools.
    Most of the students my children have in their classes that require special education attention are sweet and their classmates are so caring and helpful. It is a wonderful thing to see.
    However, I have seen a student in my eldest child’s class (2nd grade) that would get on top of the tables and scream and throw paper and storm out of the school. Three staff members and 30 minutes later things were back to normal. This happened many times I was in the class and it was disturbing not only to the students but to my sensibilities of what is appropriate behavior and how much time and energy should be put forth to one very disruptive child. Bright child but clearly unaware of self control.
    My youngest last year had a student that was so bright but disturbed. I showed up one day to pick up my child and was met at the door with praise for my child’s ability to cope with being hit without responding. It seems this bright child lost control and began hitting my child rather violently…when seperated by the two teachers and things were thought calm the child proceeded to pick up a trash can and heaved it at my child. Unknown to me this was not the first incident and it took several more to have this child removed from the classroom. I was in the class the last incident and it was so frightening to me to see this child out of control. My children have two mentally ill aunts and psychosis and abnormal behavior is not new to them, but I would say it was new for most of the other children. I was a little dumbfounded as to my response to praising my child for allowing this child to hit him. I grow up with “turn the other cheek when hit” but this seemed odd and out of place…it is a weird thing but at some point we have to change our expectation that the teachers and staff have to put up with this behavior. Or we need a three strikes your out until you can control yourself rule. If they are mentally ill let’s treat them, if they need special ed assistance let’s provide it, but in both of these cases the students needed strong discipline and I guess it was a new concept for them. I know not all children have parents, or even a parental support system but we really are turning public schools into foster homes for many children and expect them to feed, discipline, provide health care, mental care and oh by the way an education.

  9. The elementary school referenced in this posting has one of the most engaged parent populations in the entire MMSD. The other evening over 50 concerned parents attended a meeting at Red Arrow to discuss the math curriculum and a newly implemented program to assign children to activities during recess.
    The presentation was frankly depressing on many counts. The well respected social worker acknowledged that we were subjecting our children to a very difficult environment. Rather than letting the children who had never misbehaved have unfettered play at recess the entire grade 2-5 population now has to sign up for a specific supervised activity to prevent fighting amongst a small group of aggressive kids.
    I grief for all the children in the school. I feel for the teachers, aids and principal. This is much worse that it was 6 years ago when we began at the same school. I think the management style needs to change. Suggesting you should “focus” when a bowling ball is thrown at your head is ludicrous.
    This is not about coping with disruptive kids through meaningful intervention. This is about curtailing the rights of all the children to feel safe and nurtured in their school environment.
    The rights of the learning community should not be sacrificed because we can’t determine a better way to help reach the few lost souls so desperately in need of special, meaningful intervention.

  10. I won’t apologize for my attitude on this Joan. The author wants to see some type of segregation, and that isn’t how things are done in public schools. If he doesn’t like it, he can send his kids to Edgewood or Madison Country Day. I can afford either, but prefer my kids experience the real world now so they aren’t shocked later.
    In elementary and middle school it’s maladjusted kids, many of whom experience violence or other dysfunctions in their homes. In college, it’s folks who are stoned, drunk and rude in social settings or so competitive academically that they’ll do ANYTHING to be #1. Been there, done that, at a top flight university. Either way, this overprotective attitude doesn’t do kids any good in the long run. Instead of making idle threats, he should just pull the plug now.
    In the alternative, my suggestion is for anyone with this attitude to get involved more in how their kids perceive childen who have emotional or behavioral problems. A little bit of education and tolerance can go a long way.

  11. Many of you are describing an elementary school where things are really out of control. It seems to me that the MMSD needs to step in and take charge on this one. Apparently the principal will not. We’ve been lucky to have very strong principals at my childrens’ schools. Anything remotely violent is dealt with by immediate suspension, even at the elementary level. When I refer to a kid needing to be able to focus, I’m not referring to someone who is the victim of physical violence. In those cases, I strongly advocate for parents and staff to insist on the removal of the offending child for evaluation by Dane County Human Services.
    In public school, kids WILL be kids. Mental illness and/or abuse is a whole other issue…but for someone to generalize it to the MMSD as a whole is completely illogical.

