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Episode 15 -MMSD's Associate Superintendent of Elementary Schools Carlettra Stanford, joins Superintendent Carlton D. Jenkins
Episode 1521st March 2023 • Lead to Liberate • Madison Metropolitian School District
00:00:00 00:22:00

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“Differences are assets.” That’s what guest Carlettra Stanford, Associate Superintendent of Elementary Schools and MMSD alumna, points to as a strength of the Madison community. This episode touches on continual growth, leadership, and uplifts Goal Three of the Strategic Framework. Dr. Jenkins continues the conversation of early literacy and the district’s new elementary curriculum.


00:10: From the Madison Metropolitan School District, this is Lead to Liberate, a podcast documenting stories of inspiration, growth, and empowerment across our schools.

00:28: Dr. Carlton D. Jenkins: I just really love that music. Wow, gets me going every time. Welcome back to our listeners. I am Dr. Carlton D. Jenkins, the proud superintendent of Madison Metropolitan School District, and you are here with us on Lead to Liberate. Each week I've been bringing you an outstanding, outstanding staff member. This week, we have an opportunity to hear from one of our very own, starting elementary school here, middle school, high school, went off to college, went to a HBCU, came back and now one of our associate superintendents, often referred to as the ‘Baby Superintendent.’ Now, we have with us today, Ms. Carlettra Stanford. How are you today Ms. Stanford?

01:07: Carlettra Stanford: I am great. How are you Dr. Jenkins?

01:10: Dr. Jenkins: I'm doing well. Hey, we've been hearing about all the work that you're doing now. Knowing that you are a former student, you came back as a teacher, as a principal of my elementary school, Mendota. Okay. That's an inside joke. [Laughter] But that's my elementary school, Mendota. How are things going for you now? You're going from a teacher principal. Now you're the Associate Superintendent?

01:32: Ms. Stanford: Yes. So I am a proud graduate of East High School. Go Purgolders! And, um, I'm just happy to be back in my hometown. I often joke and say that I am from Madison, but I was actually born in Marks, Mississippi. But I had the opportunity to matriculate through MMSD schools. And so, I started here in first grade, I believe it was, and went all the way up to high school. When I decided to come back as a teacher, I originally did not want to be a teacher. I often tell the story that my dream was to be a pediatrician, but everything that I did, pointed towards students, and working with students and working with families. So when I had the opportunity to come back home, I did jump at that opportunity, and started my educational career in MMSD at what was then Glendale Elementary School, but is now Dr. Henderson Elementary School. So I started off as a classroom teacher. I was then a literacy coach, worked my way up to a Title One Schoolwide Facilitator, and then became a principal of an elementary school that just happened to be the elementary school that I attended, Gompers Elementary School.

02:44: Dr. Jenkins: Wow, that’s it. Wow, that was really awesome. Now you say you came back? [Yes.] Where did you go to college?

02:49: Ms. Stanford: Oh, how can I even forget that? I went to the Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. And so, just a proud graduate of that HBCU. And so, um, I also attended University of Wisconsin-Madison as well, where I earned my masters.

03:04: Dr. Jenkins: Wow. And understand right now that you are pursuing your doctorate degree from…?

03:09: Ms. Stanford: From Edgewood College. [Okay] So, I'm working on my doctorate right now. Phew. Yeah, that's quite the journey. [Laughter] A lot of work, but I am in it to win it. And so I'm just trying to matriculate through that program right now. So then you will call me Dr. Stanford the next time we have a conversation.

03:30: Dr. Jenkins: Oh, most definitely. Most definitely. We're looking forward to calling you Dr. Stanford. But I just tell you right now, it's so exciting to have this opportunity to have you on Lead to Liberate, because we’re talking MMSD, we talk about the things that's real on the show. We go right into it, we talk about disparities. But we know that we have a lot of wonderful things that's going on in MMSD [absolutely]. And you have been part of making those things happen. We know that the disparities are real, as we look at the nation. First of all, the nation’s at 35% proficiency rate, [yes] right? We look at the State of Wisconsin right there, relatively close to 35% – 34.99% proficiency rate, and then we look at MMSD at 37% proficiency rate, but even within a 37%, even within a 35%, there are still disparities. But we are concerned that it's a national crisis around reading, what have you done? What are you doing? And how are you planning to lead MMSD in the future around this particular type?

