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Jennifer Cheatham: Madison remains committed to black student achievement in ‘trying’ year

March 21, 2019

Madison School District Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham said Wednesday next month’s School Board election “will demonstrate the extent to which our community wants to follow through on” a commitment to better serving black students after what she called a “trying” school year.

Speaking at a Rotary Club of Madison luncheon, Cheatham reflected on her personal history and lessons in equity she has learned throughout her career as she spoke to the goal of “Black Excellence,” a commitment to the academic success of African-American students that was included last summer in the school district’s overarching strategic plan.

“We’re focused on cultivating the full potential of every child, creating space for healthy identity development, and new, and more importantly, true narratives about black youth in this community,” she said. “This is not a program, this is not an initiative. This is a central commitment.”

“Of course, this school year — maybe that’s where the ‘Ring of Fire’ song came from — has been, with all of its promise, it’s been trying. That is an understatement,” Cheatham said, joking about the Johnny Cash song Rotary members collectively sang earlier during the luncheon.

While she did not explicitly say why the year has been “trying,” there have been several instances of teachers using racial slurs in front of students as well as a physical altercation between an uncooperative black middle school student and a white district staff member, who was cleared of criminal wrongdoing and has since resigned.

Also, protesters demanding more progress on racial equity issues, including the removal of police officers from district high schools, have interrupted several School Board meetings this year. In response, the board has twice moved its public meeting to a closed room and live-streamed deliberations online.

Racial equity has been a top priority for most of the six candidates seeking three seats on the School Board in the April 2 election.

Student input

Cheatham also talked about her student-teaching experience at a high school outside of Detroit, instructing an English class for under-credited juniors and seniors that was “essentially a class to just get kids graduated.”

She reworked the curriculum with the input of students who wanted to talk about race, gender, sexuality, substance abuse and depression, Cheatham said.

“Students who were regularly skipping school started coming back,” she said. “They were sneaking into school to go to this class.”

A decade of teaching in California inspired Cheatham to pursue a graduate degree from Harvard University as part of a leadership program in urban school districts, she said.

Opening a door

Cheatham said her mentor at Harvard, Carl Cohn, a former superintendent of the Long Beach Unified School District in California, told her “white, female instructional leaders are a dime a dozen … what makes you think you could ever gain the street credibility to lead in an urban district?”

She said she initially took the comment as an insult threatening her identity as an educator, but she realized it was about opening a door “to a new conversation about who I was, about who I could become, and what it would actually take for me to lead.”

It was the first time she began to understand her privilege as a white woman, and that her mentor was trying to show her how to use her privilege to support those who do not have it, she said.

Cheatham shared a mantra she has been telling district staffers this year. “I see the gifts and talents you bring to this work, let’s take more risks on behalf of the students and families we serve,” she said, temporarily pausing to hold back tears and adding, “It’s been a rough few weeks.”

She continued: “Let’s embrace our common identities as both proud educators and consequential allies. We’ll work together as a team, remain faithful. You are enough. You have to be. I know it is my honor and privilege to continue to serve alongside you, especially when the boat is rocking.”