School superintendent candidate makes her case in Madison

2013-02-08T06:00:00Z School superintendent candidate makes her case in MadisonMATTHEW DEFOUR | Wisconsin State Journal | | 608-252-6145

A top Chicago administrator said Thursday night the Madison School Board wouldn’t be taking a risk by hiring her as its next superintendent — even though she’s never been a superintendent before and she has a long career ahead of her.

“People might worry that I will come here and leave,” Jennifer Cheatham told an audience of about 175 at Monona Terrace. “That is absolutely not what I’m about.”

Cheatham, 41, chief of instruction for Chicago Public Schools, answered questions from the public at an hour-long forum and later answered questions for the first time from the media.

She said she isn’t calling for extending the school day in Madison, believes in teacher evaluations that focus on best teacher practices and student growth, and said testing has exposed the achievement gap between minority and majority students.

The School Board immediately went into closed session after the forum and met for two hours. By 10 p.m. Thursday they had not issued a statement.

Attendees interviewed offered generally positive reviews of Cheatham.

Kelly Petrowski, 33, a bilingual education teacher at Elvehjem Elementary School, said Cheatham “knows a ton about education and working in urban districts. My concern is her ability to be a decision-maker. It seems like she was very good at implementing the decisions made by others.”

Mayor Paul Soglin was sold.

“There were a lot of questions about the hiring process and the fact that we were down to one candidate,” he said. “Dr. Cheatham did such a good job that she not only demonstrated her qualifications for the position, but she pushed aside the problems with the process.”

But some continued to question how the School Board could offer her the job without first presenting other candidates to the public.

“I’m sure the School Board is doing some soul searching,” said Leslie Howard, president of the United Way of Dane County. “They will need a very authentic engagement process with the community to overcome concerns.”

Howard called Cheatham's performance Thursday, "a home run."

‘Call me Jen’

On Sunday the board named Cheatham and Springfield, Ill., superintendent Walter Milton Jr. as finalists. But Milton dropped out Tuesday after questions arose about his background.

Cheatham opened the forum asking for a show of hands of how many people had looked her up on the Internet, a reference to the scrutiny she and Milton faced since Sunday.

“If anyone thinks I’m going to require you to call me Dr. Cheatham, don’t worry about that,” she said to laughter. “Call me Jen.”

She had been criticized in Chicago for correcting a parent at a forum who addressed her as Ms. Cheatham, according to news reports.

In Madison, she faced questions about her lack of superintendent experience, her work in Chicago promoting the district’s longer school day initiative, what she thought about standardized tests and how she would close the achievement gap.

“I am not advocating extending the school day in Madison,” she said. “I don’t know enough about what’s happening in Madison to know if that’s the right strategy.”

Cheatham, who was charged with leading the effort, said she disagreed with the decision by Chicago Public Schools officials to extend the school day before consulting the public.

In Madison, she said she would talk with the community about such major decisions first.

She got a laugh by saying she “did not cause the Chicago teacher’s strike” last fall, which was related to the district’s longer school day.

She said every student should be able to go to a neighborhood school, but parents should have the opportunity to send their children to public school alternatives such as charter and magnet schools.

Cheatham also said she would meet regularly with union leaders, and that she endorsed good teacher evaluations. On student testing, she said the results have been valuable because you can track achievement levels and identify gaps but that the federal No Child Left Behind law focused education on math and reading at the expense of other subjects.

Statement of confidence

Cheatham told reporters after the forum that she didn’t have concerns about being the only finalist the community had an opportunity to meet.

“I’m taking it as a statement of their confidence in me,” she said of the board’s decision to hold the forum after Milton, who was also scheduled to attend, withdrew from consideration.

Cheatham said she applied for the job in Madison because she recently decided to look for a superintendent position. Madison “immediately surfaced as the top district” because of its diversity, strong public schools and some of the challenges it faces.

