Plan to close Madison achievement gap addresses cultural practices

As a part of the five-year $105.6 million plan to close the achievement gap in the Madison Metropolitan School District, the district will spend a proposed $2.95 million on expanding cultural practices in the classroom to improve teacher understanding and student learning of different cultures.

The recommendations within the “Culturally Relevant Practices” chapter of the district’s plan include implementing diversity training and coaching for all staff members, using an existing school facility to create a Cultural Practices that are Relevant (CPR) model school and incorporating cultural relevance into district-wide professional development.

Among other goals, the plan proposes both teaching educators about a variety of student cultures and hiring culturally responsive coaches to provide support for schools and teachers. Coaching and training for staff will include working with national experts and creating new training systems based on current best practices.

The plan also suggests implementing “Promising Practice Cohorts” where participants, initially teachers that have been identified as culturally responsive, can hone and refine their own expertise while also serving as a resource for other staff members.

During a March 22 meeting at the Allied Neighborhood Association Boys and Girls Club to discuss the district’s plan, a group of citizens, including parents, teachers and students, discussed the chapter in detail and commented on what they thought was both good and missing from the section.

Overall, the group felt that while including an emphasis on cultural training is important, it needs to be done correctly in order to be effective.

Suggestions for better training included allowing individual schools to adjust their training as they see fit for their particular circumstances and asking students what they feel is missing from the classrooms in terms of diversity. It was also noted that in addition to teachers needing to overcome personal biases, they need to also help students overcome biases.

Jennifer Geng, a social work student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and intern with Joining Forces for Families-Allied Drive, added that teachers might feel like they can’t always expose or admit biases.

“I feel like [teachers], because they’re given diversity trainings, feel like they’re supposed to have all that stuff figured out—that they’re supposed to not have biases, Geng said. “So I don’t think they probably often talk about what they’re really actually experiencing.”  

The group also focused on the idea of using classroom lessons to share culture with students. Cris Carusi, a parent of two children in the district, said students should have an opportunity to share their culture with the whole school community.

Testing and trying new activities, such as outdoor classrooms, was identified as a way to share and exchange cultural practices, such as gardening. This idea was supported by Rebecca, a fourth-grader at Crestwood, who explained that the outdoor education program at her school was successful enough to make some students skip recess in order to participate.

The group noted that, in general, a way to make classrooms more culturally responsive is to always be thinking about how to incorporate new ways of learning, such as gardening.

Carusi also said she thinks it is impossible to address diversity without discussing poverty, a concept she felt was not adequately included in the plan’s chapter.

The group stressed that poverty is a culture, and differences in income should be accounted for within the chapter, including making sure teachers are aware of them. Even if culturally relevant practices exist in the schools, the group said, they will not matter if families don’t have access to them and barriers continue to exist.

“Maybe we have to rethink what involvement means. Do we take the opportunities to the neighborhoods? It’s very hard for people from Allied to get to Crestwood. Do we take some of Crestwood to Allied?” Carusi asked. “For so many parents in our school, it is impossible to come in and volunteer between transportation and work but if we came [to Allied], I bet they’d engage if we made it relevant and important for them.”

Other discussion included the idea that the term “diversity” should be expanded upon and explicitly defined to include factors beyond race.

In addition to concerns about the definition of diversity, the plan’s commitment to developing an existing MMSD school into a model school for culturally relevant practices has also raised questions at community meetings. The model school is planned to address both the need for better programs and services for underserved students and the need for a school-based hub for professional development, according to the plan.

The school will be devoted to cultural practices through culturally responsive instruction, high expectations for achievement, early and extended learning, character development and community partnerships and will serve as a place for all MMSD staff to witness how those practices can work.

The plan also expects the model school will help redefine family involvement in the district. 

Components of the model school will include implementing after-school empowerment groups to involve students in academic, civic and behavioral development, creating a culturally relevant Saturday school program to improve academic and cultural learning, and starting a Freedom Schools summer program to engage students in becoming active citizens and leaders.

The proposal also includes new parent resources and a partnership with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Cultural, Linguistics and Diversity Center to improve professional development in the school, among other ideas.

The current budget for the model school is $500,827 over the next five years.


For additional information on the achievement gap, visit the MMSD website. Or, to read more about another chapter of the plan, read our coverage of College and Career Readiness