  12. I don’t see putting motivated, smart kids in a classroom together as segregation, unless you consider AP classes illegally segregated. That is the distinction, isn’t it, whether it’s illegal, discriminating based on a protected category. Last I checked, smart and motivated characteristics aren’t limited to one race, gender, ethnic group, etc.
    I understand the frustration Thoreau parents are expressing. I don’t think it’s limited to Thoreau, although the degree of the problem might be worse there. For instance, in my son’s sixth grade class, he had a classmate who was out-of-control. Indeed, the teacher admitted as much at the Nov conferences, acknowledging that nearly every family who’d come in mentioned the disruptions this boy caused despite having a full-time aide. In fact, the teacher admitted his interruptions averaged maybe 30-60 times a day, for 1-2 mins each incident; remarkably, he went on to say that if he sent him to the hall for a time-out each time it was warranted, the boy would have no opportunity to learn. Apparently this student’s impact on the rest of the class didn’t matter. Fast forward to March of that school year. The class was gathered out of their seats to observe the teacher demonstrate a science experiment. This student grabbed the experiment’s components, interrupting apropos to nothing under discussion, finally blurting out, “My first job is going to be at McDonald’s”. Our son, who had reached the end of his tolerance after six months of no effective control ever being exercised over this kid, replied, “Yeah, well it’ll be your last if you don’t shut up and listen.” Guess who got in trouble.
    Kids recognize the double standard in place, they see the hypocrisy of allowing a small number of students to hijack their learning under the guise of “cultural” differences or poverty. We do none of these kids any favors to tolerate this kind of inappropriate behavior, not the kids whose learning is interrupted, not the kids who think they will be able to get away with behaving inappropriately wherever and whenever for the rest of their lives.
    It is not about intolerance. It’s about creating an environment where all kids can achieve their best. Your suggestion that this family opt into private school ignores their right to be in public school, too. Timo’s family has every right to insist on a safe, productive learning environment for their kids. This is what every kid deserves.

  13. Once again it is the children who are blamed when the leadership is failing. I’m very aware of which elementary school is involved in this account, and it ISN’T the same school it was 6 years ago. It’s not so much a change in the children attending (this school has always had a significant minority of students from a very low-income, highly-stressed part of the city among a larger population of highly-involved, relatively affluent families).
    The big difference is the leadership in the school and the overall sense of “community” or lack thereof that the school now provides.
    To blame children alone and see them punished through segregation, and often the subsequent lack of public scrutiny attached to separate facilities, instruction and curriculum, is not solving the problem.
    My two children have always attended MMSD schools with high percentages of children both of low socio-economic status and of different racial background than their own. In most situations, it has been greatly to their benefit as human beings and as future workers to be educated with diverse peers. In the one situation where we experienced problems, the situation was solely the responsibility of the building leadership and that person’s total lack of understanding about how human relationships are formed and how to nurture those relationships.
    As to the assertion that these children need to be separated, I can speak to many children who have experienced that early in their school careers, with disastrous results. One of my 7th graders classmates spent his entire 5th grade year in a padded room in an MMSD elementary school. In sixth grade, he had a really hard time reining in his outbursts: he had so much anger with what had happened to him. He received incredible supports and intervention. Now, he’s a model of behavior in 7th grade, an eager learner and doing advanced math and science work: he’s a math whiz.
    As a society, I question where we are going if we continue to separate, label and dismiss increasingly large percentages of our society at age 7 or 8 because the highly-educated adults around them haven’t figured out the most effective ways to intervene. These kids are up against tough odds. As a society, they need our support and nurturance, not our condemnation.
    As a side note, I can’t tell you how many MMSD students have said to me, “I wish you were my mom.” or “I wish I could live at your house.” It breaks your heart.

