Know Your Madisonian: Longtime educator takes top spot at One City Schools
Bryan Grau was one of the first people in Madison to recognize that there was a group of students who needed something different than what the school district’s schools could provide.
In the early 2000s, Grau helped create Nuestro Mundo Community School — a Madison School District charter school that teaches students mostly in Spanish — in an effort to help Spanish-speaking students thrive more than they were in English-speaking classrooms.
Now, nearly 20 years later, Grau is taking that experience, along with his time as a teacher and assistant principal at La Follette High School, to a new group of Madison children who need more than what is available.
Grau, who moved to Madison in 1975, has been hired as the principal of One City Schools senior preschool — Madison’s first independent charter school designed to educate primarily students of color who live in low-income households in the city’s south side and are ages 4 and 5.
Kaleem Caire, former executive director of the Urban League of Greater Madison, opened One City Early Learning preschool in 2015 and the new charter school is aimed at better preparing minority children for kindergarten in order to reduce the wide academic achievement gap in Madison schools between minority children and their white peers.
When you came to Madison, what was the school district like and how has it changed?
I can speak more about La Follette High School — in the mid ’90s we were probably 85 percent white and had a very low poverty level. And I’d say too, proportionately, we had more staff per pupil. So we were running a lot of courses, extra activities — there was a big investment in education.
When did you see the demographics of the students change?
For La Follete, it gradually happened. The first part of the 2000s, we became more diverse — more lingually diverse, socioeconomically diverse, racially and ethnically diverse. I think some of that had to do with immigration and other parts had to do with migration. Black people come up here because it’s good quality of life. And the other part is there was white flight out of Madison, and out of La Follette to, you know, McFarland is just a couple miles away.
There was a big influx in the late ’90s and early 2000s of Spanish speakers. When I first started here, we didn’t even have an (English as a second language) program and that was in the late ’90s.
How did you start Nuestro Mundo and was it difficult to get the School Board on board?
We were focusing on the progress of the Latino students (in Madison) and the (state Department of Public Instruction) did an annual report of the quality of ESL programs and in every category, we failed.
There also was, with the growing (Spanish-speaking) population, a desire among the Latino community members to have a school — a language school — a school where their kids would learn Spanish.
Kaleem Caire said (at a meeting with Latino students and parents), “If you want a school, why don’t you consider a charter? You’d have more control, you could shape it around a certain need.” So we took that and ran.
Did you want it to be an independent charter school? Or did it matter to you?
See, our view is that a charter offers an opportunity for innovation that benefits the school district, but a school district needs to innovate somehow, somewhere, with a little more freedom. We were all union teachers ... we wanted it to be union, and we wanted to work with the district, but we wanted a very strong community voice and that’s where the contract came in.
We both had to live up to our promises.
What are your feelings about how people view charter schools, especially in the Madison area?
I know that people are looking for other ways of doing school because they aren’t satisfied with the results right now.
What kind of gaps do you see the school trying to address in the current education landscape in Madison?
We’re focusing on a neighborhood and people who live in the neighborhood haven’t had the greatest results in schools over a long period of time. We’re in a predominantly African-American, Latino neighborhood. Another thing I’m excited about is it wants to do school differently.
We’re still going to have teachers and principals, and we’re going to have lunch and recess, but (one thing) that is going to be different (is) the instructional framework — it’s expeditionary learning, which is project-based. It has a strong (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) component. It’s collaborative, it’s learning from the interests of the students and the teachers.
Is there anything specific that your school is going to provide this demographic of students that the public schools don’t?
Being small — the size will allow us to have a deeper understanding of each child. At the get-go, we are approaching it as everybody that comes in has assets — something to contribute to society — they have interests and skills.
If you start with an asset-kind of mentality, it just grows from there. If you’re coming in thinking you have a group of kids with problems and deficiencies that you’re going to address one at a time, that kind of perpetuates the whole deficiency mentality. And I’m not saying Madison schools don’t do that, but I’m just trying to say that’s a focus for us.
Do you feel there is a lot of pressure on you to be an answer to Madison’s longstanding gap in academic achievement between students of color and white students?
I don’t know if one school can be answer to that. But I’ll tell you this — we’re going to perform. We’re going to have good results. It’s not that we’re creating an alternative — we’re going to create an alternative that’s going to prove with data.
Our goal is to have kids ready to read by the time they get to kindergarten. And if they can’t read, we’re going to know why they can’t read and we’re going to have a plan to help get them to read. That’s a very specific vision right there. Being able to read is the foundation of academic, financial, personal success for the rest of your life.
— Interview by Molly Beck