School board members reflect on MMSD Superintendent Cheatham's legacy

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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV)--- The superintendent of the Madison Metropolitan School District announced she is leaving her position with the school district at the end of August.

Jennifer Cheatham made an emotional goodbye Wednesday morning to the faculty, students and families she has served for six years.

Several school board members said Cheatham's decision to leave came as a surprise and they are sad to see her go, but many said Cheatham has created a strong foundation on which the board and future MMSD leaders can build.

MMSD School Board President Mary Burke was on the board when Cheatham took over as superintendent in 2013. Burke said Cheatham's biggest contribution was creating a strong district-wide team that can continue the work she started.

"The team that she has built not only in our central office but in our schools is one that will grow and sustain and help develop our students over the long term," Burke said.

Burke also pointed to programs Cheatham started that help students develop their passions and connect them early on to careers in the STEM fields.

"The collaborations she has built, the ways of working that says how does the school district not shut our doors, but open them up to make sure that we're working with families with community organizations to further our mission of making sure every student thrives in our schools," Burke said.

Cheatham's tenure has not been without controversy. She has faced criticism of how she has handled racial tensions in the school district, including several incidents of teacher using racial slurs. Cheatham said this did not impact her decision to leave.

"There have certainly been some challenges this year, there are every school year for a school district superintendent and that is absolutely not my reason for leaving," she said. "I'm leaving because this is a natural point of transition. I'm ready to make a larger impact on the education field."

Cheatham also said she wants to spend more time with her family, including her 7-year-old child.

Despite some controversy, Ananda Mirilli, a newly elected board member, said Cheatham did a lot to bring issues like diversity and inclusion into the conversation.

"She really definitely moved us from being very colorblind in the ways that we talk about the issues in Madison to becoming very explicit in how we talk about race, racial politics, and racial equity in our district and in our community," Mirilli said.

Cheatham also announced her resignation in a letter to MMSD families on Wednesday morning.

Dear Families,

It is with great respect and appreciation for our partnership with parents that I wanted to share this news. After six powerful years leading in service of our children, I have made the difficult decision to leave MMSD at the end of August. This timeline will ensure a smooth transition into the start of the next school year so that the important work of the district continues as planned.

I want you to know that I have never had a more fulfilling job than serving as the superintendent in Madison. Working with and for you toward our common vision has been one of the greatest experiences of my life. This community has surrounded me, my family, our team, our staff and our schools with tremendous support and I am filled with gratitude.

Six years ago, we set out to establish the strong foundation necessary for transformational change in our community. We have accomplished much together as a result. MMSD has dramatically strengthened its routines for continuous improvement, has a stronger and more coherent core instructional program, has improved its approach to family partnership, has expanded its options for post-secondary success, strengthened its HR systems, stabilized its budget, established powerful partnerships and ultimately put the district on an upward trajectory academically with accelerated growth for students of color. We have much to be proud of.

This past fall, we also set a new agenda, in partnership with you, for the years ahead. The new Strategic Framework establishes a new set of ambitious goals and is aligned to a powerful set of core values that include excellence, voice and racial equity. It focuses on empowering school communities, investing in people, ensuring deeper learning for students that prepare them for post-secondary success, better planning for the future and innovation. It also centers a commitment to doing all it will take to cultivate Black student excellence.

You helped create this direction and I have no doubt that it is the right work.

As difficult as change can be, I am confident that this is a natural time for a transition in leadership. We have a Board that is committed to the district’s vision, goals and core values. We have a strong and stable leadership team capable of putting strategy into action. We have a committed and talented staff and a community that is engaged and motivated to continue to move our district forward. MMSD is well positioned to bring its vision to life with and for the community it serves.

As for me, I will be joining the faculty at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in the fall to help prepare the next generation of equity leaders, which will also give me more time with my own family, which I know we all cherish.

Please know that I will work with our principals, our senior team and the Board of Education to ensure the strongest possible transition so as to set MMSD up for all the success our students deserve in the years ahead.

Sincerely,

Jen

As the school district moves forward, Burke said she is confident Cheatham has laid a solid foundation for the future.

"Education is something that takes a long time. It doesn't just happen overnight when we're trying to change outcomes or improve outcomes for our students, and the superintendent has laid the foundation for that work to continue," Burke said.

Cheatham's last day will be in August. In the fall, she will join the Harvard Graduate School of Education as a professor. Cheatham said she is excited to help grow the next generation of school leaders.

The school board is looking internally for candidates for interim superintendent. They will announce that at the end of May.