While middle school is often associated with adolescent angst, for Tremayne Clardy, it is the prime time to connect with kids.

“Some people say I am crazy for this, but it is my favorite age,” he said.

“(Students) are forming academic and social concepts and ways of thinking. To have the opportunity to have direct influence at that time in their lives is really important and it has been my passion,” Clardy said.

For the majority of his teaching career, Clardy has worked with middle school students. Before finishing out his five-year tenure as principal of Sennett Middle School, he taught sixth- and seventh-grade science in Beloit and Janesville.

His experience made him the Madison Metropolitan School District’s top choice for a new administrative position, deputy chief of schools. In the role, Clardy will support Madison's 12 middle school principals as they work to improve academic outcomes for all of their students and eliminate achievement gaps for targeted populations. 

“The reason we promoted him is because we think he’s done a great job as a leader of a middle school and will be able to support his colleagues in accelerating progress at the middle school level,” Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham said. “He is quite something, and he is charged up.”

When the district released its annual report this summer, Cheatham announced MMSD’s plan to focus more efforts on improving the academic and social outcomes for middle school students.

“In middle school, we have some bright spots, but we have not yet gotten the traction that we need, despite significant effort from our district and school staff,” Cheatham said at a July 31 press conference about the annual report. “Next year, we’ll have intensive support around our middle schools to address their unique needs and challenges.”

While MMSD has seen growth for elementary and high school students in the four years since Cheatham became superintendent, results have stalled at the middle school level. 

Overall, 38 percent of MMSD eighth-graders scored "proficient" or higher on their reading MAP exam (up 4 percentage points from four years ago) and 44 percent in math (up 5 percentage points from four years ago).

But only 7 percent of African-American eighth-graders scored “proficient” or higher last year on the reading MAP, the same as four years ago.

And only 8 percent of African-American eighth-graders scored “proficient” or higher in math, down a percentage point from four years ago.

Clardy’s new role as deputy chief of secondary schools is one of MMSD’s strategies for intensively supporting middle schoolers this year. A part of his role includes supporting middle school principals as they coach their teacher teams, where instructors in the same content area collaborate on lesson planning.

Although common planning was in place in past years, Clardy will work with principals to implement best practices across all 12 of Madison’s middle schools. Teacher teams will also analyze student progress and adjust instruction as needed.

“We are going to look at planning for students within the schools’ focus groups. Most of the schools have chosen African-Americans and special education students as their focus areas,” Clardy said.

“We want to make sure (common planning) is very consistent and teacher team planning time produces opportunities for teachers to collaborate and produce lesson plans that will support our students, specifically our students who are most in need,” he said.

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Cheatham also spoke about the importance of building strong relationships between faculty and students through culturally responsive teaching, a district-wide focus for this school year.

“I really hope that parents and students feel a tangible difference in these first days and weeks of the school year and that is because teachers understand and are deepening their understanding of how important alliance and rapport are with young people,” she said.

For Cheatham, building trusting relationships at the middle school level is particularly important since students in that age group are working to develop a sense of identity and independence.

“The very nature of adolescence is all about identity development. Students are trying to figure out who they are and where and how they fit in,” she said. “It presents a challenge, but also a great opportunity to have safe spaces for students to work on that.”

Clardy also said building relationships with all students — students of color in particular — should be a focus at the middle school level. He wants to increase student voice so kids “take ownership in their learning,” a crucial skill for kids to develop “a sense of self and self-advocacy.”

Although there is no blueprint for Clardy’s role in MMSD, he said increased academic outcomes, particularly for the district’s most underserved students, is his barometer for success.

“Success looks like data-based academic growth and gap-closing work at each of our middle schools,” he said. “If we are able to identify growth overall and expedited growth for our African-American and special ed students this year, that will be a great indication of success.”