04:33: Ms. Stanford: Well, what we are doing is we are working closely with the people who are on the frontlines, right. So we're working closely with the teachers, the folks who are in the classroom. We're looking at what are those systems and structures that we need to, to change, so that we can make sure that our students are thriving and matriculating when they're in our classrooms and MMSD. And that's not just about curriculum, that's also about social-emotional learning, that's about the way in which we see students when they step into the classroom – how are we greeting them? How are we interacting with them? How are we partnering with families. And so it's not just about one thing, it's about paying attention to the whole child, and the whole family. And it's not just something that we can do independently, but we have to be in partnership with several stakeholders. So going into the classrooms, making sure that we have the curriculum that we need, so that teachers can teach the way in which they need to teach, but also making sure that we're providing the training and the professional development for staff as well. That's the most important piece. I think about when I was a classroom teacher and I did balanced literacy. Right. And so I really thought I was doing it, I was innovative, I was creative. [Right] But did I teach my kids how to read? The, a really big thing for me was just the assessment that you take for the LETRS training revealed a lot of what I still need to learn [wow, okay] how it's all about reading [all of us], right? And so even going into that, thinking that I knew a lot of things, I had to adjust some of my thinking as well. And that's what a lot of teachers are going through right now. They're adjusting their thinking, they're adjusting their practices. And one of the things is that we're there to support them in doing that. So with the instructional coaches that we've put in place, we also have coaching that we get from the curriculum that we have decided to adopt. And again, just the mindset of helping people to understand why this is the direction that we need to move in, in order to move not just the test scores, but our students’ ability to read. Because we know that ensuring that students can read is going to open up the whole future for them.

06:46: Dr. Jenkins: Right. And that LETRS training and you mentioned about the curriculum adoption at – historic here – [yes] in MMSD. We haven't done this in over 15 years, made this serious investment in materials that's aligned with the Science of Reading. Tell me a little bit about that. [Absolutely] How’s that going?

07:06: Ms. Stanford: And so that was quite the process as well, right? [laughter] [Right] Just finding a curriculum that did align with the Science of Reading. So we didn't want to just go out and get any curriculum. But we made sure that it was aligned with the Science of Reading, that it was also, it had diverse materials so that students can see themselves within the materials that they were reading. And it also has opportunities, again, for SEL, for that social-emotional learning is also part of that curriculum too. Because again, we are educating the whole child. So that process not only involved just folks from central office, but it was also teachers, it was the union, it was parents, it was community members. This is, I believe, one of the first times in which we have adopted a curriculum where we are already seen progress with students. And we have staff that are excited about having this, this tool, because we know that it's just, is what it is, is a tool that they're able to use to assist them with teaching students how to read.

08:20: Dr. Jenkins: Wow, that's powerful. Now let's, let's keep it real here on Lead to Liberate. [Yes.] Ms. Stanford, you were the one who led our school back to in person learning during the pandemic. And you did it in a very safe way. Tell us about that. Because here we were at a pandemic, we were all virtual. People were nervous. We were learning different things, from who? The World Health Organization. [Yes] Schools were moving at different paces. And you were charged with specifically, [yes] bringing our little ones. Tell our listeners about that.

08:53: Ms. Stanford: Yes. So I won't take all the credit. I will say it was the team [okay, right] that, that did that. And it was a lot about listening and learning. Learning from the experts as far as like, what is this thing that's COVID? What are the safety precautions that we have to put into place. Also learning from other districts that might have already been doing things that we might have wanted to implement. So the highest priority was to ensure that we were bringing students and staff back safely. Because one thing that the pandemic did uncover for some folks, that a lot of us already knew existed, were the inequities within access that students had to various things. [Mmhmm] So we needed to be sure that not only during virtual learning that students have access, but when we were bringing students back, how were we helping our families to understand that we were creating safe environments for them to come back to. We also knew that although we had great structures and things in place for virtual, we wanted our kids back into the building, and that was the best place for them to be to get the instructional support that, that they needed. So again, working with the medical professionals, working with MTI, working with staff, working with families to bring them back into school, um, where we were able to provide those opportunities.

10:18: Dr. Jenkins: So did we start off with the high school students?

10:21: Ms. Stanford: No, we did not. We started off with the elementary students.

10:23: Dr. Jenkins: Oh, the elementary students. [Yes, yes, yes] Yeah, well okay. What grades did you start off with?

10:27: Ms. Stanford: We started off with our youngest scholars first. And we made sure that we did not just bring everybody out at one time or back at one time. We did a slow integration back into school so that we could see, again, what the needs were. And then making sure that students were safe when they came back and then we went from there. So, it was a, it was a strategy, an intentional strategy, to have it be a slow coming back based on grades.

12:08: Dr. Jenkins: I just think about the fact that how you brought everyone back with your team, and how you're being very intentional. But let's get to it, because we’re on Lead to Liberate, and we want to talk about the disparities. [Yes.] The disparities, as I began to mention, where we are at proficiency in nation, state, but let's go straight to MMSD. [Yes] We have some serious disparities. How do you plan to address those with the team? Or the associate superintendents, the teachers, the same people that you mentioned in terms of those stakeholders?

