“I definitely see myself as being a highly accessible superintendent. Every person I meet, they’re getting my contact information,” says new Madison Metropolitan School District Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham. “I’m easy to find and very open to hearing from everyone. [I’m] not just open, but seeking out those opportunities.”
Cheatham, who was recently the chief of instruction for Chicago Public Schools, started her job as MMSD superintendent on April 1 and is in the midst of a structured 90-day entry plan that includes three phrases – transitioning, listening and learning, and planning. In the coming months, she will be gathering community input and developing a multi-year strategy with measurable goals.
“I want authentic opportunities to talk with the people that we serve – parents, community members, families,” Cheatham tells The Madison Times from her office in the Doyle Administration Building in downtown Madison. “What are less important to me are opportunities for people to just hear me talk like at public appearances. I will do them on occasion, because I want to get the word out on what we’re up to in response to what I’m hearing from people. But I really want to know what people are thinking and feeling. I’m really seeking out those two-way conservations during my entry phase.”
Cheatham is currently in the listening and learning phase where she is meeting with a variety of stakeholders to discuss the district’s goals and to better understand the district’s strengths, challenges, and opportunities for improvement. This phase is critical in that it will be the time period in which she hears broadly from students, teachers, staff, principals, parents, community members, and others.
Cheatham is in the process of holding four community days as part of her ongoing entry plan. The first one was held April 18 at Madison East High School. The community day includes meetings with teachers and staff, discussions with students, a student-led tour, a neighborhood walk and a forum for parents and community members. “Over the next couple of months I want to learn more about and fine tune a strategy on how we can get parents more involved with the students,” Cheatham says. “I want to learn more about how parents have engaged in the past – what has worked and what hasn’t worked. I’m not quite sure what our strategy is going to be yet, but I know that we’re going to need one.”
Cheatham has visited 14 schools in a little over 2 weeks, and is planning on keeping up that pace.
“I’ve had some really substantial visits to schools – not just meet and greets. I’ve been really pleased with the honesty and frankness of those conversations with teachers, staff, and principals,” Cheatham says. “On the positive side, I’m learning that there are extremely committed people in the district. The quality of principals, by and large, has been strong. I’ve talked to teachers and seen them in action in their classrooms and have been pretty pleased with what I’ve seen. I’ve seen the willingness to do the hard work it will take to address our challenges.”
Cheatham says that the themes and issues have been pretty strong so far across all of the schools. “I hear a lot about the need for sustained focus and that teachers and principals are feeling somewhat overwhelmed by the number of initiatives and often those initiatives feel disconnected,” she says. “They would like to see the district decide on a small number of powerful strategies and stick to them for some period of time and not just for one or two years, which has been the pattern so far.”
Cheatham says there’s also a problem of low morale right now. “Teachers and principals are not feeling respected which I think is a result of some of the adult conflict that is taken place in the district over the last several years,” she says. “I think that helping people move beyond the adult conflict and to really focus on the needs of all children will be one of the more complex challenges we will all face.”
Originally from Chicago, Cheatham was looking for a superintendent job and knew that she would prefer to stay in the Midwest. When she saw that the Madison job was available, it immediately went to the top of her list. Madison met all of her criteria — mid-sized, Midwest urban district; educational challenges to tackle; and a good place to raise a family.
“When my husband and I made a decision to apply for a superintendent role, we knew that it had to be the right fit,” Cheatham said. “We narrowed it down to a few key ones. It had to be an urban, diverse environment – that’s what interested me and drives me as an educator. We wanted to look for a mid-sized district – 20,000 or more students.
“I think that I was meant to be here in Madison today,” Cheatham adds. “I’ve been preparing for this role all along with every position that I have held. I think there are quite a few things that I can bring to the table. I think that some of the non-profit work that I have done has exposed me to not only some of the strategies that have been effective within a single district but across districts – both nationally and, when I worked in California, statewide. I’ve had a lot of exposure to other districts and I think that will benefit us all well – not just for my personal experience but my connections with other districts.”
Cheatham, who most recently was the chief of instruction for Chicago Public Schools, believes her extensive experience in the realm of curriculum and instruction will bring a level of expertise that will help tighten the core approach to improving instruction. “Lots of districts tend to work on strategies that touch the fringes of education, but don’t really get at the core of what happens in education every day,” she says. “My focus has always has mainly been on what happens in the classroom every day. I believe I can bring some expertise there.”
“For all of the challenges that Chicago faces, it, too, is a district that has pockets of excellence and has excelled in the area of innovation,” Cheatham adds. “They’ve done some really interesting work at the high school level, in particular, about really paving career pathways for students and developing a more personalized learning environment. I think that some of that more innovative work that Chicago is known for is work that we can draw on.”
Cheatham says that a common goal for the district is to ensure that every school is a thriving school that prepares every student for college and career. She is in the process of developing her approach to move forward on the achievement gap. She’s been paying attention to a few critical areas – educator quality and support, aligned curriculum and assessment, making high school more relevant and engaging for students. She is paying particular attention to the high drop-out rate in high schools – especially among students of color.
“We need to analyze the root causes of the high drop-out rates,” she says. “It’s about engagement and relevance in school.”
Cultural competence, Cheatham says, is important in all of our schools. “We want not only our adults to be culturally competent, but we want our students to become culturally competent, too,” Cheatham says. “That’s what it takes to be effective in the world today. Cultural competence goes beyond valuing different cultures, but really seeking understanding of different cultures.”
Madison is at a critical point right now and Cheatham sees accelerating the achievement gains of low-income and minority students as a top priority. The stakes for the Madison community are high as we have too often seen that the downfall of public schools has been the downfall of dozens of American cities.
“I think Madison is a fairly sophisticated town with a high level of engagement,” Cheatham says. “You don’t see that level of engagement in other school districts. I have met with most of the major education-related organizations over my weeks heading into my start date and since then. I think that there are a lot of people that are lined up and ready to do the hard work that lies ahead. I think that’s really unique.
“I do think that some of these organizations and partners have been ready for a while, but haven’t been quite sure what their specific role could be and were maybe feeling what they perceived to be a void of clear vision, mission, and direction,” Cheatham adds. “But with clear vision, mission, and direction and ways of monitoring our progress, we can really capitalize on the fact that we have so many people to do the hard work.”
Cheatham feels that it is very important for her to build a strong relationship with the school board. “I won’t be successful without having a strong relationship with the board,” she says. “I think that the board has been extremely supportive and are very united right now and I want to make sure that that continues.”
She wants to identify what the strengths and challenges of the district so she can be strategic about her pathways forward. “A short-term goal is to have identified those high-leverage strategies for the future,” Cheatham says. “We will, by this summer, have a fine-tuned plan of action to bring to the school board and to share with the public. One of the reasons the board wanted my start date to be before July 1st was so that I could go through this process of better understanding the district, and identifying what those strategies are so we can go into the next school year with focus and determination to implement a few strategies really well.”
She will be working through the spring to determine what the long-term, measurable goals will be for the district. “Ultimately, my focus is on closing the achievement gap,” Cheatham says. “I haven’t been shy about that. It’s not just what I want, but it’s what everybody I talk to wants. It’s a big topic, as it should be. We’re going to need to figure out together what exactly that looks like and what we expect the pace of change can and should be given where we are right now.
“I’m optimistic. It’s something that’s very doable,” she adds. “If Madison can’t do it, then I will be concerned about education everywhere. We have every ingredient here that we need to be successful.”