Madison Metropolitan School District Superintendent finalist Dr. Marguerite Vanden WynGaard said during her “Day in the District,” she heard the same questions and concerns asked over and over again from students and faculty.
“How are you going to make my life better,” a second-grader asked Vanden WynGaard, she said.
At the community public forum, held at East High School and moderated by school board member Savion Castro, Vanden WynGaard again heard similar themes and concerns from the public.
“It is a common thread, ‘how are we going to work together to work on organizational change,’” Vanden WynGaard said.
The search for superintendent candidates has been narrowed down to three. In order to generate community feedback, the school board organized community days where candidates visit schools, have lunch with students and speak with community leaders. Following Vanden WynGaard’s visit on Tuesday, Dr. Matthew Gutiérrez will tour schools with a public forum starting at 6 p.m. at East High School on Wednesday. And on Thursday Dr. George Eric Thomas will explore the district and answer public questions at La Follette High School at 6 p.m.
Vanden WynGaard told the room of roughly 70 people during the public forum that her philosophy is students first.
“If we are making a decision I will always ask my staff what is the degree to which the decision we are making is going to have a dramatic impact to change the trajectory of student learning and student success,” she said.
The questions from the audience focused on equity, opportunity gaps, school resources officers, how to create and welcome a diverse staff, and teacher retention.
Vanden WynGaard was asked to define Black excellence, which has been explicitly named as a goal of the district.
“Me,” she said with a laugh, then went on to talk about the opportunity gap.
“If we don’t truly believe that Black kids can be successful… if we don’t have that belief structure, that mindset — and we won’t commit to doing everything we can do to get those kids across the (finish) line — then we perpetuate the society we are given,” she said.
In Paterson, New Jersey, where Vanden WynGaard was the deputy superintendent, she helped oversee a district of 33,000 students, 90 percent of whom are students of color. In Albany, where Vanden WynGaard grew up and held the superintendent of schools position for three and a half years, the district had 10,000 students and had 80 percent students of color.
In 2016, Vanden WynGaard resigned early from the superintendent position in Albany. News coverage from the time indicates a strained relationship with the board, but support for Vanden WynGaard from the community. A January 2016 article in the Albany Times Union reports, “In December, (community members) began to speak out at meetings again, urging renewal of her contract and expressing frustration about what they saw as racist undercurrents on the board,”
This drove a tense and unproductive relationship between Vanden WynGaard and the school board.
When an audience member asked if she’d like to talk about what led to her resignation, she responded with her philosophy.
“My philosophy is student first. And that is how entered and that is how I exited,” she said.
During the 90-minute session, Vanden WynGaard drew on her experience from previous districts.
With regard to police presence in schools, a controversial topic in Madison over the past few years, Vanden Wyngaard said she doesn’t mind their presence in proximity to students as long as their interaction is limited.
“Police serve no role until a felony is charged … so unless there is a felony action taken in my district, police are not involved,” she said.
When asked about how to bring more educators of color to MMSD, Vanden WynGaard said we don’t need to bring them, they are already here.
“We already have people of color in the system. They are here,” she said, referring to aides, assistants and counselors. “We have to create a pipeline for them to become a teacher.”
She hopes to support teachers and provide them with the resources and education they need to have safe learning environments for all students and strictly define policies and procedures and disciplinary actions against staff.
When she suggested that every student should be able to read by third grade, the audience applauded.
“We have to quadruple the graduation rate for Black and Brown students. Everyone else has got to rise up too — not that fast — but everyone has got to rise,” Vanden WynGaard said.
Full video of the event is available on the MMSD Facebook page.