Madison 4K may help close achievement gap

Nathaniel Bramlett arrived early with his parents for the first day of 4-year-old kindergarten at Falk Elementary in this file photo from 2011.

CRAIG SCHREINER — State Journal archives

A number of figures stood out at the Ed Talks panel on the achievement gap that I attended last Wednesday night, part of a UW-Madison series of free conversations and presentations on educational issues. Here are two:

• 50: The percentage of children currently defined as low-income in the Madison Metropolitan School District.

• 9: The percentage of children defined as low-income when Paul Soglin was first elected mayor in 1973.

It is not just the schools’ responsibility to address the effects of such a dramatic increase in poverty, says the mayor, who participated on the panel along with Dane County Boys and Girls Club President Michael Johnson and others.

“The school system has the children about 20 percent of the time,” Soglin said. “The remaining 80 percent is very critical.”

The city, he says, needs to help by providing kids with access to out-of-school programs in the evenings and during the summer. It needs to do more to fight hunger and address violence-induced trauma in children. And it needs to help parents get engaged in their kids’ education.

“We as a community, for all of the bragging about being so progressive, are way behind the rest of the nation in these areas,” he says.

The mayor’s stated plans for addressing those issues, however, are in their infancy.

Soglin says he is researching ways to get low-cost Internet access to the many households throughout the city that currently lack computers or broadband connections.

A serious effort to provide low-cost or even free Internet access to city residents is hampered by a 2003 state law that sought to discourage cities from setting up their own broadband networks. The bill, which was pushed by the telecommunications industry, forbids municipalities from funding a broadband system with taxpayer dollars; only subscriber fees can be used.

Ald. Scott Resnick, who runs a software company and plans to be involved in Soglin’s efforts, says the city will likely look to broker a deal with existing Internet providers, such as Charter or AT&T, and perhaps seek funding from private donors.

On hunger, Soglin points to the recent creation of the Food Policy Council, which has a goal of eliminating food deserts — places in the city that lack grocery stores or other outlets where fresh food is available. He also says he has met with local farmers and hopes to work with the school district to get better, local, food into school lunches.

UW-Madison professor Barry Orton, a telecommunications expert, sits on the food council and plans to be involved with the broadband initiative. He nevertheless acknowledges that both projects are small in the context of fighting the daunting challenges of poverty.

“They’re attacking at the edges,” he says.

Michael Johnson, executive director of the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County, which served 38,000 meals to 2,500 kids last year, says expanding after-school programs into the weekend could go a long way toward reducing hunger.

“You can have a kid who literally will not have a healthy meal for an entire weekend,” he said. “They get to school on Monday and they’re hungry and cranky and not focused.”

Indeed, coordinating out-of-school activities with groups such as the Boys & Girls Club is how Soglin says the city can make its biggest impact.

“We have to make sure that every child has access to out-of-school programming,” he says.

Becky Steinhoff, executive director of the Goodman Community Center, which offers after-school programming to students of all ages, says other cities have systems in place that allow parents to enter their home address into an online program and find all of the nearby public programs offered for kids. They also have more out-of-school options for which kids can get school credit, such as partaking in programs at museums.

Steinhoff and Soglin learned about ways to establish “citywide after-school systems” at a recent conference in Baltimore hosted by the Wallace Foundation, a group that has doled out millions of dollars to cities around the country to support after-school programs.

“Cities that have been doing this for 10 years have seen some pretty remarkable progress,” says Steinhoff.

Correction: This article previously listed School Board President James Howard as an attendee of the EdTalks forum. He was invited, but did not show up. 

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Jack Craver is the Capital Times political reporter, focusing on elections, candidates and campaign finance.