Madison schools, UW strive to close disparities among student demographics

Madison Metropolitan School District and UW-Madison work together to facilitate enrichment programs for high school students in order to bridge achievements gaps among student demographics.

Image By: Cameron Lane-Flehinger

Madison schools, UW strive to close disparities among student demographics

Stuck in traffic in New York City, Gloria Ladson-Billings watched as the national debt rose on a nearby electronic billboard. As she watched the numbers grow, so did a smaller number underneath — designating each American’s share of the debt.

Looking at them, she felt a sense of responsibility for it. A sense of responsibility she wished everyone felt for the deficits and gaps in educational opportunity among historically marginalized students.

“We all seem to feel accountable,” said Ladson-Billings, the Kellner Family Chair in Urban Education in the UW-Madison School of Education. “I want that same level of accountability to go into the achievement of all of our students, so instead of talking about an achievement gap, I want to talk about an educational debt.”

Ladson-Billings said the “achievement gap” exists because students of color have historically been given fewer educational resources — and some students are left behind with an “educational debt,” compared to advantaged peers. She said we can’t assume it is the student’s responsibility to catch up, but rather society's responsibility to invest in education for students of color.

Data indicates large achievement gaps between white students and students of color in the Madison Metropolitan School District. But, using UW-Madison’s resources, community programs are working to close those opportunity gaps, preparing students for success in college from a young age and supporting teachers.

“The more diverse any particular campus is, the better off we all are,” said Ron Jetty, director of Information Technology Academy, the student enrichment program. “This is a world focused university and we really need all cultures to be represented here.”

One organization, Forward Madison, works to create culturally responsive teachers who meet the needs of all Madison students. They do this by organizing intensive new teacher inductions led by Ladson-Billings, along with trainings for teachers in their first three years teaching at MMSD.

“The partnership is designed to strengthen the ties of the school district and the university in the aim of closing the achievement gap here in Madison,” said Sue Gorud, Forward Madison executive director of professional learning and leadership development.

Still, only 59 percent of African American students and 65 percent of low-income students attending MMSD schools completed high school in four years as of the 2015-2016 school year — compared with 90 percent of white students.

However, Ladson-Billings warned against measuring achievement as a gap between two groups of students. She said this suggests achievement is stagnant and the onus shouldn't be on students to “catch up.”

Viewing educational disparities as an “achievement gap” assumes the problem will be solved when data suggests students of color are performing at the same level as white students. However, Ladson-Billings emphasized that high achieving students are always improving as well, and we should expect the best from all students.

“It presumes a kind of stasis or a static place that the kids who are achieving are at,” she said. “The competition doesn’t stop among the high achievers.”

The gap widens when looking at completion of advanced coursework.

Only 14 percent of African American students and 20 percent of low-income students have completed an Advanced Placement class by 12th grade, compared to 67 percent of white students. Steve Somerson, a math teacher at East High School, said schools are working to change that.

“We’re trying to push that and open it up a little, or open it up a lot so that different students who haven’t typically been represented are in those classes and can succeed in those classes,” Somerson said.

Only teachers in advanced classes pushed the idea of college on students, according to

UW-Madison senior and Madison East High School graduate Xavier Santana, who took a mixture of advanced and general courses.

Somerson emphasized that some college prep programs — such as the Pre-College Enrichment Opportunity Program and the Information Technology Academy housed at UW-Madison —

require students to take an AP class, to expose them to the rigor of college courses.

PEOPLE and ITA recruit students in eighth grade and support them throughout high school with summer enrichment programs on the UW-Madison’s campus. Some programs require students to take classes in an area of interest or hold internships to prepare them for college, depending on the participant's age, as well as learn study skills at school

Jetty said the initiative started to address underrepresented minorities in the admissions pipeline and in STEM careers.

Programs like ITA and PEOPLE require a large time commitment from participating high school students, according to Santana. As a student, he spent about three to four hours a week with the program during the school year, and up to six weeks over the summer.

Santana, a PEOPLE scholar, said the work he put into the program throughout high school was definitely worth it, as once he was accepted he received a full tuition scholarship.

Once students enter UW-Madison, PEOPLE and ITA continued support through resource seminars, tutoring and social events. Santana said PEOPLE programing can help historically underrepresented students feel welcome on campus and navigate the university system. And before students even arrive to campus, ITA also focuses on preparing them to enter an environment at UW-Madison that is less diverse than the MMSD high schools.

While statistics about student performance in MMSD still indicate wide disparities between white students and students of color, Ladson-Billings said she is hopeful that programs like Forward Madison are going to change that.

“My mother could not try on a hat in a department store or drink out of a particular water fountain or ride in the front of a bus — but I’m an endowed chair at a major university,” Ladson-Billings said. “Our challenge is to make sure we educate the kids, it’s really not nearly as hard as some of the other problems we as a society has faced.”

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