Education programs take on Madison's achievement gap

The PEOPLE program brings students from around the state to UW-Madison to help prepare them for college (Courtesy photo)The PEOPLE program brings students from around the state to UW-Madison to help prepare them for college (Courtesy photo)

















Rose Yang, a senior at UW-Madison, is starting to consider plans for graduate school. After she earns her bachelor’s in social welfare, she wants to complete a master’s and become a social worker.

“I want to help students very similar to myself, who didn’t have opportunities—or didn’t feel like they had the chance to go to college,” Yang said, reflecting on her experience growing up in a low-income household in Madison. “I want to be that person who helps advocate for students like me at one point to get to college.”

While the Madison Metropolitan School District’s 2011-12 graduation rate was 74.6 percent overall, the figure hides disparites. For white students the graduation rate was 86.7 percent, but it was lower for all other races: 80.8 percent among Asians, 63.2 among Hispanics, and 53.1 among blacks. The rate for economically disadvantaged students was 55.4 percent.

Disparity in Madison received fresh attention in October when the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families released the “Race to Equity” report. The document outlined disparity between blacks and whites in Dane County, focusing on differing outcomes in education, employment and arrest rates as well as other areas. 

“I think that was a real litmus test that people in our communities were surprised by those numbers,” said Madeline Hafner, executive of the Minority Student Achievement Network, a Madison-based national coalition of school districts aiming to reduce their levels educational disparity. 

“I don’t know where they’ve been living if they’re surprised by these numbers,” she said.

Groups around the city and at UW-Madison have worked to address this disparity in education.

“There has been a historical failure to disaggregate all data by race, gender, ethnicity and class; a failure to move forward and have the courage and conviction to address the specific issues as identified in relation to specific groups,” said Jacqueline DeWalt, executive director of the Pre-College Enrichment Opportunity Program for Learning Excellence (PEOPLE). “However, I do know that [Madison] Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham and her staff are working very hard to reverse these trends.”

The PEOPLE program began in 1999 as a UW System initiative to work with students of color and low-income students from Milwaukee to prepare them for higher education. The program has since expanded to other districts, including Madison.

Wisconsin students participating in the high school program come to the UW-Madison campus during summers throughout school. For the first two summers, emphasis is on math, science, critical reading and writing, ACT/AP exam preparation, and fine arts was well as exposure to college life and culture, according to DeWalt. During the third summer, students participate in internships. 

“Coming to college, [the PEOPLE program] helped with the whole process of those crazy standardized tests, that if you don’t know about and you’re not aware, it’s really hard to do that,” said Zach Vargas, a Madison-native PEOPLE scholar studying biomedical engineering at UW-Madison.

After high school graduation, each PEOPLE student who is admitted to UW-Madison and completes PEOPLE’s Bridge-to-College Program is eligible for a scholarship.

“From the beginning of the program, you know at the end of the program you’re supposed to get this scholarship…. You’re always thinking, ‘I have to achieve and get to this point,’” said Aaron Olson, a Madison PEOPLE scholar, currently pursuing graduate work relating to aerospace and astronautics.

Students from participating districts around the state can enter the program in ninth grade, and Madison-area students can begin a pre-college program that starts the summer after sixth grade. PEOPLE also serves elementary-age students in the Packer Townhouses and Northport Apartments in Madison.

Yang is a PEOPLE scholar and became involved in the program in middle school.

“In many ways, just being a person from a family that had low income, it was really hard to get resources, get any kind of tutoring or really participate in any activities,” Yang said. “At least for me, with PEOPLE Program ... we would have opportunities to use, or resources … to use to continue on to college.”

The Schools of Hope Program, led by the United Way of Dane County in partnership with other groups, has become familiar with the issue over the course of nearly two decades. 

The program began in 1995, with the goal of lowering the achievement gap in third-grade reading. After seeing success in this area, in 2000-01, the program added the goal of increasing the number of students who complete algebra by 10th grade.

According to Andrew Schilcher, director of middle school programs for the Urban League, which works with Schools of Hope, students who are enrolled in the program get individualized guidance one on one or in small groups two to four times per week. The program is aimed at low-income students and students of color but open to any student who wants to enroll.

In addition to Schools of Hope, Schilcher is involved with the Urban League’s Scholars Academy, designed to improve academic preparedness and instill college-going expectations in middle-school students. The program is geared toward students of color, low-income students and students who will be the first in their family to attend college.

Nathan Beck, education manager at the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County, works with College Club, a supplementary program that focuses on academic help and assistance with resources. Students in the program go on field trips to hear about different careers and have college-campus visits. The program also hosts family events to foster family engagement.

Along with College Club and other programs, the Boys and Girls Club offers a program called Homeroom, which Beck said gives kids basic access to academic support, including tutoring, school supplies to complete homework and technology as well as a large afterschool snack.

According to Beck, the program has improved students’ school attendance, which he said is an indicator of high school graduation.

“So much of the achievement gap is because students aren’t up to speed; it’s an academic gap,” Beck said. “But another piece that plays so much into that is just the resources that our students have.”

Yang said that growing up in a low-income household, she found it difficult to access certain resources.

“It was just a lot of money things, or money issues because our parents are trying to keep us stabilized, keep us fed,” Yang said. “And that’s what I feel was really hard for my parents. It was hard on us because we didn’t want to do many things to have to burden them.”

Hafner views what many call the “achievement gap” as an opportunity gap, explaining disparity comes from sources besides gaps in tangible resources. The concept of an opportunity gap is explained by the idea that students of color and low-income students are at a disadvantage due to a lack of social capital as well as stereotyping, among other factors.

“Instead of focusing on the achievement level of individual students, how do we look at the opportunities some kids are afforded and some aren’t?” Hafner said. “We have come to understand in this society who is smart and who isn’t.”

Yang, a La Follette graduate, feels that some hold opinions about some of the Madison schools she attended.

“A lot of people do say that ‘they’re in a bad neighborhood’ or ‘bad schooling” [but] it’s an outside perspective,” Yang said. “When you’re in there, it’s really like family and [you] understand the teachers are really there for you.”

She added she felt supported by her teachers and guidance counselors.

Vargas said support and guidance can make a huge difference for high school students, specifically with regard to applying to college.

“If you don’t have that force plus somebody else, it’s difficult to not see what your path should be, to fall through the cracks and not see the path if you don’t have that force.”

According to Hafner, the Madison Metropolitan School District has been supportive of the research her group has conducted to help address the opportunity gap. She also commended Madison’s focus on reading intervention, use of trained tutors and Cheatham work at the building level.

However, she said the disparity in Madison and around the country cannot continue.

“I think it’s an extremely important issue that the whole community needs to be supportive of,” Hafner said. “Whether that’s to their local school board member of their local school, I just think this needs to be a community investment.” 


Achievement Gap

We can dance around this issue all we want - as has been occurring for years now - while it only gets worse. All the slogans, marches and initiatives are changing nothing. The gap won’t change until the biggest issue - by far - is addressed with courage; that is the family structure. Or, better yet, the broken family structure among the minority groups who are suffering.

This is the biggest part of the learning gap equation yet so few are willing to touch it. How much worse does it need to get before some fresh ideas are considered?
R. Thompson