During a tour of La Follette High School earlier in the day, Cheatham asked students and administrators about the district’s weaknesses, said senior Tanner Trickle, a basketball player and honors student who was on the tour. Responses included graduation rates, course offerings and getting students to attend classes, he said.

A scheduled visit to Randall Elementary was canceled because of the snow.

- State Journal reporter Samara Kalk Derby contributed to this report.

Copyright 2015 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(16) Comments

  1. Mcb
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    Mcb - March 08, 2013 6:47 pm
    I'm a cps parent. Chatham is a liar. I was at all her meeting in the 19 th ward. She could not remember what she said from one meeting to the next. She ignorantly stood up in front of 400 parents and demanded that she be called dr. Cheatham.
    Want a video of it? I'm sure there is one out there. She is snooty, she is a liar and she will mess up your school district beyond repair! I can't believe Madison hired this crazy woman! It blows my mind that these people did not do their homework! She gives woman a bad name. Let me tell you, just because someone has a Harvard degree means absolutley nothing. This woman is proof of it. Good grief and good luck. You're going to need it!
  2. vmello
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    vmello - February 09, 2013 3:30 pm
    The problem is not the union but an administrator who makes decisions with no backing of peer reviewed research. Administrators like Cheatham are never around long enough to have their programs judged. Madison taking a Chicago Public School top administrator is a failure of logic and good sense. Chicago Public Schools fails because of its leaders! The buck stops at the top!
  3. Carol333
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    Carol333 - February 08, 2013 3:21 pm
    Follow the recent policy initiatives in Chicago public schools and you will find the opposite of accountability -- see the Sun Times story by Dan Mihaipoulos on UNO charters and their contracts.
  4. Norwood44
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    Norwood44 - February 08, 2013 1:10 pm
    Many people seem to have a problem with the new Sup. selection. But all the pro union folks never really own the problem or solution. The truth is that we need change. As for the straw man argument about corp education? That will happen in Madison when the Bears move to Camp Randall. We need change. We need accountabilty. We need it now.
  5. foxvalley
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    foxvalley - February 08, 2013 12:53 pm
    I think Madison needs to stop looking from without and look within. You have a large school system with hundreds of well qualified canidates possible right in your own town. You have a well educated group of teachers and administrators who continue their education right there thru the UW system and know what goes on in Madison and have been a part of the system and know what needs to change.
  6. lute
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    lute - February 08, 2013 12:03 pm
    It looks like the MMSD has a bleak future if the board hires Cheatham. I mean bleak for the community, not bleak for the privatization profiteers, testing companies, and so on.
  7. Carol333
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    Carol333 - February 08, 2013 12:01 pm
    The manner in which the search for the your superintendent has been carried out reminds me of the way that CPS circumvents the Local School Council when it wants to put its own candidate for principal into a school.

    They hold a candidate forum with only 2 candidates. One is very weak and one is the favored one.

  8. Carol333
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    Carol333 - February 08, 2013 9:36 am
    From a blog by DePaul professor Mike Klonsky, this is how privatization began in CPS.

    News and analysis of corporate school reform and the privatization of public education

    Wednesday, July 13, 2011

    Who brought Jonah Edelman and SFC to town? Bruce Rauner

    Education blogs are buzzing about Stand For Children anti-hero, Jonah Edelman, whose braggadocio has left the corrupt underbelly of corporate school reform badly exposed. But to understand this story, one has to look past Edelman because, as everyone over at the local saloon knows, behind every small-time player stands a big-time player.

    In today's Chicago Sun-Times, "Braggart angers teachers' union after tough negotiations over reform bill", education writers Roz Rossi and Abdon Pallasch tell at least part of the story about Edelman's trip to Illinois, his bags packed with hundred-dollar bills in search of willing politicians (are there any unwilling in this state?) ready to abandon their traditional union base and vote for the anti-union SB7.