  14. I hear the compassion in your post, Beth. But where is your compassion for the kids who spend their day in a classroom devoted to the special needs of one low-functioning student. Patience is a virtue, so is tolerance, but education is about more than instilling those values, as important though they may be. If we expect our children to be respectful, we need to show them respect as well. To allow a small handful to derail learning in a classroom is disrespectful, in my view, of the rights of the rest of the kids in that room.
    And for all the niceties that kids are learning tolerance, I’m willing to bet there are alot more out there that would call this for what it is, hypocrisy, a double standard.
    I am reminded of the group lab project my daughter had in high school chemistry, comprised of four students, two who spoke little to no English. The teacher not only told my daughter she would be downgraded if she did anyone else’s part of the work, in fact, it was her job to inspire the others to do theirs. Wrong–that is the teacher’s job, not my daughter’s.
    So I close by agreeing with you that it is not the students who are to blame, but the adults, but I would include adults who don’t work to insure a safe, positive learning environment for all kids, not just a sorry few.

  15. When my children where in elementary school in MMSD, they were victims of punching, scratching, biting, hitting,spitted on, etc. Most of the “abusers” where not “special ed labeled” although some were, but at least one was suffering, I feel, because he didn’t understand why his father had been murdered years before. I do feel that these kids need to have services that work with them so they are not agressive towards others – some adults don’t understand this either – but I feel this is the outcome of the district’s union allowing good social workers/psychologists to be laid off versus keeping the “senior” personal.
    Everyone deserves the right to learn in the public school, and for parents who’s child is “distracted” due to other’s behaviors, have a right to ask not to be in the same classroom.
    Years ago, MMSD decided to have their special ed teachers become “cross-category”. When I was in school, college students could pick their “specialty”, whether it was “CD, Profound, LD, ED, hearing impaired, etc”. Aides along with subs, are also don’t have “training” in dealing with the different needs. Our district places adults without adequate training into dealing with kids with all different needs. Teachers who where in the ED field had a work expectancy in the field of less than 5 years. If adults have a hard time with this, why do people feel that kids should have to deal with this?
    I take a great offense when someone “critizes” something about the district that many others feel the same way, the reaction, is “then leave”. Some families don’t have the option, or some parents may not be involved enough to see how child X, is affecting their child.

  16. Yes David, My children are getting quite an eyeful of real world at our school. I can’t see exactly how these experiences will prove useful to them in their adult lives, but time will tell. Let’s see…I’m sure that coming back from recess to find all the lockers ransacked by a child who came in early has some value. Can someone help me on this one? Oh, right. She’s learned to never leave any possessions unguarded. Being followed around at age 10 by boys making lewd remarks should certainly toughen her up for our sexist world. Watching me comfort a 3rd grader who was assaulted by 2 others while waiting for the morning bell ought to get her thinking about some mandatory self-defense classes. Having that bowling ball thrown at her will teach her to think fast on her feet. Watching the chronic misbehavers go basically unpunished for many of their milder offenses because the teacher already spends much of the day addressing the most serious ones will help her to understand how one can get away with things in life by behaving in a way that lowers people’s expectations. Being told to ignore these kids’ constant cursing shows her how swearing is really a part of everyday interaction with other people so she’d better get with the program. Having kids making repeated loud rude offensive noises on purpose to annoy others throughout tests is very good training in that focussing you were making such a deal of so that when she gets to college she’ll be prepared. That IS what the testing environment is like in college, right? Observing her teacher grow more and more tired and discouraged by the lack of assistance from administration in dealing with these kids teaches her exactly how much respect teachers command in our society. And then there is the invaluable lesson she gets in mob behavior and the way society victimizes the weak from watching these kids persuade other boys to join them in chronic harassment of a sweet helpless special-ed kid. I believe she’s already learned well the lesson that adults are not omnipotent as adults appear completely unable to bring the situation at our school under control. Very educational experiences all.
    Now seriously though, there is a big question here about what kind of school environment can parents expect? Is this to be tolerated as normal? Am I really just supposed to just turn my eyes away and accept that this is the way public school is structured these days and I can take it or leave it? Should I really teach my children that this is normal and they should just buck up and take it? On the other hand, if it is indeed possible that all these kids can be taught to behave in a way that conforms to what most non-school-employees imagine to be a regular class environment, then the administration isn’t making a very good job of it. So which is it that you propose? Can the schools figure out a way to maintain a decent learning environment which includes these mentally ill children, or do we just accept that the environment is unavoidably compromised because of the nature of the population, and we have to adjust our definition of the word ‘education’?

