It’s hard for me to believe, but April 1st just marked my fifth year as the superintendent of the Madison Metropolitan School District.
Five years ago, we crafted a strategy that would bring instructional coherence and focus to our district, something we thought was essential if we were to make progress raising achievement for Madison’s youth, especially youth of color. And just before Spring Break, we started the process of re-writing our district’s Strategic Framework for the next five years.
All year, we’ve been asking, what will it take to move beyond steady progress and toward more transformational change? What will it take to ensure every child is on track to college, career, and community readiness? Specifically, what must we do to ensure that African-American children and youth excel in MMSD?
With a group of about 80 teachers, principals, parents, students, union representatives and central office staff, and informed by the voices of over a thousand people I talked to this year about our future, we are figuring out how to take MMSD to the next level.
To say the least, I’m excited. That’s because the refresh of our framework presents an opportunity that few superintendents get in urban districts — an opportunity to reflect, to apply lessons learned, and to place some new stakes in the ground.
While we are in the midst of our planning process, I want to give you a window into what we think will be some of the key ideas that drive our future work.
#1 We Empower School Communities
We are thinking that we need to fully empower the people who work most closely with children. That’s because we think those who work directly with our youth are best positioned to enact a strategy that leverages their specific strengths and more precisely addresses their particular needs in order to meet ambitious learning goals.
We think this will mean designing a more streamlined school improvement planning process, one that enables and encourages school communities (staff, parents, students and community partners) to stay focused for multiple years on only the highest impact changes.
We also think it will mean giving schools the resources, flexibility and integrated support they need to craft more unique, holistic and intentional instructional designs (meaning, who works with which students at what time, in what setting, and on what). The reality is that every child is multi-dimensional and we need to better design school experiences from beginning to end that embrace them fully.
#2 We Invest in People
If we are to empower school communities, we think we also have to better invest in the people who work in them.
That investment starts with a commitment to anti-racist, culturally responsive teaching in every school and every classroom. We know that our educators can and want to be allies to children of color and they chose this vocation for reasons that are deep and real.
We think this commitment will require supporting every educator (school and central office-based) on their own individual professional journey through more powerful hiring, induction, professional growth, promotion and evaluation practices—all aligned to our vision of culturally responsive teaching. It will also mean providing on-going facilitated support for school-based and central office staff on implicit bias, structural racism and racial equity, ideally led by staff themselves.
But we are also thinking this investment requires a shift to largely job-embedded professional development and inquiry in high trust environments, networking in and outside of MMSD to fuel that inquiry and spark new ideas, and a focus on the collective efficacy of great teams.
#3 We Streamline Priorities
While the decision making power should be based in school communities, we think there are some things that schools can’t do on their own. Accordingly, we are thinking about how to streamline district-wide priorities for greatest impact. Three possible areas stand out.
For starters, we think we need to focus on ensuring a student experience that is deep, rich, challenging and supportive. It’s time to move beyond coherence and toward deeper learning for young people. What would it look like to focus our efforts on high-quality early childhood education, more effective reading intervention practices K-12, a historically accurate, multi-cultural curriculum K-12, and dramatic enhancement of advanced learning opportunities and advanced coursework?
Additionally, we think we need to focus on building trusting relationship between students, families and staff. It’s time to move beyond simple behavior management and toward strategies for trust and relationship building. What would it look like to focus on youth voice and leadership, family partnership and advocacy, teacher leadership, and aggressive expansion of community schools with services like integrated behavioral health?
Finally, we think we need to focus on building multiple, viable options to post-secondary. We think it is time to move beyond graduating students and toward graduating every student with a plan for post-secondary. What would it look like to work on a middle school design that is more supportive of adolescents and their identity development? To open up more high school pathways and innovative programs like the Early College STEM Academy at Madison College? To invest dramatically in youth re-engagement for dropouts, justice-involved youth, and students who are severely off track from graduation?
In addition to these ideas, we are considering others. How can we better plan for the future in collaboration with the larger Madison community – through providing options like full-day 4K, possible new school models that engage and inspire, and state of the art facilities? How can we take more calculated risks at every level of the organization—building a skill set for quicker cycles of problem solving and innovation to accelerate outcomes for youth of color?
In April and May, this team will continue to flesh out what these ideas will look like in the coming five years, sifting and focusing, while checking in with members of our community along the way. Our goal is to ensure that the ideas we ultimately put forth are those that will produce the kind of transformational change we want for the youth, staff and families of MMSD. We’re ready for this next phase, and the results it can produce for our entire community.