    Enter the big-time player:

    Edelman was recruited to Illinois by Bruce Rauner, a Republican venture capitalist and former client of Mayor Rahm Emanuel who helped make Emanuel a millionaire when Emanuel was an investment banker. Because Rauner is Republican, Edelman said some expected his group to fund Republican candidates. But Edelman said he realized [State Sen Michael] Madigan was the game in Illinois and so he funded six of Madigan’s Democratic legislative candidates and only three Republicans.

    Billionaire Rauner who bankrolled Emanuel's mayoral campaign, is also a charter school entrepreneur with a chain of Chicago charters bearing his name. Rauner chairs the the education committee of the powerful anti-union Civic Committee of the Commercial Club and his name even appeared in local gossip columns as a possible choice for Emanuel's new schools chief. 

    “Sneed hears rumbles mega-rich venture capitalist Bruce Rauner, who burps money and made certain a ton had been tossed into Rahm’s election campaign, is being eyed as the city’s new school CEO.”

    With Rauner's help, and millions more coming from local billionaires with names like Pritzker, Crown and Zell, Edelman spread the money around like a horny John, outspending and out-foxing the unions at every turn. 

    “They [the unions] essentially gave away every single provision related to teacher effectiveness that we had proposed — everything we had fought for in Colorado,” Edelman said in Aspen. “We hired 11 lobbyists, including four of the absolute best insiders and seven of the best minority lobbyists, preventing the unions from hiring them.”

    Almost too disgusting to quote. It's no wonder that everyone on all corners of EdelGate want this thing to go away. Not a chance.
  9. Carol333
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    Carol333 - February 08, 2013 9:21 am
    “I am not advocating extending the school day in Madison,” she said. “I don’t know enough about what’s happening in Madison to know if that’s the right strategy.” Cheatham, who was charged with leading the effort, said she disagreed with the decision by Chicago Public Schools officials to extend the school day before consulting the public.

    Yes, she has an easy, low-key manner and seems, at least for now, to be able to laugh at herself. But I and two hundred others were at the meeting when she publicly reprimanded a mother and directed her to call her "Dr". Of course the crowd wasn't impressed with that.

    I suggest you think hard about importing someone who is not experienced at the job, who is politically connected to Illinois Democrats, and who was trained at the Broad Foundation, which is hellbent on privatizing public schools across the country.

    Her lack of superintendent experience is a huge red flag. The fact that she cheerfully admitted not knowing enough about your school district to determine whether you require a longer day is a smiling side-step of a serious question; why doesn't she know more about your school district?

    An excellent candidate would have done the research. The internet makes it easy.

    In Chicago, once we began to hear through the media about the top-down implementation of a longer school day, CPS parents invited Cheathem to meetings to air their concerns. She listened and but never responded in a way that was careful to take those concerns into consideration. Never. She only provided canned responses, sort of a Stepford-wives style of talking.

    She vigorously defended the mayor's push for a 7.5 hour school day for all CPS schools, even the highest performing, and Chicago has the highest performing elementary and high schools in the state of Illinois.

    She never supported parents' contentions that merely adding time to the day without funding would obviously mean only more "seat time." And for many parents, the after-school activities, sports and enrichment mean a lot and make for a well-rounded, happy child. That was something they did not want to give up.

    She also never acknowledged that a 7.5 hour day for a kindergartener would be stressful. It is, and this is not a model used in more child-centered districts, we have found.

    Parents researched the school day throughout the country and state. The average school day in Illinois and in the U.S. was 6.5 hours, not 7.5 hours as Cheathem claimed repeatedly.

    They investigated school curriculums and after-school programs at good school districts. They compiled a compromise proposal that looked a lot like the days at good suburban districts, where there was a range of activities after school to lengthen the day and not restrict children to merely more "seat time".

    All was ignored by CPS. Parents' determined opposition finally prompted the mayor to cut the day's length to 7 hours from 7.5 hours.