  17. I only admonished the author to go ahead and leave the MMSD because he threatened to leave the MMSD. It wasn’t my advice, simply, my agreeing with his own statement:)

  18. I am sure Edgewood and Country Day school are laughing all the way to the bank with MMSD and how unaware that they are allowing well behaved, smart children to have to look elsewhere for education. Edgewood and Country Day School will be smiling when these children are graduating from high school while MMSD will be suffering because they no longer have the bright students (except maybe Memorial).
    What will happen when MMSD is regularly on the “needs improvement” list by the federal government when they no longer have children who are raising the bar on the “report cards”?
    MMSD is very proud to announce their National Semi Merit Finalists, or other things that kids do in spite of not doing much to help these kids achieve these awards. I have to commend these parents to stand up and say that there are problems, because in general, the district doesn’t seem to care why families are leaving the district.

  19. I agree with what Dave said earlier….what’s being described here is an elementary school where things are really out of control…..I doubt that this is typical of most schools in Madison. Having good leadership in a school is the key, and MMSD administration has historically not done a good job of recognizing problems and proactively stepping in to assist and/or make a change. My experience has been that special ed teachers make the best principals because they know when a child needs to be removed from a class and don’t hestitate to make that call when necessary. I know the behavior being described would not be tolerated at the elementary school my kids attended. The principal there has high expectations for all the kids and teaches them how to meet those high expectations. It’s not an easy job, but it can be done.
    I’m disappointed to hear about the bad experiences that some of your children are having. It certainly doesn’t have to be that way. Part of the equity equation needs to include strong leadership in all of our schools.

  20. I’ve been told that some districts work cooperatively with the police, mental health providers, county social services, and other agencies to assist students with severe mental or behavioral problems. I don’t know whether this type of cooperation happens in the MMSD. I suspect not.
    I’ll see whether it might be possible to arranage a forum with people from districts that successfully cooperate with other agencies. Would anyone else like to help organize a forum?

  21. Assault, verbal abuse, children expected to take total responsibiity for a group’s success: this is not effective educational instruction.
    But again, the fault lies not with the children and the most effective solution is not to further isolate, segregate and dismiss children when an educational system isn’t working.
    MMSD has classroom teachers, special education teachers, ed. assts., spec. ed. assts., student teachers, ELL teachers, ELL assistants, speech/language therapists, social workers all as part of a total team. To then blame one “low-functioning” student for depriving a class is missing the fundamental problem: the instructional structure and school leadership. Fortunately, based on my own experience in six Madison schools, the out of control environment mentioned on this blog is an exception, not the rule.
    The problems outlined above are not an issue of special education, mental illness, or any other label. I went to a small-town, mostly middle-class, almost all Caucasian junior high. It was completely out of control. The teachers and the principal were awful and had no control and no connection to any of the students. Any kid who wanted to be mean was mean. A classmate’s sister, who had cerebral palsy, was pulled from public school entirely by her parents after a bunch of kids rolled her wheelchair to a stairwell and threatened to dump her out and down the steps. Some of these kids were “high achievers” and from “great families.” They received no consequence; I doubt the staff ever knew. I spent a year with a girl spitting in my hair all morning.
    By the time we reached October of my freshman year, all that behavior had stopped. The high school staff didn’t tolerate it. Kids who I ran from in 8th grade became friends.
    My point: kids are capable of absolutely anything. I have seen some of the most insightful, compassionate and kind thoughts and actions come out of some of the “toughest” kids in MMSD. It makes me proud to know them.
    As a Madison community, we adults have to lead by example, seek to make connections with kids, hold them and their schools accountable and expect the best. Hoping to erase the problem by eliminating or pushing aside certain kids gives them a terrible message and will only create another group of bullies and troublemakers in that school, while ignoring the fundamental problem.

