Madison East High School’s principal advisory group met with Superintendent Jen Cheatham to provide input on the next Strategic Framework.

As some of you know, my first round of community listening sessions happened 4½ years ago in preparation for the launch of our Strategic Framework in the fall of 2013. It’s hard to believe we are already in the 5th year of our Strategic Framework, which means it is time to set the direction for the next 5-year phase-in MMSD.

Led by me and by the Board of Education, the process we’ve designed is one that we hope will help us craft the best possible direction in the coming years.

Starting in October, we began a listening and learning tour to collect the “best thinking” of our community, and to share our own thinking. We will continue these school visits and meetings with advisory groups through January, doing all we can to capture voices that are too often marginalized. This phase is really about “opening up” possibilities and exploring opportunities that build on our successes and address our challenges.

In February, we’ll report out on what we’ve heard from our community and what the implications are for our planning. Then from February to June we’ll work with a core planning team to formulate the specifics of our plan. The goal is that we have a new Strategic Framework in place by next fall.

In the next phase of our framework, we want to move from building coherence, which is what we’ve largely focused on, to more transformational change, and we believe we can. We believe we can do better for our staff, our families, and our students. We believe it is time – and know it has always been time – for better, vastly better results for our most marginalized youth. Our results must reflect their inherent capability, their strengths and their potential.

Here are a few ideas that keep sticking for me – and I’m hoping you’ll share with me what keeps sticking for you (see the link at the end of my column).

Culturally Responsive Teaching

We believe that the achievement gap exists because of the history of racism in our country, but what keeps it in place is something different. The achievement gap that sustains and grows as our youth progress through school is in part the result of lack of challenge and the safe community and supports necessary to engage in challenging and meaningful work.

While we’ve already begun work in this area, and some of you have been doing so for a long time, I think we need to commit in our next Framework to developing stronger rapport and alliance between teachers and students, especially African American youth, so that we gain the cognitive insight needed to help them learn. As Gloria Ladson Billings recently stated, we have to think of this work as a “long-term project.”

What might this look like? Long-term district-wide focus on culturally responsive teaching; an explicit focus on well-rounded, challenging instruction that accurately reflects our students’ histories and cultures; and a deep investment in social-emotional learning and restorative practice.

Family, Youth and Community Partnership

We know to transform our district, we need strengthen the way we partner with families, community members, and youth to support student learning –with an emphasis on people of color.

I believe that in our next Strategic Framework we need to commit to elevating their voices, authorizing their leadership and engaging them in decision-making at all levels.

What might this look like? Clearer investment in family liaisons to build capacity to partner at the school level, home visitation at key grade levels/transitions to build partnership proactively, stronger input and feedback loops from families who have been historically marginalized, all with an eye towards partnership and power-sharing with a link to student learning.

Talent Development

I believe we need to move beyond recruitment, screening and selection and into placement, development and retention of a diverse workforce, with an emphasis on African American teachers and other hard-to-staff positions.

In the next Strategic Framework, I’m interested in making sure that all staff members have clear paths of development, leadership and influence, but especially staff members whose voices are often sidelined.

Staff, working both in schools and at central office, must see themselves as essential members of a team – a team that uses its limited time to fight for the success of every child.

What might this look like? Full implementation of our Teachers of Color Advisory recommendations, dramatic investment in teachers and their development, better compensation, which could include incentives for working in high-needs schools/areas.

Responsive School Design

One under-developed area of our school system is in the area of “school design.” Meaning, we have not yet become nimble, flexible and responsive when it comes to our use of money, people, programs and time to support an individual school’s strengths and needs.

What I’m interested in is developing a way of working whereby every school could more flexibly use its resources to build on its unique strengths, address its challenges, taking into consideration how youth and families are situated and aimed at being a thriving school environment.

What might this look like? This could include how staff are used at schools, how the school day is designed or expansion of models like community schools or integrated behavioral health. It could even mean possible introduction of a few new school or program models that simply don’t exist designed to address gaps/needs, like our new Early College STEM Academy at Madison College.


My final idea is about innovation. As a school district, we are pretty good at doing things slowly, methodically, district-wide through continuous improvement, but we aren’t yet good at solving problems with no clear answers, especially the ones that have the most urgency.

In the next Strategic Framework, I think we need to develop new ways of working that allow us to expand our thinking, try things quickly and iterate based on what we learn in faster cycles aimed at accelerated results. We must be willing to take more risks and fail. And this way of working will require a new type of capacity for learning and doing at every level, from the classroom to the community.

What might this look like?

We might introduce a few new core practices and routines for teacher teams, school-based leadership teams, and central office teams that lean on creativity and creative problem solving.

Your Turn

Like I said, these are just some of the big ideas that have been knocking around in my head. What are yours? Let me know at