“African American students lost over 4,100 days due to suspensions in the last academic year. It's amazing. It's alarming. That's a huge problem and we need to attack it,” says Madison Metropolitan School District School Board candidate Wayne Strong. “What I'm saying as a candidate is that there is no one particular place we can point the finger and say, 'That's the blame!' We can't point fingers and play the blame game. We have to figure out how we can attack these challenges to make sure that all of our students are getting the best quality education that we can provide. That's our goal.”
One year after losing one of the closest races in MMSD School Board history — Strong lost to Dean Loumos last year by 278 votes in a contest that wasn't settled until a week after the polls closed — Strong is back on the campaign trail. In fact, he's never really stopped campaigning and talking about the issues.
“It was tough [to lose] but there were so many things as a candidate that I felt that I didn't do that I could have done …. and those are the things I am doing now,” Strong tells The Madison Times in an interview at Jade Mountain Cafe on Madison's near east side. “I'm being more visible and knocking on more doors.
“I feel a little more confident this time around because I feel like I have a firm grasp of what campaigning is all about and some of the issues and challenges the District is facing,” he adds.“We've got some challenges ahead of us, but these are things that didn't happen overnight so it's going to take some time to change them. Right now, we need to be making sure that we have a laserlike focus on the most critical issues of the District and attacking those issues.”
For the past few months, Strong been hosting crowds at coffeeshops around town to talk about important school and education-related issues.
“The most important thing that I've learned over the last year is to stay involved with the issues,” Strong says. “Since the last election, I've attended a School Board meeting, I've gone to an ad-hoc committee on court discipline code, and I've been speaking on a regular basis with some of the board members on issues as they come up. [I'm] just trying to stay plugged in.”
Strong has been part of the statewide school discipline task force put together by the Wisconsin Department of Instruction. “We met about three times to talk about changing the way we discipline kids in schools and eliminating that exclusionary discipline that kicks kids out of school,” Strong says.
One of the things that is really high on Strong's list is expanding the district's restorative justice model. “Right now we have it at [Madison]East and [Madison]La Follette and all of their feeder high schools but I think we need to expand it to all four high schools in Madison so we can really get a handle on reducing that exclusionary discipline that forces kids out of school. Ultimately, when kids are out of school they get into more trouble and it raises the rates of truancy and brings a whole host of other issues. So, if we can keep these kids in schools and keep them engaged while still holding them accountable for their actions, that will go a long ways towards increasing graduation rates and closing the achievement gap that is so prevalent right now.”
Strong is a graduate of Racine Case High School and attended the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire where he earned his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice in 1982. Over the past 23 years, he’s worked in a number of different capacities on the Madison Police Department working his way up to lieutenant. With his background in policing, Strong is particularly attuned to school safety issues. Safe schools are a key platform point in Strong’s campaign along with high academic achievement for all and improved graduation rates.
“To me, safe schools means safe neighborhoods and vice versa. It's important that our staff and students feel safe and are in an environment where teachers can teach effectively and students are in a better position to learn,” he says. “Students who don't feel safe are not going to learn. Teachers who don't feel safe in the classroom are not going to be effective teachers.”
That means, Strong says, getting rid of harassment and bullying. “Right now, I think there's a perception out there that [Madison] schools aren't safe and I don't think that's the case,” he says. “We have families who have left and are leaving the District in large numbers. Part of it is because of the perception of the lack of safety in our schools. We need to fix that.”
High academic achievement, for Strong, means that all of our MMSD students are achieving to the fullest extent of their abilities. “Whether you are a TAG [Talented and Gifted] or a special-needs student or whether you are a middle-of-the-road student, the teachers [should be] challenging our students to do the best that they can do and to be the best that they can be,” Strong says. “We've got to make sure we are doing that for all of our students.”
Strong wants to improve graduation rates and he feels that the disparity in the way that kids are disciplined affects that quite a bit.
“Right now, our African American students are only graduating at a rate of 53 percent. That's still not good,” Strong says. “For Latino students, it's up to 63 percent but there's still a lot of work to do in that regard. I think a lot of it continues to have to do with disciplinary issues — particularly among African American students. As it stands right now, to this day, African American students are getting suspended at astronomical rates. It's about 24 percent compared to 6 percent for Latino students and 3.1 percent for white students.
“I like that the District has recognized that this is a problem that we need to address,” Strong adds. “This will go a long way in terms of making sure that kids are still kept in school and held accountable for their actions — but, at the same time are still in school. One of the things that I have seen in my last 28 years as a criminal justice practitioner is that the kids that aren't making it in our schools are the very same kids that are ending up in our juvenile and, ultimately, our criminal justice system. We have to develop policies that will dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline. If we don't, we're going to lose a whole generation of kids to prison. And it's because they are not making it in our schools.”
Parental engagement is so very important in the equation. “For kids who come from single-parent families like I did who may not have a dad present in their lives and the mom is working. That's where the community has to step up,” Strong says. “We need to do a better job as a community making sure that we're looking out for all of our children because they are all of our responsibility whether it is your kid or not. As role models and as leaders of the community, we need to step up to the plate to provide the kind of guidance that will keep these kids on a path to success.”
That's pretty much what Strong does as a long-time coach for the Southside Raiders football team where he stresses the importance of education and hard work to all of his kids.
“A lot of our coaches are really surrogate fathers and role models so we want to make sure that they understand how important it is to help keep kids on the right track,” Strong says. “We get engaged and involved in their lives at an early age to get them on a path to success. It's an old phrase, but it really does take a village to raise a child.”
What role and responsibility does the community have to help right the ship? “We can have all of the meetings, all of the forums, all of the reports, and all of the commissions, but nothing is going to actually happen until we get off the ground and do something,” says Strong, who has two children that have gone through the MMSD and who graduated from Madison La Follette High School before going on to college. “We've got to get out there and volunteer more … get more involved in some of the lives of these kids. That's what missing, I think. There are groups that are doing good things, but we need more of that.
“Collaborations with other community partners like the Urban League [of Greater Madison], the Boys & Girls Club, Fountain of Life [Church], and other churches and city and county organizations. We have to maximize as much as we can to make sure that we are tapping into all of the available resources to make sure we help all of our kids who are facing deficits right now and making sure they have the resources they need.”
What does Strong think about MMSD Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham's Strategic Framework to tackle some of the district's thorniest issues, including the achievement gap?
“I like what I saw of it. I like the direction that Dr. Cheatham is taking the District,” he says. “I'm really anxious to get on board and work with her. I've seen her at a lot of events. She really is a community person and I like that. I'm impressed with her genuineness and she's going to bring the District what we need which is good leadership and accountability up and down the line.”
Strong likes that Cheatham is working to diversify the MMSD faculty and staff. “Over 60 percent of the District is made up of black and brown students — that's huge. Yet our staff doesn't nearly reflect that amount,” Strong says. “So we need to do a better job or recruiting, supporting, and retaining staff of color.”
Strong says that he has plenty of respect for his opponent, paramedic and firefighter Michael Flores, but believes that he is the best candidate in the April 1 election.
“My entire life has been working on educational issues and working with young people. It's been my passion for a very long time. I've been involved in the community and in volunteering for a very long time,” Strong says. “I think the experience that I bring to the table is going to really benefit me in terms of hitting the ground running if I am elected to the School Board. I have a passion and commitment for education for all students that I think will make me the best choice for the District.”