  22. There are alternative programs in MMSD for ED/BD kids called Landmark Elementary Alternative Program. In order to be admitted, the child needs to recommended by the case worker (special ed teacher) and approved by the principal and Special Ed coordinator. MMSD also states in it’s alternative education guide, that there needs to be “numerous and varied interventions”. This was found in under alternative programs on the MMSD site.
    Now, I understand one doesn’t want to ship kids out right away, on the other hand, why do all the other kids have to suffer waiting. Now, not all students who are labeled ED or BD need to go to this drastic situation, but there are those who do need a the alternative site.
    Did you know that MMSD has 31 alternative programs for children? They are from UW-Hospital program for the sick, to Shabazz, to a number for special ed students, to a number for court referred. I have no idea on how many children are affected by each of these programs, but some are located within a high school to others being located within another city school, to others located within other public and private buildings. I am surprised that with all the special ed advocates responding to this letter, that no one mentioned that there is a K-5 alternative when a school has tried everything for a child. The question I would ask the principal or teacher is that if they are aware of this program. Maybe these kids are not as bad as they need to be for it, but maybe the principal or teacher isn’t aware that this program is available. It isn’t uncommon for staff not to either remember or not aware of sources that the district has available. Obviously, MMSD really does see that there are just some kids who do need that situation when a child is out of control and needs to be removed from the typical school setting. I just think that sometimes, we as parents jump to conclusions on what we want for our kids, and not realize that there are those who need something more than our kids need. This can be for many different areas of learning from TAG to special ed, to other adaptions that some kids need to be successful.

  23. When I met with our principal to discuss the disciplinary/behavior issues at our school, she did tell me about LEAP (Landmark Alternative Elementary Program.) This is a relatively new program, which employs 2 of our school’s former staff members,which she explained serves only 20 children throughout the entire district. She told me that we had already sent one student there early in the school year. I imagine that was our school’s quota. There is one other option which provides half-day service which she told me about which serves a similarly small # of students, but which I don’t see on MMSD’s list of programs. She said we had also sent one student to that program this year. That’s about it for elementary programs, according to her.

  24. Another parent’s comment got me to thinking. The concept of moving children out of a typical classroom because they cannot function there need not be thought of as a punitive measure. Many people’s brains are simply not structured to excel in traditional schools. That doesn’t mean that these people are stupid. They have different abilities and function well in other environments. The proportion of the population which fits this description seems to be on the rise. Some of this is likely due to some assaults by modern chemicals on our genes during development. Much of it in low SES kids, sadly is caused by parental neglect during critical early years. Hundreds of years ago this differently abledness would not have caused much difficulty or even perhaps been noticed because society was structured so that people could do so many things that were not dependent on the ability to decode tiny symbols on paper for hours at a time. I think instead of trying to fit these pegs into wrong shaped holes we should try to think of better solutions. Why can’t we have a charter school where most of the learning would be hands on, not paper-and-pencil. Kids could have lit classes be performance based. Science could be wildlife habitat restoration or horticulture in a greenhouse. Kids could work on learning carpentry and other hands-on skills for math. They could be moving all day, have generous doses of sports and other phy ed. They would become happy well-earned-self-esteem individuals with many skills. I know this is expensive, so unlikely to happen. I can see that being separated from a mainstream classroom to another classroom where you do the same stuff, but without other kids who are good at doing that kind of stuff to provide models is not helpful. But having them in the classroom disrupting is also not helping anyone. There must be a way to help these kids other than the model we are currently using.

