When the four-year high school graduation rates were recently released for the entire state of Wisconsin by the state Department of Public Instruction, Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) Superintendent Dr. Jennifer Cheatham was cautiously optimistic about the numbers that she would see for her district here in Madison. But an incredible 14 percent jump in the African-American four-year graduation rate was quite the surprise for everybody.

“This is an unprecedented jump. I was smiling when I first saw the numbers. I was very happy,” Cheatham tells Madison365. “I’m very cautious when it comes to data. With the good and bad there is always a more nuanced story beneath it and I’m eager to dig into the specifics, but the fact that we had that many more students graduate in 2017 is fantastic.

“In no way, however, does it approximate the potential of African-American youth in Madison. I think they are capable of much higher,” she adds. “But it shows us what we are capable of and what adults are capable of doing to clear the path for students to graduate successfully.”

Dr. Tony Evers, the Wisconsin State Superintendent of Public Instruction, was also pleased with the results.

“We know innovative policy solutions developed locally work best for kids,” Evers tells Madison365. “Madison’s graduation rate increase is a perfect demonstration of that idea.”

The four-year high school completion rate for all students in the Madison Metropolitan School District for 2016-2017 was 83 percent which was up from 78.3 percent in 2015-2016. The Latino rate was 77 percent; up from 73.7 percent in 2015-2016. The African-American rate stood out the most – 72.6 percent up from 58.5 percent.

“I was definitely expecting an increase for African-American graduation rates … no doubts,” Cheatham says. “We had seen the six-year rate have a very solid climb for African-American youth over the last several years so I was expecting to see a similar uptick in the four-year grad rate. Certainly, the 2016-2017 increase exceeded my expectations.”

Madison Metropolitan School District Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham

MMSD’s six-year graduation rate for African-American students has risen over the past five years, from 72 percent in 2012-13 to 77 percent in 2016-17.

But a 14-point jump in one year for four-year graduation rate. Why?

“We have more thinking to do on that. I think it’s multiple factors. It’s never really any one thing,” Cheatham says. “Back in 2013, the first year that our strategic framework launched, we made a commitment collectively to knowing by name every student who was not on track to graduate that we were going to make sure to work with that student and his or her family to develop a plan to help them graduate because we know how devastating it is not to graduate from high school.”

When Cheatham first started her position about five years ago, one of her immediate goals was to work with her team to create a strategic framework that would involve five priority areas that were each designed to narrow the district’s academic achievement gap.

“I think, in part, the commitment to knowing youth and working with them to create a plan to success … I’ve got to believe that is part of the reason for the uptick,” she says. “That and we’ve been working on multiple efforts in combination to keep ninth graders on track, work[ing] to improve the quality of our instruction in high school … many different variables are driving us to better results.”

The surge in African-American graduation rate is a pretty big deal, but Cheatham is not thinking about spiking the football just yet. There’s still so much more work to do, she says. But she is encouraged by those new reports.

So what is possible?

“I think it’s possible that every student group is graduating at extremely high levels in our district,” Cheatham says. “I think that’s absolutely possible. I think this reinforces my desire to keep moving forward on the efforts that are already underway. These results inspire me to keep going. For example, the work we’re doing at the high school level to introduce thematic small learning communities that are aligned to viable career paths … I think the more we engage students in learning that is relevant, the more we get to know students and create community with them and the more we expose them to post-secondary options and the higher our graduation rates are going to climb.”

Beyond the work of the MMSD, it will take a community effort to help do that.

“It really does,” Cheatham says. “I think that’s such an important point. I know the examples that I have given you talked about the things going on inside of the MMSD, but this is a collective effort. We have had powerful partners in the last five years helping us improve the high school experience and support students in being successful, and I think that those collaborative efforts are paying off.”