As a very active community member, a longtime coach for the Southside Raiders, and a positive mentor and role model for young people for decades and decades, Wayne Strong has spent countless hours molding young kids and being a vital resource for families who come to him for guidance and life advice. He knows firsthand what our young people have been facing in our schools, neighborhoods, and in the greater community.
So, when he was finally decided he was at the right spot in his life to make a run for MMSD School Board, Strong thought it was a natural fit. And others agreed. Many people feel like Strong is exactly what the Madison School Board needs right now. But as Strong threw his hat into the ring, he quickly learned about just how much politics is involved. “I didn’t realize how political school board races were. I always looked at them as non-partisan,” Strong tells The Madison Times in an interview at Cargo Coffee on Madison’s south side. “So, when I told a friend of mine that I was going to run for school board, he said, ‘Oh, you know those are very political, right?’ I said, ‘What do you mean? It’s a non-partisan seat!’
The 2013 school board races have been especially political. The board race has been all over the political news, forums, blogs, Twitter, and Facebook the past couple of weeks. “Well, now I am really starting to see how political it is,” Strong smiles. “I felt like the time was right for me to get involved. I’ve been thinking about running for school board for the last four or five years but the timing wasn’t right,” he adds. “As I approached the end of last year and was retiring [from the police department], I felt like this would be the time for me to get into the race because I would be able to commit the time to run the campaign and doing all of the things that it takes to be a candidate. It felt right.”
Strong is an active volunteer in the community where he serves on various boards and works with a number of educational and social organizations. As a mentor for many of his students during his 17 years running the Southside Raiders football team, Strong stresses the importance of education to all of his kids. “I have been in the community and serving the community at the grassroots level,” he says. “I’ve worked with a lot of families over the years and I’ve worked on a number of different educational issues with groups like Dane County United, my own church — S.S. Morris Community A.M.E. Church —and other groups who are concerned about the quality of education we are providing our students.
“I believe in collaborations and I know that there are so many other groups out there who have the same concerns that I do about how we can do things better,” Strong adds. “I think we can create collaborations and partnerships that move us toward a pathway to making our district the best district it can be in terms of serving all of our students. They deserve the best. It’s our responsibility to do this.”From 2006-2008, Strong was on the School Boards communications sub-committee and that really got him even more interested in education. “I got to see the interworkings on how the board works,” Strong remembers.
“I’ve gotten to know [MMSD school board members] Arlene Silveira and Beth Moss through my work on the sub-committees and I’ve always been very interested in this. It’s a very important position. The education of our kids is so important.”
Strong has had two kids that have gone through the MMSD and who graduated from Madison La Follette High School before going on to college. “Knowing what it takes as a parent of color to get your child through this district is different than it is for other parents,” he says. “I feel that I bring that knowledge and experience and that I can help other parents and be an advocate for them on the board. I feel like I understand what we need to be doing differently in this community so all of our students succeed.”Strong looks to be that new type of school board member. “I’m not aware of any previous board members who have had the level of community engagement that I have had,” Strong says. “I think it gives me a level of expertise that other board members and candidates don’t have. With that knowledge that I have from the hundreds of families I’ve worked with over the years with the Southside Raiders, I will be able to bring their voices to the board. I’ve heard so many things over the years about what [parents] see in the district [that is] failing their kids. I don’t want to attack the district; I just want to say, ‘These are our concerns.’ People need a voice. I think that a lot of people feel that is what has been missing in our educational system — our voices. I feel that I can bring to the board that voice of concern that so many of these people have so that we can really start to address some of our issues in a more meaningful way that will make a difference in the lives of the kids that we are trying to serve.
”Strong has been actively engaging the community at forums, debates, and meet-and-greets to find out what the community wants and needs as he campaigns on a platform that revolves around a vision for safe schools, increasing the graduation rates, and high academic achievement for all children.Last year, over 1,000 students left the district because of the perceptions of schools not being safe, Strong says. That needs to stop. As a retired lieutenant on the Madison police force, Strong knows safety and juvenile justice issues.
“When I talk to different parents early on, they worry about their kids in schools,” he says. “Bullying and harassment are real issues that we have to continue to address in terms of making sure our students feel safe in the classroom and that our teachers feel safe, as well. But when we lose 1,000 students to open enrollment, that’s millions of dollars our district is losing.
There are some good things the district is doing to improve the safety of the schools like the welcome centers and things like that. I like the fact that we have the four educational resource officers at the four high schools. I would like to see us expand that to the middle schools. We’ve had that in the past and I think that’s served us well — not just from a safety standpoint of having an armed person on the campus, but also from an educational perspective because the educational resource officer’s job is to talk to the students about ways to keep themselves safe, ways to stay out of trouble and away from gangs and drugs.”Strong is familiar with that position because he was one of the first educational resource officers at Madison West High School in the ‘90s.
“I spent a lot of my time talking to students about the issues … about keeping themselves safe and about staying away from drugs and staying out of gangs,” he says. “Being proactive will help improve the perception that our schools are safe and we will stop losing families to open enrollment.”