    And it was during contract negotiations that the CTU pushed CPS to fund the longer day so that it becomes a quality school day. Finally, after thousands and thousands of people protested for days on end, CPS agreed to fund, but for only one year, a few hundred teacher positions for fine arts.

    And, with the start of the longer day this school year, there has been an explosion in standardized testing at all grades -- even at the preschool level! (Ben Joravsky, Chicgo Reader, Stephanie Simon, Reuters)

    Kindergarteners can take up to 17 tests a year! Many are given by computer, and CPS doesn't have enough bandwidth, the headphones are too big for the littlest kids and the often don't know how to use a mouse. Still, the tests must go on, CPS insists. (Raise Your Hand Illinois)

    In sum, all CPS methods have been top-down, dictatorial and divisive, and Cheathem has actively participated in that. Parents and teachers have had to protest time and again to be heard even slightly on any of the issues. And CPS has regularly made efforts to subvert honest public debate on the issues.

    You may have heard of the Rent-A-Protestor gaffe? CPS wanted to show support for school closings last year. It hired a politically connected consulting firm, Resolute Consulting, to give money to preachers on the south side. They paid people from disadvantaged neighborhoods $25 to $50 each to get on a school bus and go to a meeting at a school on the west side that CPS wanted to close. The protestors, elderly, poor and minority, held professionally printed signs supporting the school closing. Then, when they realized what they had been paid to do, they told the reporters and CPS staffers they didn't agree with closing the school. (Sun Times)

    Additionally, well-funded out-of-town front groups have been used to push CPS' narrative and bad policies. These groups recruit speakers to come to monthly meetings to echo the CPS line. Groups like Democrats for Education Reform, Students for Education Reform, and Stand for Children are funded by Wall Street hedge fund managers and Bill Gates. (WBEZ)

    Another group, Teach Plus, will be used to create divisions among the teachers' ranks.

    Charter chains like UNO have received amazing amounts of funding from the state, while at the same time the state cuts funding to traditional CPS schools. CPS' efforts to close traditional public schools are moving ahead quickly. The CEO just hired a marine to manage the closings and transfers of students. (Sun Times)

    Year after year, CPS' claims of budget deficits are used to explain the "crisis" -- and the haste to close traditional public schools, but the deficits never appear. ( Curtis Black Newstips)

  10. bpro
    Report Abuse
    bpro - February 08, 2013 7:30 am
    Offer Jen the position she deserves the opportunity. If there is not already there should be supervising committee's managing projects (in this situation, with the Consulting Firm), so the Board is provided every opportunity to stay in touch with the process.
  11. skippie
    Report Abuse
    skippie - February 07, 2013 11:25 pm
    Seems most people were impressed. Great example of liberals being totally wrong once again. Most Libs that posted here said we would never be able to attract skilled people in education to this state again. I love it when people like to Nav, Shake and Spooky are all wrong! It happens so often!!!
  12. modotti
    Report Abuse
    modotti - February 07, 2013 10:38 pm
    I went to the forum tonight, extremely skeptical. I still believe that the process was appalling and that the Board needs to be accountable for getting us into that mess.

    Yet I was very impressed with Cheatham, and think she would do a very good job.
  13. RecessionSux
    Report Abuse
    RecessionSux - February 07, 2013 10:02 pm
    I wouldn't apply for this thankless job for a seven figure salary.
  14. Hogzilla
    Report Abuse
    Hogzilla - February 07, 2013 6:28 pm
    Pretty sure plenty of people could suffer through and some how make ends meet on $250k per year. They might have to shop at Woodman's and drive an 83' Plymouth, but ya' know, if it's for the kids, it's worth it.
  15. TheJudoon
    Report Abuse
    TheJudoon - February 07, 2013 6:10 pm
    So ... people aren't lining up to work for Wisconsin's massacred education system?
    I'm shocked.
  16. Big_Joe
    Report Abuse
    Big_Joe - February 07, 2013 5:41 pm
    For everyone's sake, Cheatham included, this process needs to start over.

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