Commentary: District, Urban League Need To Come Together On Madison Prep

By Derrell Connor Special To Channel 3000

The Madison Metropolitan School District’s Board of Education vote on the proposed charter school, Madison Preparatory Academy, is just around the corner.

We have heard from school board members, business leaders, teachers and other members of the community. It’s safe to say that this is one of the most important issues in this city’s history. While I am happy that Madison is finally having the long overdue conversation about how we educate our students who are falling through the cracks, I am not happy that the Urban League of Greater Madison and the school district couldn’t come together to agree on a solution. In fact, it bothers me greatly.

It is a huge mistake to have this yearlong discussion come down to a contentious school board vote on Dec. 19. Both sides needed to come together to figure out a way to make Madison Prep a reality before that meeting.

Madison Metropolitan School District Superintendent Dan Nerad and various members of the school board say approving Madison Prep would violate the current contract with Madison Teachers, Inc. So, if 2012 isn’t feasible, committing to a date to open Madison Prep’s doors in 2013, and using the next three to six months to figure out the terms of that agreement should have been an option. But, unfortunately, that’s not going to happen. Instead we have a school district and a civil rights organization arguing over ways to address the achievement gap and graduation rates. Not a good look. And the future relationship between the MMSD and the African American community could hang in the balance.

No matter what the outcome, this issue should serve as a wake up call for all of us. If the MMSD school board votes no to Madison Prep, as many expect, then we all share in the blame, in particular those of us in the African American community. For far too long, many of us have allowed the issue of the achievement gap and graduation and incarceration rates to go unchecked, without speaking out or proposing ways to address them. And for those that have dedicated themselves on a daily basis to helping keep young people focused on school and away from the streets and the criminal justice system, we haven’t supported them nearly enough.

Some of us are not playing an active role in our children’s education. Some of us are not involved in the schools, with our children’s teachers and in their classrooms, on the PTO, or the school board. Too often we sit on the sidelines instead of getting involved with local boards and committees. We don’t run for Common Council or county board seats. We behave too much as a community within a community, working independently, not engaged and not united. As a result, when important issues that have a direct affect on us arise, our voices often are not heard.

Having said that, both the achievement gap and graduation rate for African Americans in MMSD is beyond embarrassing. We all have a duty and a responsibility to hold the district accountable, just like the parents and students. Madison is a city of some 230,000 people — small enough that we ought to able to wrap our arms be around challenges like these. In a community that prides itself as one of the best places to live, inclusive, progressive and diverse, I expect a lot more.

What I don’t expect is for Urban League President Kaleem Caire to present a plan to address the achievement gap and have it met with opposition by skeptics who offer no alternatives. When I hear expressions like “the familiar, Madison way” in reference to the approach toward quality public education here, I often wonder what exactly that is, and who it benefits. Many African Americans residents don’t feel like the “Madison way” applies to them, especially when you look at academic statistics in the MMSD that haven’t improved in decades.

So, assuming that Madison Prep is voted down next week, where do we go from here? What will happen to the kids that the program intended to reach? Can Nerad, the MMSD administration and board and the African American community work together to help find some solutions to this long-standing problem? Or is the trust completely broken? No matter what happens, it should have never come to this.

And once again, the kids lose.