  25. This is a wonderfully refreshing discussion on the issues that are beseiging the MMSD right now. I am a teacher at a school in the MMSD. I have read the blogs on this website for some time now, but have never felt compelled to write about issues. Actually, I have been compelled, but was afraid to reveal my identity. I am writing under a ficticious name to protect my identity, but unfortunately, that’s the environment that “honest” educators are working under at the district right now.
    I completely understand Timo’s frustrations. When I first was hired by the district seven years ago, I moved from a larger city because I had faith that I could establish a professional and personal future in Madison. After all, it was the best city in the country for a period, right?
    However, I am beginning to question if I can vision a future in Madison. I know of many bright young teachers who are facing layoffs in Madison and are looking at other places outside of Madison (i.e. Waunakee, Oregon, Middleton, Verona, Mt. Horeb, etc. . .) I myself am looking elsewhere.
    The reasons I feel this way are many and stem from the things I see everyday at my school setting. To be brief, I agree with Timo that curricula are being “dumbed down” and that students are not being held accountable for their lack of discipline. Too many students are not prepared for school work, whether its academically, socially, or emotionally. This is becoming a drain for the students who are prepared, not to mention for teachers who expect calm conditions in the class environment, but are not being supported by their administration in a variety of ways.
    While I feel as if I can’t even begin to mention all the problems at my school or the MMSD in general, here are some things that come to mind.
    We need more alternative settings that aren’t exclusive in their admissions policy and are prepared to integrate special needs students into the population as soon as they are deemed to be eligible for mainstreaming. We need more “hands on” and technologically sophisticated course offerings for students who don’t fit the college mold. We need stronger principals and district leaders that don’t let political correctness run amok in their education decisions, particularly in the area of discipline.
    We need more course options for our talented and gifted children. We need to stop overlabeling kids as being eligible for special education because of personality quirks. We need schools to focus on academic education/professional training FIRST, and not be social welfare institutions expected to do ALL things for the neediest children.
    We need a site-based management model for each of our public schools, with funding tied in to issues specific to said institutions. We need to stop obsessing over funding for athletics and focus on curricular issues. We need to reallocate district funds to much needed priorities in the classroom and not towards downtown positions that are useless in nature.
    We need a better School Board that doesn’t get in the way of itself. We need the MMSD to get its act together. We need to lobby the state legislature and make our voices heard in order to overturn QEO’s and reduced property tax spending power.
    I agree with Joan K that we are becoming like Milwaukee. Heck, I think we are quickly becoming an inner-city school district. I should know, I graduated from one. Our city and county need to step in and provide services for the neediest kids and families that the MMSD can’t afford due to budget cuts. There needs to be much more collaboration in the community than there is now.

  26. FO,
    I’m overcome with sadness by your post. The MMSD could do so much, but does so little.
    Keep the faith. Change will come.

  27. Ed,
    Thanks for your support. I’m trying. I really am. And so are most of my colleagues. Sadly, the pendulum in educational “reform” is swinging towards the ugly side right now. I hope to see it swing towards the positive and remain there. But the MMSD and Madison are fighting against some steep odds.

  28. I’ve read all the posts in response to Timo’s comments and agree with some, disagree with others, feel the passion in all. Now, what I want to know is, “what do we all do about it?” For me, it is looking at more sound educational options for my kids because I can’t wait around for the district to change. I’ve spoken to the school board, to asst. superintendents, to teachers, to principals and the political mantra prevails-we are a great school district! If we really look at the focus of our educational system, educating ALL students, I think Madison is failing the ALL. Heterogeneous classrooms may close the achievement gap (because curriculum is less than challenging), but in the long run, it’s a bad move. The middle is served, but not the most needy children-those who need more supports to meet standards and those who need supports to reach higher standards. It’s time for MMSD to take a hard look at their choices and to acknowledge, instead of deny, that parents are unhappy and then set out a plan to really examine how they are going educating ALL students with the available resources. The resources are there, it’s a matter of priorities! If we had a sound math curriculum, we wouldn’t need to spend money on teachers who basically serve as tutors to get the kids through math. If we had a system of monitoring student progress in place that actually had an impact on instructional decisions, we wouldn’t need resource support when kids are deemed failing. I could go on and on, but I’ll close asking, “Have you thought about what YOU are going to do tomorrow to effect change?”

