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Twenty minutes after Hamilton Middle School lets out on April 5, three seventh grade girls are heading to homework club when they encounter a boy banging on lockers in the hallway. The girls, all African American, ask him what is wrong, but he says nothing. The girls then pause to do a second Dubsmash — a social media app that lets users videos of themselves dancing and lip syncing. The teacher retreats to his classroom, but the girls linger outside his door, complaining about the incident. You need to stop. Then, multiple witnesses say, the teacher walks up to one of the students who has her hand outstretched with her palm out, gesturing for him to stop.
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A simple request from a teacher for students to move along at the end of the day is met with an F-bomb and a call to the police. The teacher was put on administrative leave for one day while the district investigated, according to police reports.
The school would not disclose whether any other disciplinary action was taken, but the teacher was back at work on the Tuesday after the Friday incident. A teacher who witnessed the incident told police she had never observed one of her colleagues act like that before. A lot people in Madison are wondering what the hell is happening in our schools. Cheatham, however, remains upbeat about the trajectory of the district and her goal to close the stark achievement gap between kids of color and their white peers.
The Madison school board is expected to select an interim superintendent in June. Cheatham has championed reform in her six years leading the district. She spearheaded the creation of a Strategic Framework ina detailed mission statement that sets goals to guide district policy.
The district and every school in it is a place where children, staff and families thrive; African American children and youth excel in school. Cheatham also ushered in a major policy change regarding discipline. The shift in disciplinary policy is a response to the disproportionate rates of suspension and expulsion experienced by African American students, kids of color and students with disabilities — the district sees removal from the classroom as contributing factors to poor academic performance.
Black kids represent just under 20 percent of the total student population but consistently represent over half of the students who are suspended. But the transformation has been a rocky one and disparities persist.
Isthmus collected over 30 hours of interviews with dozens of Madison educators over the past two months. Teachers from three elementary schools, five middle schools and three high schools shared their experiences in the classroom. Most requested anonymity because of fears of retribution and were given pseudonyms.
They say that white teachers might need to feel uncomfortable in order to purge the schools of systemic racism.
Adding to the tension are several highly publicized incidents centering around race that have sparked renewed outrage over the achievement gap. The cumulative result is that many teachers feel stressed, unsupported and disrespected. Jim Lister, a science teacher at Hamilton, has taught in the district for 29 years and is retiring in June.
Leah is a special education teacher at a Madison middle school. I suspect we will see another exodus of teachers at the end of this year. You walk into the school and there are just kids everywhere. Walking the halls. I also believe in holding kids able. Cheatham really thinks she can close these achievement gaps by just loving and hugging them all.
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But could you please put your phone away? Peter Opps, a history teacher at La Follette High School, estimates that up to 5 percent of students hang out in the halls on any given day. You want to know where our achievement gap is? Rebecca, a veteran high school teacher, has been sexually harassed by students and has witnessed other teachers being verbally abused.
People who used to be stable and stalwart are crumbling. How is the Behavior Education Plan supposed to play out in the classroom? It calls for five levels of intervention, starting with a verbal warning from a teacher in a classroom. If all of that fails, a teacher may call for support from the Student Support and Intervention Team. Staff may teach coping skills to the student or as a mentor. A problem-solving conference with parents may also be called.
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If a behavior is severe enough — a violent threat or fighting — it can lead to a more serious intervention like a suspension. But it is often ineffective. Not really. District reports based on climate surveys highlighted responses from students of color and staff of color. Both groups cited student behavior as the biggest challenge facing schools. In the school year, elementary schools suspended students; 57 percent of those students were African American. Insuspensions decreased to students but 66 percent were African American.
Suspensions decreased slightly in middle and high schools. Inthere were 2, suspensions. Three years later, that dropped to 2, But the gap persists. African American students made up 59 percent of suspensions in ; that rose to 63 percent in Students with disabilities were also disproportionately suspended compared to the total school population.
In February, the school board made some tweaks to the plan that will be implemented next year. We have been missing some of the adaptive pieces and the foundational systems that need to be in place for this to work the right way. Muldrow says the behavior plan is an attempt to limit exclusionary practices that keep students out of the classroom.
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It would be really helpful when I want them sent out, they got sent out. He retired in but now teaches pre-K at One City Schools, a public charter. In his experience, kids of color can be unfairly labeled as behavioral challenges in kindergarten and first grade because they do things a little differently. By the time the kid is in high school, they have years of negative interactions in schools and are years behind academically.
Hibbler is critical of the top-down leadership that several teachers say Cheatham has brought to the district.
Kids see that and flock to it. Lauren, an administrator at a Madison middle school, says teachers need to get out of the mindset that they can ignore the racial disparities that plague the district. The kids that can conform and can code switch into the predominant white supremacy culture, they are successful.
Just forget it. Teachers need to get it into their he that they have to be co-conspirators in the work of justice in our schools. Karyn Chacon worked at East High School for more than a decade with some of the most high-needs youth in the district. She says she has forged lifelong bonds with students despite cultural differences.
This year, Chacon made the hard choice to leave East mid-year because her job had become too stressful and was affecting her health. They say they we need to embrace cultural differences. When asked if this year has been tougher than other school years, Lauren says teaching now requires some level of discomfort.
What a privilege it must be to be comfortable. I want a culture of collaboration in my school. That culture of collaboration does not exist for many of the teachers who spoke to Isthmus.
Instead they speak of feeling abandoned by district administrators who expect them to both manage extreme behavior issues in the classroom and create a rich learning experience at the same time. Several teachers, especially at the high school level, report pressure from school officials to improve the appearance of student performance. We are giving kids Ds who are doing 30 percent of the work. Opps, from La Follette, says the scrutiny from administration is making it harder to be an effective teacher.
I would love to make things more engaging for every individual student.