Vol. 4    No. 23
NOVEMBER 12, 2009 Archives

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It was quite a thrill to see President Barack Obama come to Wright Middle School on November 4, the first sitting
president to visit Madison since President Harry Truman, some 59-60 years ago. Although I was a part of the
“steerage” part of the press corps at the event — about 100 of us stuffed onto the riser at one end of the gym, it
was cool that President Obama took the time to meet with about 40 students in Wright Middle School’s library.
While he spoke for a while with the media pool present, he also spoke to the students in private, encouraging them
and listening to them. I’m sure that is a moment those students will never forget.

As I said before, the press corps was stuffed on the risers at the back and the Wright students and their teachers
filled the wooden stands on one side of the gym, while the gym floor was filled with parents and dignitaries. It
certainly was an eclectic mix of people. I would sure love to know how everyone got there. It would be most
informative.

At the beginning of his remarks, President Obama praised Principal Nancy Evans for the excellence of Wright
Middle School and I am sure that everyone was proud of Wright Middle School that day.
But I couldn’t help but remember back to the days when that wasn’t so. And perhaps Wright Middle School is a
microcosm of the battle over school reform.

The fight to establish Wright Middle School really dates back to 1980 when the Madison school district closed
Lincoln Middle School on Madison’s south side and converted it into Lincoln Elementary School. Dr. Richard Harris
and others filed a federal discrimination complain that resulted in about 15 years of debate, task forces and turmoil
on how education should look in South Madison. Harris, members of Blacks for Political and Social Action, the
Urban League’s Program Planning Committee led by Steve Braunginn and Jerry Smith — who was on the school
board at the time — among others led the charge to establish a middle school in South Madison.

At first, it looked like a ‘south side’ middle school was going to be built on the grounds of Promega in Fitchburg.
But Harris et. al. were relentless in their determination that a middle school would be built in South Madison
proper. I think the final vote to build a middle school where Wright now stands was 4-3 with Jerry Smith, Juan
José López, Carol Carstensen and one other board member voting yes to the school, which was originally called
Madison Middle School 2000. It started up at Hoyt School on Regent Street while the new school on a corner of
Bowman Field was built.

Even after the school was built, Wright Middle School was on shaky ground until Ed Holmes took over as
principal. And until he left Wright to become the principal at West High School, Holmes slowly but surely built the
school up, creating a strong foundation on which Principal Nancy Evans has built upon.
The school reform that was Wright Middle School was fought tooth and nail. It appears to meet the needs of its
students and parents — I see appears because I don’t know how the kids test out and how their scores match up
with other schools — and is now embraced by the school establishment. But the fight for this reform was long and
hard.

I hope we can learn some lessons from the history of Wright Middle School. True school reform will never some
easy and swiftly. It represents change to the status quo and will be a threat to those who feel things are fine the
way things are now. It will mean that some people — and maybe many — will need to give up something and that
many will have to move somewhat outside their comfort zones. And even though reform will be met with a lot of
skepticism that it will never work, reform can work if it is given time and space and isn’t criticized to death for
every miscue.

I know that Madison school officials and teachers union representatives were at Wright Middle School when
President Obama spoke. I hope they heard the level of cheering that emanated from the students and parents as
the president laid out his agenda for reform. Parents of color have been waiting a long time for education reform to
occur in our community. It is tiring to see the same thing happen — the same old achievement gap — generation
after generation. So long as the parents know that real education reform means that they will also have to change
for their children’s futures, I say let the reform begin.
Reflections/Jonathan Gramling
                       Thinking about Wright