Alongside a university atmosphere that gives Madison an intellectually and educationally high-powered air exists an achievement gap that separates students of color from their peers, a problem that is currently a flashpoint of debate among city officials.
University of Wisconsin assistant professor of education Peter Miller said the achievement gap in Madison is rooted in the correlation between race and socioeconomic status.
“Many students of color come from households that don’t have a lot of economic resources,” he said in an email to The Badger Herald. “Research suggests that students from low socioeconomic statuses are granted fewer opportunities, especially early in life.”
Miller added students without access to financial resources lose out on other key resources as well, including preschools, books and educational technologies.
Furthermore, he said researchers suggest many schools better serve the needs of white students than those of underrepresented students.
“Some schools don’t have high enough expectations for students of color,” he said. “Students must believe that all kids can succeed and actively develop mechanisms to help them do so. Madison has a significant gap.”
In addressing this issue, Madison Metropolitan School District officials have worked closely with national leaders and local philanthropists to implement programs designed to improve minority students’ academic performance.
A key element of the district’s plan is the Advancement Via Individual Determination/Teens of Promise program, a partnership between the district and the Madison Boys and Girls Club.
Kim Gary, a counselor for students in the AVID program at Madison East High School, said the program created a college preparatory class that meets daily throughout the four years of a selected student’s high school career.
“The program’s objective is to help students who are underrepresented on college campuses, whether for economic or racial reasons, get accepted [to college] and succeed,” she said.
She added the program includes help with academic, test-taking and time management skills, group tutoring with adult tutors, and “enrichment” programs including trips to college campuses and visits by guest speakers.
Gary said the program has improved students’ performance and been an overall asset to the district.
“[The district] has seen significant gains in Latino and African-American students, as far as how they’re doing on standardized tests and that they are taking more advanced courses than their peers who are not in the program,” she said.
Another plan which aims to close the gap is the proposed Madison Prep charter school, consisting of two single-sex college preparatory schools aimed at underrepresented students.
The school’s goal is to improve graduation and college attendance rates of minority populations within the city by fostering “excellence, pride, leadership, and service.”
Director of School Development Laura DeRoche-Perez has called the school “a catalyst to spark improvements for the entire district,” and an “incubator for positive strategies.”
While the proposal is controversial because of its significant cost to the financially strapped school district, numerous local advocates including retired business executive Mary Burke, who donated $2.5 million to the school in October, support the initiative.
The proposal for the school will go before the School Board on Dec. 19.
The one thing both officials and local benefactors agree on, however, is that the problem cannot be solved with a universal solution.
“‘One size fits all’ solutions don’t exist,” Miller said.