Madison teachers gather at pep rally for racial equity

Steven Elbow:

Some 5,000 educators from the district’s 50 schools gathered at the Alliant Energy Center Monday to start their workweek with the three-hour event, which featured Madison School District officials, a student poet and Bettina Love, a popular speaker on issues of race and education.

The event highlighted the importance the district has placed on black academic progress, and on erasing the alarming achievement gap that has persisted despite years of effort.

But according to the district’s annual report released Monday, progress is being made.

The report says that black students have made significant progress on key benchmarks since 2012, the year before Jennifer Cheatham was hired as superintendent to address persistent issues related to race and equity. Cheatham left this summer for a job at Harvard University, and the district hired Jane Belmore as interim superintendent while the School Board decides on a permanent replacement.

“I invite you also to open your minds and, importantly, open your hearts to today’s messages,” Belmore told the gathering, “both here and as you go back to your schools and workplaces and work with your teams and continue this work throughout the year.”

The exuberant tone of the gathering belied some of contentious issues that have accompanied the district’s attempts to narrow the achievement gap, such as the implementation of a new discipline policy in 2014 that prompted some teachers to complain that they feel powerless when facing student misbehavior.

Belmore, who takes over during the second year of a new strategic framework that stresses black excellence, acknowledged the friction surrounding equity issues.

“I know this year will be a very important year for our district,” she said. “We have many critical decisions to make as we support every day the important work that you do in your schools. I want you to know that we’ll do our very best to make those decisions with courage and with integrity, knowing that not everyone will be pleased with every decision we make.”

According to the annual report, standardized testing shows an 8% increase for grades three to five in reading proficiency for black students, and an 11% increase in math proficiency, since 2012, nearly the same increases seen overall. In grades six to eight, black students outpaced the total student progress with a 7% increase in reading proficiency, compared to 4% overall, and a 5% increase in math proficiency, compared to 3% overall. High school completion rates for black students are up 11%, compared to 4% overall.

“The data clearly indicate that being able to read is not a requirement for graduation at (Madison) East, especially if you are black or Hispanic” .