Race in Dane County

The Race to Equity Report was released in October by the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, 2013, providing 40 life-status measures which highlight the disparities in Dane County between our African-American and white populations. It examines economic well-being, health, education, juvenile justice, child welfare, adult justice, and community/housing/mobility data. It draws an important conclusion, “the county’s black-white disparities…are generally more extreme than those found in most other jurisdictions across the state and nation. There is not a single indicator that we analyzed in which African American well-being is on par with that of whites…. What is extraordinary about Dane County’s numbers, however, is the sheer magnitude of the disparities that we found in many of the most fundamental status indicators.”

Background—Our history in addressing racial disparities
Schools of Hope started in 1995 as a civic journalism project, which was conducted by the Wisconsin State Journal newspaper and the local CBS affiliate, WISC-TV. The project produced a series of reports which uncovered a wide achievement gap between the academic success of white students and students of color in the Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD). At that time 30% of our African American third-graders couldn’t read at a basic level. The media asked United Way to head a leadership team to examine the issue and work on a solution. After thoughtful research, the team, consisting of local government, university, public school and labor union representatives, 100 Black Men, as well as parents, students and leaders from business and communities of color, decided to engage the community in the challenge of reducing the racial achievement gap for 3rd grade reading. This was a significant and risky decision given the local history and politics around the issue. Over 15 years, $20 million had already been spent by MMSD on this issue, yet the gap was still growing. Increasingly, the community was looking for whom to blame rather than how to solve the problem. “We were sticking our neck out and, in the end, it would be easy to see if we were a success or a failure,” recalled Leslie Howard.

In 1997 we announced that we could have the greatest impact helping children to learn to read in the early grades, since children learn to read by 3rd grade and then use reading to learn beyond the 3rd grade. We saw the racial achievement gap at 3rd grade reading as a critical time, and declared war on the racial achievement gap in early grade reading, calling our initiative “Schools of Hope.’’ It was a very controversial decision—even educators cautioned us against such a bold goal and calling out the lack of racial achievement. We spent significant time discussing this approach with the African American community—they told us, yes, be bold, and call out the racial achievement gap.

Within 4 years we’d collaboratively cut the gap in half for children of color who were reading below standard, and in 2004, the gap statistically (below standard in 3rd grade) disappeared. Then Superintendent Art Rainwater declared success at the November 2004 United Way Board meeting saying that as a result of Schools of Hope, we could no longer predict a child’s ability to read based on the color of his/her skin. Throughout those years we learned results were based on a sustained focus, consistent measurement, curriculum improvements, professional development of teachers, and engaging the community through thousands of trained volunteer tutors, working in concert with the classroom teachers’ curriculum. We continue to build this initiative as we address the increased number of children of color entering our schools and myriad changes in testing, curriculum, and the educational landscape. In 2001 we expanded our work to algebra completion, and in 2009, high school graduation.

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Race to Equity report, Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, 2013