Why is MMSD Losing Students?

There has been lots of news out of the Madison School District lately. I’d like to focus on three stories that are interrelated.

The first is the reinstatement of Sennett Middle School Principal Jeffrey Copeland. I’ve written about that extensively, so I won’t go over the details here, but his return is a good thing. Copeland had been credited with restoring order to his school before he was fired over a minor infraction (if it was any infraction at all) and the School Board had the good sense to reverse an ill-considered decision by the central administration.

The next story is about the decline in MMSD enrollment. The District is rightly concerned about that and it also understands that it needs to get a better feel for exactly what’s going on. While it’s true that there is something of a baby bust at work here, it’s also true that Madison is growing. The Board needs to get more demographic data to better understand how those two things — a smaller school age cohort nationally but a growing population locally — are interacting.

And the third story is an ongoing debate about stand alone honors classes. The administration and most of the Board want to eliminate them in favor of honors work that can be done as part of regular classes. The Board had a spirited debate about that last night.

These things are all related because they go to the health and quality of the Madison public schools. MMSD is losing enrollment in part because more parents are transferring their kids out of the system than into it. The Board wants more data on that. They suggest doing exit and entry interviews to get a better handle on why parents are opting out or in.

That’s fine, but the net out migration is a key problem. It could be related to lack of discipline and good order in the schools. That’s why putting Copeland back to work was so important. It sends the message that the Board cares about this issue. Now let’s see what Copeland can do in a full semester next year. Maybe he has approaches and answers that can be replicated throughout the District.

Laura Simkin

The out migration may also be worsened if the Board goes ahead with eliminating stand alone honors courses. While one teacher at last night’s meeting said that mainstream class honors work is just as rigorous, I’m skeptical. It seems to me that being in an environment with other top students would challenge and sharpen everyone in the class and better prepare them for college. I want to know more about that, but it seems like eliminating those courses would be a mistake.

It was dilution of advanced high school programming in San Francisco that caused a revolt which resulted in the recall of school board members there. I don’t see anything like that happening here, but what I worry about is parents of bright students quietly opting out of the District.

Christina Gomez Schmidt

Nothing is more important to the city than its schools. When they’re losing market share that’s bad for everyone whether we have kids in school or not. The Board is right to ask for more data on the loss in enrollment. We need to understand that better. The Board was right to reinstate Copeland, but that has to be part of a broader move to empower teachers and other adults in our schools and to reestablish good order.

And those Board members — Christina Gomez Schmidt and Laura Simkin — who want to think through the elimination of stand alone honors are also doing the right thing.


Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

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