Commentary: Madison School District Plan Needs To Be Groundbreaking

By Derrell Connor Special To Channel 3000

I expected a lot more.

After the Madison School Board voted down the Madison Prep proposal at last month’s meeting, I thought maybe we would finally begin to confront the issue of the achievement gap and embarrassingly low graduation rates for African American and Latino students.

Maybe after hearing from so many parents, advocates, poor and middle class folks of color who shared their stories about their children’s struggles as well as their own in the Madison Metropolitan School District, I thought there would be a sense of urgency from the school board and the administration to talk openly about this issue and to work with the community to help address this problem.

No such luck so far.

Madison Metropolitan School District Superintendent Dan Nerad has announced that he will unveil a detailed plan to address the achievement gap next week. If it is as bold as promised, maybe we can finally start to move in the right direction for the 52 percent of African American and 49 percent of Latino students who are failing and dropping out of school in this district. Make no mistake, the pressure is on both the superintendent and the school board — in particular those members who voted no to the Madison Prep proposal last month. This plan has to be groundbreaking, at the very least. But I’m skeptical.

Don’t misunderstand; I have nothing personal against Superintendent Nerad or members of the school board. Running a school district is not easy. It is difficult to serve the needs of all students, teachers, faculty, staff and the schools themselves. I also realize that serving on the school board, while important and rewarding, is also a thankless job. It takes special people who have a love for children and education to be able to serve in that capacity, and I applaud them for it.

Having said that, the achievement gap and the graduation rate problem for African American and Latino students spans decades. This is not a new phenomenon. And with the ever-changing demographics in this city, the issue has become dire. One can only look at the incarceration rates for young African American and Latino men in Dane County to really understand what’s happening.

The truth is that while there have been some success stories with various programs and initiatives over the years, overall students of color have been underserved for years. And I’m not confident that there is a comprehensive plan that deals with the sense of urgency felt by parents of color in this community. And if what happened on the night of Dec. 19 is any indication — where after more than five hours of emotional testimony from concerned parents and members of the community, school board members who voted no to the Madison Prep proposal read from notes and speeches seemingly written days before while offering no alternatives whatsoever — forgive me if I’m not anxiously awaiting an innovative, game-changing plan to address this problem.

And before anyone goes there, I don’t think this problem is solely the school district’s fault. I believe that poverty plays a role in the achievement gap issue. I believe there are students of color who need to pull their pants up and get serious about their education or they will be left far behind. And I also believe that there are parents who are not invested in their children’s education or their schools.

But by observing the many parents of color in this community that are and have been engaged in the Madison Prep debate, these arguments ring hollow as excuses for why this community can’t seem to roll up its sleeves and get to work on this issue. Especially in a city that prides itself on being one of the best places to live, as well as being the most educated city in America. Because frankly, if these were white students with a 48 percent graduation rate and an achievement gap problem, this community would be having a much different conversation.

So bring on the plan. I hope it’s fresh, bold and innovative, and engages the community in a way that Madison has never seen before.

I just won’t be holding my breath.