Five candidates are competing for three seats on the Madison school board, with the general election on April 2, 2013.
The political context for the races is explosive, given Gov. Scott Walker's revolutionary proposals for education in Wisconsin: cuts to public school funding, an expansion of the voucher program, and a revamping of teachers' evaluations and bargaining rights.
In Madison, the issues are particularly complex, with the intense disagreements over the district's achievement gap between white and minority students.
In the race for Seat 3, former La Follette High School teacher and low-income housing provider Dean Loumos is running against retired Madison police lieutenant Wayne Strong. The winner will replace retiring school board member Beth Moss.
In this competitive series of elections, there are numerous candidate forums and listening sessions under way, and we thought we'd pose our own questions to candidates. We start by asking the candidates about their experience, and how they would address the achievement gap in the district.
Why are you running, and what qualifies you to be on the Madison school board? What is your stake in Madison schools?
I was born into a dual-language family, and as I grew up I watched my father become a leader in our community and saw how he brought people together to do big things. I was the first in my family to go to college, and as I became an adult for the next 40 years I worked with people who have struggled to succeed. I have worked in some of the most desperate neighborhoods in this country and have developed hands-on strategies that have helped to remove barriers from peoples' lives so they could succeed.
After years of advocacy work in such cities as Chicago, Milwaukee and New York, I moved to Madison in 1986 with my soon-to-be wife and (step) daughter. In 1989, our son was born and I helped them both on their journeys through MMSD. While raising my children, I worked in a group home and then was hired as the director of the New Loft Teen Center, where we provided weekend entertainment for high school-age students.
I went back to school and got a teaching license and taught for 10 years in alternative programs, working with students who were in clear danger of not graduating. During this period, I spent six years working in an adolescent drug treatment program, one year working in the county jail, and the remaining three in the MMSD at the La Follette School Within A School program. It was an exemplary program, but due to funding cuts I was forced to move on.
For the past 18 years I have worked as executive director of a housing program developing permanent housing for homeless populations who suffer from chronic mental illnesses. In this capacity I have been able to develop necessary community relationships while managing and maintaining 192 apartments in 20 different locations. Knowing what is required to maintain all of these buildings, along with developing and monitoring a yearly $2 million dollar budget enhances the contributions I can bring to this board. I believe that the community is ready to unite to create the best public school system there is.
For the last 24 years, I have proudly served and protected this community as a member of the Madison Police Department. I retired in January of this year. As I approached retirement, I began to contemplate how I could best continue to serve the city that I have to love. Upon learning that Beth Moss was not going to seek reelection, I decided that I would run for her seat. I can think of no better way to serve the children of this district.
Over the last 17 years, I have been in a unique position to serve as a mentor and role model for young people in my capacity as a co-director for the Southside Raiders youth football and cheerleading program. Over the years I have had the privilege of working directly with youth in the community. It has been a most rewarding experience and one that I deeply cherish.
I constantly talk to young people about the value of getting a good education. Like me, many of the youth that I serve come from single parent homes. Because of my education, I was able to lift myself out of poverty, and have always viewed education as the great equalizer. The message that I give to these young people is that if you work hard in school and avoid getting in trouble, you can accomplish great things. I certainly would like to think that I have done so.
My wife Terri and I have raised two children that are both graduates of the district. Our daughter Jessica graduated from La Follette in 2005 and went on to earn a degree in journalism in 2009 from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. Our son Byron is a 2007 graduate from La Follette, and is currently in the process of completing a degree in criminal justice at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. My wife and I knew early on how critical it was for us to be involved in their education. We generously volunteered our time serving on various committees, chaperoning on field trips, and helping out whatever capacity we could.
What is the best way to address the district's achievement gap? How would you balance the needs of high achieving and low achieving students?
1. Raise the WCKE scores of all MMSD students above the state achievement averages. I believe we can do this by creating more alternatives so that teachers can address students' needs in the classroom in ways they know will be effective.
2. Get each school to identify the gaps that they are experiencing. Within each school there are often gaps that become apparent, and schools must have the flexibility to reallocate resources to address their particular needs.
3. School boards must be the conduits to communication between educators and the administrators responsible for the allocation of resources. When teachers are given the flexibility and support to engage students based on the needs of classrooms, schools are in the best position to succeed.
4. Develop real community partnerships to assist in filling the gaps that we weren't able to implement this year. Developing effective neighborhood partnerships are an operational imperative for long-term success. There are effective community groups that are already working within the schools -- Boys & Girls Club, YWCA and the Urban League are three examples -- and these programs have established records of success in joining with our school staff to make real improvement. City officials are also promoting after-school programming that can help to address the issues of parental involvement in schools, and also to "extend the day" with specific after-school programming for students.
5. Keep our students in school! We suspend and expel a disproportionate number of students of color from our schools. We have to use different approaches to disruptive behavior (such as the Restorative Justice program) in order to reduce the amount of time students are not in school.
Meeting these goals will also help us reach a goal of excellence with equity. More students of color will be identified for TAG academic programming where they have been historically shut out from, and also in areas of leadership and the arts where I believe too few students are being identified. MMSD is currently changing its TAG rules to be in compliance with DPI regulations, and that will benefit all TAG students.
The best way to get at the achievement gap is to examine the root causes of why the gap exists. While poverty may play a factor, I do not believe it is the sole reason why the gap exists.
I am deeply troubled by the exorbitant rates of suspensions among African American students. During the 2010-2011 academic year, African American students were suspended at a rate of 24.85%. That equates to nearly one in every four students having their education interrupted at some point and time throughout the year. As a former criminal justice practitioner, I am intimately aware that those students who are not succeeding in our schools are the very ones populating our juvenile justice and ultimately our criminal justice system. We must develop more effective strategies to stop this school to prison pipeline. By reducing the rates of suspensions, we will keep these children in school. I believe that we will see the gap narrow and the 50.1% graduation rate among African American students increase as well. The implementation of a culturally relevant curriculum and cultural competency is also important.
I believe it is possible to balance the needs of high and low achieving students through a curriculum that effectively serves the needs of both types of students. It is not a zero sum game. I believe that we can best balance these needs by allowing for some level of instruction that places high achieving and low achieving students in classroom settings where these students can interact. High achieving students would then be in a situation where they could model appropriate study habits for low achieving students and assist with tutoring them as well. High achieving students would benefit from this type of setting by helping fellow classmates achieve at higher levels. The use of this type of innovative classroom setting would be beneficial to the district as a whole. In addition to the classroom teacher, high achieving students would be in a position to help raise expectations of success among students who are not working up to their full potential.