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PTO presidents consider education challenges
PTO presidents consider education challenges

Although the school board elections are over, education-related issues still weigh on parents’ minds.

For Suzanne Swift, the president of Franklin-Randall Elementary School’s parent-teacher organization, the issues are the same as they have always been, despite certain ones being used by candidates to "hang their hats on.”

Several PTO leaders from around the Madison Metropolitan School District hit on four common topics that concern them: the achievement gap, the Common Core State Standards, the state budget, and the allocation of resources across MMSD’s schools.

According to Swift, the issues have shifted since her oldest child started at Franklin Elementary six years ago. At that time, the increasingly large classroom sizes dominated the discussion. Now, that issue comes up less often than the achievement gap and changing curriculum.

The achievement gap

The academic achievement disparity between white and minority students remains one of the top concerns in education.

Jill Jokela is a past PTO president who remains actively involved in the East Attendance Area PTO Coalition. The group aims to include voices from all schools that feed into East High School.

The achievement gap has been an issue for a long time, she said, but became more pronounced as Madison’s demographics have changed. She spent about eight years as a PTO leader on Madison’s east side until 2010.

Shelby Connell, PTO president at Van Hise Elementary School, and Ann Lacy, co-coordinator of the parent-staff group at East High School, said that although they haven’t personally seen much of the achievement gap in their schools, it’s still a big issue for MMSD.

“My kids have had a great experience in Madison public schools,” Lacy said, noting that they were fortunate enough to come from a comfortable, college-educated, middle-class family. “We’re the people who are going to do well in the school system. …[The achievement gap] doesn’t touch on me personally, in the sense that it’s going to affect my kids, [but] I want everybody to be able to have that same chance to succeed that my kids have.”

To see how the achievement gap has developed, visit a timeline here.

Common Core state standards

Suzanne Swift identified the “Common Core” curriculum as one of her primary concerns for Madison’s schools.

The Common Core is a set of rigorous academic standards that are being adopted on a voluntary, state-by-state basis in an effort to raise the bar for what students are expected to learn. Wisconsin adopted the standards in 2010 and is now one of more than 45 states to have signed on, according to the Wisconsin Department of Public Education website. The standards currently cover mathematics and English language arts, which includes literacy requirements in other subjects, such as history and science.

Certain elements of the Common Core spark more controversy than others. For example, it emphasizes informative, non-fiction reading over fictional works, according to its website. Under these standards, 70 percent of what high school seniors read should be informative and 30 percent should be literary.

“It worries me that we’re going to go too far,” Swift said. “That literary creativity, artistic creativity is really going to take a back seat.”

She said the standards have effectively turned kindergarten into first grade classes, sometimes forcing teachers to sacrifice things like reading aloud.

“I feel like reading aloud introduces children to literature and a love of literature, of things that are above their reading level, and you teach them to learn to love books and to love stories,” she said. “But when you focus so hard on bringing up the actual reading skill of children in first and second grade, perhaps you’re losing a little bit of that.”

According to Connell, the change in curriculum has resulted in the phasing out of some “youth classrooms,” where students learn side-by-side with peers from a grade above or below them.

Increased focus on English and math could also mean fewer electives, which Swift said limits “teachers’ abilities to be interesting.” Much of the controversy surrounding the Common Core deals with how it will affect the way teachers are expected to teach the standardized subjects.

“It’s worrisome to me…that the creativity of individual teachers is potentially going to be squelched for a very regimented curriculum,” Swift said.

Lacy has a different concern with the Common Core.

“At the high school level, it is that nobody really knows what’s going on with Common Core,” Lacy said. “There’s a lack of communication about the district. We understand that stuff is coming down the pike, but we really don’t know what that means.”

Allocation of resources

Money is allocated to each school based on enrollment numbers, according to Lacy. She said this process doesn’t take into consideration the particular needs of each school’s students.

“The inequitable allocation of resources, it seems to me that that sets up a system where you have schools where there’s lots of great stuff going on and schools where there is not,” she said. “That doesn’t seem like a good thing.”

She suggested that opportunities should be consistent across the school district, regardless of individual families’ wealth or background. 

Jokela also noted the need for students to have equal opportunities across all Madison schools. The East Attendance Area PTO Coalition wants to ensure that children of lower socioeconomic status can have the same educational experiences as those who attend wealthier schools, she said.

State budget and voucher expansion

Funding as a whole often pops up as an important issue surrounding public education.

Swift said her daughter’s third grade teacher recently asked students to bring in printer paper for the classroom because they didn’t have enough to last until the end of the school year. She noted that this happens almost every year.

And Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed budget could potentially shift more funding away from MMSD by offering more private school vouchers to students in underperforming schools.

“Nobody that I talked to is remotely desirous of having that happening here,” Lacy said, regarding the possible expansion of the voucher program. “I mean, if there’s vouchers, that’s going to change the face of public education in Madison.”

Connell said maintaining the quality of Madison’s public education will get more difficult as more resources are cut.

“The teachers and principals are very creative and do an amazing job,” she said. “But at some point in time, the funds have to be able to back that up.”

State budget decisions are intertwined with other issues facing the school district, Jokela noted.

“I think, you know, that’s the biggest problem is that you’re trying to come up with strategies to address the achievement gap, but if you have charters and vouchers that are sucking money out of your public schools, then you’re going to have a more difficult time doing that,” she said.

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