  29. This may sound blasphemous, but can we really expect our schools to meet the needs of all students, especially on a tight budget?
    My sense is that the district is chosing to do less for the mid-high students, figuring that most of them come from solid families who will supplement and support them from home. Instead, the focus is on the less fortunate. I can understand that logic in principle, but have to wonder, honestly, just how much a school can do in the face of so many, many impediments to learning.
    I came from a blue-collar family. School was my salvation. But my family was intact, valued reading, and supported my love of learning. If a student isn’t motivated or supported at home, just how much can a school accomplish? I’m sure there are some of these kids that can be reached, but am I wrong in feeling like this is happening at the expense of other more “fortunate” children? And if I’m right, is it worth the cost? If the entire community doesn’t feel like the school cares about their kids, we lose them, their kids, community support, etc. I’ve pounded this drum before, but it seems like we rarely get to an honest discussion about what we expect our schools to deliver. FO took a chance. I hope others will, too.

  30. It seems that this old thread has become timely again. The election talk has led through some circumlocution to the dredging up of this old thread. So I thought I’d offer an update.
    First off, I’d like to say that the problem of how MMSD can best achieve the goal of safe orderly schools and whether one item we need to take a closer look in this regard is the current interpretation of ‘least restrictive environment’ for some of MMSD’s most troubled and violent-prone children is an issue.
    A totally separate second issue is whether children who are exceptionally talented or highly motivated in some content area should have some form of ability grouping, for example honors/TAG classes, available to them in that content area. These issues should not be confounded with one another.
    Yet a third issue is the fact that the increase in numbers of MMSD children who arrive in school poorly prepared to succeed, has in many instances resulted in lessons aimed at a lower level and/or to a different learning style, as a method to reach these children. One aspect of this issue is whether this change in the classroom is the correct response, and if not, how can we best maintain high expectations for all? Another aspect of this is that children who ought to find regular classrooms just right for them, instead find themselves underchallenged. In effect, the group of children needing TAG support is enlarged, so this issue is related to the TAG issue. Also, the small group of violent-prone children from the first issue have a non-empty set intersection with the burgeoning population of low-SES children. So this issue is also related to the first in some way.
    A fourth distinct issue is to what extent children with disabilities should be included in mainstream classrooms. Some of the children in this group are also in one or more of the other groups. It is necessary to discuss the way in which various groups overlap and what the consequences of that are, but it is difficult to do so without getting tangled up, so we need to be as careful we can.
    A casual reader of this thread might assume that I advocate for honors classes to provide my children an escape from violent disruptive classrooms. In fact, my support for honors/TAG type courses began many years before I was aware of the existence of the type of situations described in this thread and continues independently of it. I did not arrive at my position supporting this type of instruction while searching for a safe escape from reality for my children. It was far earlier, when I was 11, living in an ordinary midwestern suburb and woefully ignorant of the difficulties faced by large city school districts. Most advocates for high-achieving students similarly are not the elitist folk we are often painted to be.
    Apparently many people assume that advocates for honors classes oppose inclusion. In fact, on the Madison United for Academic Excellence blog, I have recently advocated that special needs kids who are talented/advanced should be included in honors/TAG courses as much as is practicable and I assume many others feel the same. I am cognizant of the various types of problems traditional tracking engendered and promote offering these courses in a manner which will prevent those situations from developing, with plenty of self-checking in the system.
    I see now that the stress of dealing with our family crisis last year led to many rather overwrought posts. Apologies to all for that. Things turned out well in the end, although matters got worse before they got better. My daughter has been very very happy and well-adjusted now at her new school, with no need for the psychiatric counseling which the school psychologist recommended last year when the stress of the chaotic school life had thrown my daughter into a situational depression.
    I can see also that much of what happened may have been primarily particular to our school, as other posters noted, rather then endemic to MMSD as a whole. Still, I don’t think it was unique.

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