Surrounded by friends, supporters and community leaders at a press conference at Mendota Elementary School, Madison Metropolitan School District Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham officially announced that she had accepted a faculty position at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and would leave Madison in August.
“It seemed like a natural time,” she said, noting that she had full confidence in the leadership team currently in place and the school board, which got three new members last month. “It’s a natural time of transition.”
She said a series of difficult incidents — including at least six teachers being fired or resigning after using racial slurs, a teacher resigning after physically assaulting a student and an alleged sexual assault taking place at East High School — did not figure into her decision.
“Every year has its challenges,” she said. “There have certainly been some challenges this year. That is absolutely not my reason for leaving.”
She did say the processes for dealing with racial tensions in the district, outlined in a February 28 letter to the community, are underway and will continue.
She said in addition to the time being right for the district, she had personal reasons as well.
“I’d like to be a little bit more of a mom,” she said. “I’ll be teaching again after many years. I’m really looking forward to it.”
School Board President Mary Burke said the board would announce an interim superintendent by the end of May. The interim superintendent would take the helm upon Cheatham’s departure until a permanent superintendent is named.
Burke disputed reports that Chief of Elementary Schools Nancy Hanks had already been chosen for that role, but did say she would prefer an internal candidate for the interim position.
“We don’t want to miss a step here,” she said. “Jen has built a really great team of leaders,” many of whom could fill the role, she said. She also said details or timeline of the search process have not been settled upon, but that the process would be “very thorough.”
Burke is the only current board member who was a board member when Cheatham was hired in 2013.
“We knew then that she was a very special leader,” Burke said. “She has exceeded expectations. We’re going to carry the work forward. We’re going to make sure to find our next great leader.”
“One of the first things we’re doing is congratulating Harvard. They’re lucky to have Jen,” said school board member Ali Muldrow, who just joined the board last month. “I’m a big fan of fresh starts, and I think it’s a great moment to re-energize as a district, and charge forward. I think there’s a lot of opportunity in this moment. I’m looking for a superintendent who bring us together as a community, who unites families, students, educators, our entire team, our entire board, our entire administration. I think we need somebody who is incredibly focused, and I think it’s a job that requires tremendous resolve. Big shoes to fill, and we’re looking for the right person.”
“It was surprising to hear Jen’s decision,” said Ananda Mirilli, another board member who just won election last month. “But as she articulated very well, there’s something to be said about transition in the summer, transition before we all get too comfortable. There are some opportunities there.”
Mirilli said she hopes the board gives due consideration to local candidates.
“There’s a conversation about it being someone local versus someone from outside the community, as we have a history of doing it,” she said. “I definitely feel more and more as I’m thinking about it, really understanding the importance of having a local leadership transition, not only in terms of our schools and our priorities, which are critical, but also understanding the complexities of our community. And if it’s not someone local, what are those transferable skills that an outside leader could bring to the position?”
Several community leaders who lead organizations that work with the school district had high praise for Cheatham.
“There’s been excellent success, not only in academics but also in culture, in the team that Jen has recruited and developed,” said United Way of Dane County CEO Renee Moe.
“When I moved here six years ago, i had no idea the complexity of the challenges that faced our community,” said Centro Hispano Executive Director Karen Menendez Coller. “I didn’t know the level of support that our kids of color needed. I became well aware the importance of leadership, partnership, and making sure our community is actually thriving. At that point I knew what was going to be essential for me was a partner … in the schools who is visionary, who understood innovation, who saw kids for more than test scores, but as holistic human beings with potential to thrive. I couldn’t be more grateful for the person I got to know in Jen Cheatham. She welcomed the community to the table from day one. She opened her arms, her office, to ideas from the beginning. She has stood for us, steadfast, for the kids and their families. She’s come to bat for us when it was essential. I am more committed than ever to keep moving the vision Jen set forward into the future.”
“When I think about leadership, I think about innovation. I think about strategic planning. I think about vision. I think about collaboration. Those things really epitomize Jen Cheatham,” said Dr. Jack E Daniels, president of Madison College.
Daniels especially highlighted the Personalized Pathways program and the STEM Academy, both collaborations between the college and the school district.
“That STEM Academy is really a tribute to the commitment Jen has to students in MMSD,” Daniels said. “Students of color. Females. Because we know there’s a dearth of those individuals in the STEM fields. That’s leadership. That’s vision.”