Strong emphasizes the need for high academic achievement for all students. “All students,” Strong says. “TAG [talented and gifted] students, special needs students, mediocre students, students who are just getting by. We want the best for all of our students.”Strong talks about emphasizing the Pygmalion effect, the phenomenon in which the greater the expectation placed upon people, the better they perform. “If teachers have this expectation that students can achieve and they convey that to their student ... that student is going to believe that and he’s going to say, ‘Here’s a teacher that believes in me. Here’s a principal that believes in me,’” Strong says. “We need to give kids the message that they are worthy and can succeed if they work harder and try harder.”That’s exactly what worked for Strong growing up in a single-parent household in challenging neighborhoods in Racine. “My mom didn’t have a whole lot, but I had teachers and coaches who told me that I was smart and could do things in my life and I believed it. I internalized it,” Strong remembers. “I always believed in myself because I got that message. There were some people because of my background who didn’t believe in me, but what they thought of me was far less important than the people who knew me, saw the value in me as a young person, and wanted me to be successful.”
Strong graduated from Racine Case High School and attended the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire where he earned his bachelor’s degree in criminal justice in 1982. Over the past 22 years, he’s worked in a number of different capacities on the Madison Police Department working his way up to lieutenant.Just like in his own life, Strong sees education as the great equalizer. “This is how we can improve ourselves,” he says. “I tell all of my kids that come through the Southside Raiders from low-income families that just because you come from a low-income family, it doesn’t mean that you can’t be successful. It doesn’t mean that you can’t do something positive with your life. You can.”
Horrific MMSD graduation rates among young people of color are what seem to bother Strong the most. “50.1 percent for African American students and 59 percent for Hispanic students … that’s ridiculous,” he says. “That’s a sad commentary. For me, the biggest reason graduation rates are so low, especially among African American students, is because we have an astronomical suspension rate.
”For the 2010-’11 academic school year, Strong says, the MMSD suspended 24.85 percent of its African American students. “One in four at some point in time are having their education disrupted due to a suspension. We need to look more closely as to why this is happening,” Strong says. “This is something as a board member that I will really be on top of because I think it is so critical as we talk about the achievement gap. You can’t close a gap with a group of students who aren’t even at the table and who aren’t even in the classroom. When 1 in 4 of them is being removed for suspension, you can’t close a gap.”Suspension rates, he says, are a domino effect into higher absenteeism, truancy, and, ultimately, referrals to expulsion.
“We have got to get a better handle on this. These are things that are affecting primarily African American students and they are affecting the overall quality of the district,” says Strong, who accepted a part-time position at Globe University as the Criminal Justice Program Chair and Adjunct Instructor in 2001. “Until we can get handle on these root causes on why some of these things are happening, we’re going to continue to see this achievement gap. I’m passionate about this suspension rate. It’s a real problem that we have to get at."
For the past 24 years as a criminal justice practitioner, Strong has seen the effects of it firsthand. “I see what happens to the kids that are suspended from school. Those kids are ending up in JRC [Juvenile Reception Center],” he says. “They are ending up in gangs and wandering the streets [and] doing things that are counterproductive to their futures. We have got to find a way to keep these kids engaged and in school and out of the juvenile justice system. That will be good for them and good for the community overall.”
With the changing demographics in Madison and a school system that is now majority minority, Strong feels that the MMSD needs to be more inclusive in its hiring practices.
"Kids do well when they see somebody in the classroom who looks like them encouraging them,” Strong says.“We have some schools here in Madison where there is one African American teacher…. which is stunning in a district that is 50 percent students of color. We are not doing a good job in terms of recruiting people. We can’t just talk about being inclusive … we have to be inclusive. We’ve actually got to figure out strategies that will bring more people of color — more teachers. There are so many teachers that go other places because they can’t get hired [here].”This is an extremely crucial time for Madison schools right now. It’s important that they get things right at this juncture.
“Right now it is critical. And it has been critical for a very long time,” Strong says. “Here, we have a unique opportunity. We have a superintendent coming in with Dr. [Jennifer] Cheatam who I think gets the big picture. I think she will be a person that the board will be able to work with and to implement some strategies that will really help us deal with the issues that we need to deal with in this district for a very long time.
“The timing is right and I’m really anxious to roll up my sleeves and get in there on what I feel are the most important issues in this district,” he adds. “To me, it’s the achievement gap, it’s school climate, school safety, higher academic achievement for our students and improving our graduation rates.”
Strong was a member of the 2009 school district's Strategic Planning Committee, and he knows about setting a positive direction for our schools. “We met for four days at the Goodman Center. There’s a lot of good stuff in that strategic plan. I want to pull that plan back out and say, ‘What’s good in that plan that we can use right now to make a difference? How can we begin to really attack this problem at a level that will be meaningful to the students that we’re trying to serve?’” he says. “I think that if we fix this problem with the achievement gap and if we increase the performance of students that are achieving down towards the bottom, it will elevate the whole district.
“It doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. We can fix the problem without affecting our talented and gifted students,” he continues. “We can do that. I believe that a rising tide floats all boats. If we help the kids that are at the bottom of our district, that’s going to increase the achievement of all of our students. That will be good for the district and it will be great for the overall community.”
Outstanding cities are built upon outstanding school districts. Strong says that he wants the Madison Metropolitan School District to be something everybody will be proud of.
“Madison can be that city. We can be a model on how to make this work. We can be a model for other state schools and maybe even nationwide of how we can fix this problem,” Strong says. “We have so many talented people in this district who have so many ideas of ways we can help with curriculum and student engagement and all those things that will make a difference for our kids in the long run. It’s going to take some work and some passion, but we can do it. I’m prepared to do the work that needs to be done.
“There are three kinds of people in this world — people who watch things happen, people who make things happen, and people who wake up the next day and say, ‘What happened?’” Strong adds. “We are in a unique position right now to make things happen beginning April 1st with the implementation of our new superintendent. We’re in a unique position to get things done.”