Home Madison New Madison school superintendent lays out priorities, identifies challenges

New Madison school superintendent lays out priorities, identifies challenges

Photo by Omar Waheed.

Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) held a press conference this Thursday morning to introduce its new superintendent, Dr. Joe Gothard, to the community.

Gothard, who is taking over from interim superintendent Liza Kvistad, came to Henry Thoreau Elementary School, 3870 Nakoma Rd., to give a first glance at his plans with MMSD. Gothard, who was raised in Madison and went through its schools and then later taught in them, is returning home after serving as superintendent in two different Minnesota school districts since 2013. He said he’s excited to be back and aims to continue building relationships with the community to capitalize on MMSD’s strengths.

“I went to Elvehjem (Elementary School as a student) … and when I drove there on Tuesday, I admit this, I got butterflies – I really did,” Gothard said. “I drove right by my childhood home, turned the corner and there it was, Elvehjem Elementary School. It’s exciting. It’s great to connect with people with people I know.”

On his return home, Gothard felt nervous but his excitement for leading his hometown’s district started to bubble. He laid out a few priorities for changes at MMSD once he officially starts after touring through the school district this week.

Gothard aims to continue working with the board of education to ensure that relationships stay strong. He has been meeting with them one-on-one to better know them before he steps in as superintendent. His next priority is to better understand how students learn in Madison.

“I taught high school biology and I’ve been in thousands of classrooms throughout my career, but I’m most interested to find out what excites you and what I can do to support you,” Gothard said.

Next on Gothard’s list of priorities is to continue engaging the community and make sure they are equipped with information on how MMSD is tackling problems and what students and parents need from their schools. His hope is that it will help retention in MMSD and lead Madison into being the premier location for public education in Wisconsin.

While his priorities are laid out, Gothard also pointed at issues he found in the district. The achievement gap – the significant difference in outcomes in education between ethnic groups of students – has been a longstanding issue for MMSD superintendents the past two decades, Gothard said.

Schools across Wisconsin frequently made headlines for either having the largest or ranking near the top in achievement gaps between white and Black students in reading proficiency across the country. In July 2023, Gov. Tony Evers signed Wisconsin Act 20 to require schools to change reading curriculum to focus on the science of reading from its former standard phonics instruction.

“I think that we’ve got to be very deliberate,” Gothard said. “I think we’ve got to be very open with our community around where our challenges are, report frequently about progress that we’re making and not be afraid to say ‘You know what, we’re not making the mark. We need to make a change here.’”

Additional challenges Gothard highlighted are the rates of student homelessness, language gaps, not taking the time to understand emotional challenges students are going through and the lack of adequate funding for public schools.

Gothard drew on his experiences and nuances in funding between Wisconsin public schools and Minnesota’s. He said to not focus on the structural deficits on budgets and what MMSD is lacking and rather figure out how to use what’s there to better serve schools.

Gothard plans to continue making rounds in MMSD before he steps in officially. He will officially start as MMSD’s superintendent on May 20.