Dancing with the district: We need transformational change, and we can get it! | submitted by Kaleem Caire

I read yesterday’s article by Paul Fanlund of The Capital Times titled, “On School Gap Issue, there’s also a Gap between Leaders.” In his article, he addresses the perception of a gap that exists between Madison Schools’ superintendent, Dr. Daniel Nerad, and myself.

Is there a gap?

Yes, so far as our proposal for Madison Preparatory Academy is concerned, there is a gap. Dr. Nerad did not support the proposal. I do. I still believe, as thousands of others do, that Madison Prep would benefit children and our public schools, and should be supported.

However, beyond Madison Prep, the only gaps that may exist between Dr. Nerad and me are our different personal and professional backgrounds and experiences; his full silver top and my emerging gray hairs; my love for old-school hip hop, break dancing, and the cupid shuffle, and his love for disco, the mashed potato, and the electric slide; and perhaps our respective views about how innovative and aggressive we should be in pursuing change in public education. Although, I did see Dr. Nerad bobbing his head to some Jay-Z, Nas, and Kanye West tunes while driving down Park Street last week. We actually might not be that far apart after all (smile).

But these are authentic differences that can be mitigated and parlayed into a powerful and effective partnership, which is something that I am very interested in. More importantly, our mutual concerns outweigh our differences, and that is where we, the media, and the public need to focus attention.

What’s immediately concerning is that this summer, we will learn that another 350 black, 200 Latino, and 50 Southeast Asian teenagers stopped attending school this year. Our children cannot wait any longer. They need transformational change in our schools and community right now. They need Madison to empower them and their families, and to embrace their cultural differences. They need Madisonians to support and inspire them, not quietly complain about which neighborhood in Chicago they might come from.

Can Dr. Nerad and I work together?

Of course we can, and we do. This week, we will announce that our organization has secured private funding to partner with MMSD to operate 14 College Readiness Academies between March and December 2012. These academies will provide four weeks of free ACT prep classes, test preparation, and academic skills development to 200 MMSD high school juniors and seniors.

We will also announce the hiring of the project director for the South Madison Promise Zone Initiative that we are spearheading. This initiative will address the need for a comprehensive and collaborative approach to addressing the multifaceted needs of children and their families within a specific geographic region of South Madison, with the ultimate goal being the creation of an environment where all children are ready for college. MMSD is a partner in this initiative, too.

Additionally, our agency operates the Schools of Hope Initiative, serving more than 1,300 students in several MMSD middle and high schools in partnership with the United Way of Dane County and other agencies and community partners. We have also worked over the last two years to identify federal and national funding to support the work of MMSD and its students, and have helped the district think through some its diversity hiring strategies.

Beyond these things, we are exploring partnerships to expand our children’s involvement in recreational sports and the arts – to give them opportunities to have fun and be kids. We are also planning a new major annual fall event aimed at building broad community support for our children and schools and restoring fun and inspiration in public education. “School Night” will be an entertaining celebration that recognizes the unsung heroes in our schools, classrooms, and community who are going above and beyond the call of duty to provide quality educational experiences for kids.

What About Dr. Nerad’s Plan?

We look forward to sharing our thoughts and suggestions in the coming weeks. However, don’t expect a thoughtless or categorical critique of Dr. Nerad’s plan. Instead of adding more divisive discourse to public education and highlighting where we disagree with Dr. Nerad’s plan, our proposal will flesh out “how” MMSD could, in a cost-effective manner, identify and manifest the level of system-wide changes and improvements that we believe are needed in order to eliminate the achievement gap and stop the flow middle-class families out of our community and public schools.

Yes, Madison Prep will be included as one valuable strategy, but only because we believe there is much to be gained from what the school can accomplish.

In the end, regardless of our differences, I believe Dr. Nerad and I want the same thing. We want our children and schools to succeed, and we want to keep dancing and having fun for as long as our knees will allow. I remain ready and willing to do whatever it takes to ensure that we achieve these aims.


Kaleem Caire is president and CEO of the Urban League of Greater Madison.

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