Jennifer Cheatham, Madison Schools Superintendent, said of at-risk students: "We need to lean more on creativity when there are students who need us desperately right now."


The Madison Metropolitan School District is rolling out a new plan this school year to support fifth through twelfth grade students who are at-risk of not graduating from high school.

Although Wisconsin law requires school boards to pull a list of the at-risk students in their district and develop a plan to serve them each year, neither MMSD nor the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction could confirm the last time Madison submitted a plan. 

According to MMSD data, there are 1,298 fifth through 12th graders who are considered at-risk of not graduating from high school. The number represents about 8.66 percent of MMSD’s fifth through 12th grade students.

Of the total number of at-risk students, 51 percent are African-American. Twenty-five percent of at-risk students are Latino, followed by 11 percent of white students and 10 percent of multiracial students.

Eighty-eight percent of MMSD fifth through 12th graders who are at-risk of not graduating are low-income students. The district report did not specify if the data includes students who have already withdrawn from school.

Before the At-Risk plan was developed, the district would only send a letter home to guardians. Caroline Racine Gilles, the director of multi-tiered systems of supports at MMSD, said the new approach allows schools to collaborate with students and families to develop a path forward.

Now, MMSD is taking a “proactive approach” using data and other early warning systems to identify students before they qualify as at-risk, Racine Gilles said.

“No one likes to get a bad news letter,” she said. “We want to make that personalized contact and really use it as an opportunity to build relationships with our families. We want to partner with them to understand what the barriers are to learning and ensure that we build support to address those barriers.”

Racine Gilles said that each plan will be tailored to the students’ individual needs and parents will receive a copy of the plan and dates to follow-up. Options range from tutoring and mentoring to alternative programs and extended graduation timelines.

“It really spans the gamut in terms of what schools have for their continuum of supports,” she said. “We monitor those (supports) on a regular basis to see how students are responding. It’s not a ‘one-time and done.’ It is a continuous process of reviewing data and working with the students to ensure progress is made.”

Wisconsin law defines at-risk students as those who withdrew from high school before graduating or students who meet two or more of the following criteria:

  • Students who are behind their age group in the number of high school credits attained.
  • Students who fall into the lowest-score range on state-mandated assessments in math and/or reading.
  • Students who miss all or part of five days in a semester without an acceptable excuse.
  • Students who are parents.
  • Students who are adjudicated delinquents.
  • Eighth grade students who score 'below basic' on the state-mandated assessment and who were not promoted to ninth grade.

In addition to the state’s criteria, MMSD also monitors on-track to graduation in 10th through 12th grade as a factor in determining at-risk youth.

Although the current iteration of MMSD's At-Risk Plan was approved in October 2016 (and renewed by the School Board three months ago) this is the first school year the plan will be in practice.  

Board member TJ Mertz confirmed that the School Board had not been in compliance with the statute in recent years and MMSD officials could not provide any copies of earlier at-risk student plans. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction last collected such plans, for any district, in the 1980s, DPI said. 

In MMSD's new plan, Madison schools must pull a list of their at-risk students by July, based on their risk factors from the previous school year. In September, a member of the school staff is required to contact a child’s parent or guardian via phone or a home visit to inform them of their status. Schools also mail a letter home to families in September.

By October, a member of the school team should hold a meeting with the student and their parents to create an individualized plan to help the student get back on track to graduate. School staff is expected to check in on the student’s progress and revise the plan as needed.

While the district’s plan provides guidelines for when and how all schools should contact parents and templates for letters that schools can send home to families, individual schools are expected to develop their own systems for plan design, monitoring and follow-up.

Unless the student has an individualized education plan (IEP), schools can also determine which staff members work with students and their families on their individual plans.

At Monday's Madison School Board meeting, Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham said she wanted the district's work around at-risk youth to "move faster" to catch students before they are no longer engaged in the classroom. 

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"I realize that we have to do things differently. I appreciate, as a school district, we love doing 'systems work.' We like creating big plans, we like creating systems and routines," Cheatham said. "But we need to lean more on creativity when there are students who need us desperately right now." 

Cheatham introduced Ricardo Jara, who is pursuing his doctorate in educational leadership at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education and is working with MMSD this year. Jara is Cheatham's special assistant for equity and innovation. His project for the district will focus on "opportunity youth" — students who have dropped out, have far less than the needed amount of academic credits to graduate, or are involved with the court system. Although his work is separate from the district's at-risk plan, the outcomes may influence its future iterations. 

"I think the term 'opportunity youth' is much, much, more accurate than 'at-risk.' In talking with the youth here in Madison (they are) clearly full of hope and looking for an opportunity to get back in the game," Jara said at Monday's meeting. 

Jara is tasked with creating a set of "actionable, high impact" recommendations to improve outcomes for such students by the end of the first semester. One or more of the recommendations will be piloted in the district next spring. In an interview with the Cap Times, Jara said his conversations so far with youth in Madison reveal they want to feel like they are a part of their school communities.

“The youth are really craving relationships, and they are expressing that they are not getting it at their schools,” he said. “They want options. They are really not feeling the most engaged in their school settings and are really craving opportunities to do something completely different than what their traditional school models are offering.”

Jara said he looks forward to working with MMSD this school year and hopes his work will help the district develop the next iteration of its at-risk plan.

“I think we have some incredibly passionate individuals who are eager to continue to dig into this work,” he said. “We are really striving to reach those innovative alternatives and pathways for these youth.”

Cheatham sees Jara’s work as a way to accelerate results.

"In addition to the important work captured in our at-risk plan, we believe that with additional effort and creative problem solving, we can make more progress,” Cheatham said in a statement.

“That's why our special assistant for equity and innovation is an important role — it exists to tackle problems like this that have been hard to budge for the students who need us most. Through this work, our goal is to make sure every student can find a personalized path to success."