12:44: Ms. Stanford: Yeah, we are, we're addressing it by being bold, right? So I think that Goal number three is bold. We often hear people say that I wanted to come and work for MMSD because this is the one district that I've heard call out Black Excellence. We're acknowledging what we have not done for a certain set of scholars and what we need to do, the systems that we need to disrupt. Often, we find that folks are blaming family situations or blaming students. And we want to look at ourselves as a district, ourselves as individuals and staff members, and what are those things that we need to change in order to see a difference in the disparities that currently exist. I think one of the reasons why I wanted to come back to MMSD is that I found that some of those same disparities that exist today were there when I was in school. And that's unacceptable. So what we haven't done, what we need to do, to create a school system in which we can truly say that all of our students are receiving the best possible education that we can deliver. So we have to examine and not be afraid to uncover those things that are there, that we might have created as a, as a schooling system and to change it and to dismantle it and to rebuild.

14:11: Dr. Jenkins: Wow, powerful. So now, I know that you're having meetings, in your literacy advisory. [Yes.] Right. Tell me about those meetings. Because in those meetings, I've been there and participated. You have staff, you have community people, and everyone's saying, “Hey, we could do this.” [Yes[ So what's the feel? What, why are you having those meetings?

14:31: Ms. Stanford: The feel is excitement. Because we're not just saying, ‘hey, come in and just give us some information.’ But we're saying, ‘come sit at the table with us to make a difference.’ So again, it is like you said, they’re parents, they’re community members, there's principals, they’re central office folks, and we're all coming together to really take a deep dive into what has been happening in MMSD around literacy and what is it that we need to change. And we're doing it together, though, as a team, rather than getting together as separate entities and just saying, ‘This is what we need to do.’

15:07: Dr. Jenkins: Wow. And I tell you, the peers that those committees are really digging in, [yes!] they're pretty serious about what are some of the causations. [Mmhmm] And then coming up with some of the solutions. I think the other night was just amazing when he talked about intentionality [yes] around it, talked about the expectations, and just a belief that all of our scholars can learn. When you think back as a scholar yourself, [yes]. MMSD. What is it that you wish you would have had, that you're trying to make sure right now all students do have?

15:42: Ms. Stanford: That's a great question. I had great teachers when I was in MMSD. But I wish I could have had situations in which I knew that whatever classroom I walked into, my teacher believed in my ability to succeed. And I didn't experience that, and all of my tenure in MMSD. And I want to ensure that, that students have that, and that they know that there are adults that are there to assist them along their educational journey, but also that believe in what they are able to do, and helps to spark different things and provide the access that they need to do that.

16:37: Dr. Jenkins: Wow. Well, I'll tell you, I'm very excited about what I see happening right now with the associate superintendents. You're doing your instruction tours. [Yes.[ Environmental scanning. [Yes.[ Tell me how that's going post-pandemic – you're being very intentional about going into classrooms, right? Why are you there? And what are you getting from it?

16:56: Ms. Stanford: We're there to learn, and to align, and to provide feedback. So we're learning from each other, we're learning from the schools, we’re they are to align as a team. Because one of the important things if we are going to be successful in the direction that we're going – in leading to liberate – is that there is a comprehensive system. And so that means 4K through 12th grade that we are speaking the same language. And one of the biggest things that I learned in doing the environmental scans, and the instructional tours, is how much you can learn within a three minute period of time. [Mmm. Okay, okay.] You don't have to [okay, okay], you don't have to be in a classroom for 30, 45 minutes to really have an understanding of what is going on, what you're seeing, what are the great things that you're seeing, because don't get me wrong, they're phenomenal things that are happening in our classrooms across the district. And also taking those things and then replicating those and other places as well. So what are the best practices that we're seeing? And how do we replicate those across the district?

18:05: Dr. Jenkins: What, is there a professional development for yourselves, in terms of as associates you having this intellectual agility going on? [Yes] Are you learning from your associates?

18:13: Ms. Stanford: I am definitely learning, we are definitely pushing each other, we are questioning each other. There's just phenomenal transparency, and how honest we can be with what we're seeing. So that includes when the high school associate, and middle school associate, is going into elementary school, as well as the elementary associates who are going into high school. And I think that's a really important piece of being a team, is that we have to come together and have that trust and have that transparency, have the questioning of each other and also that critical push that's needed to make change.

18:47: Dr. Jenkins: Wow, so the vertical and horizontal articulation is [yes] coming. Okay. [Yes] I'll tell you one other thing. We talked about it right here on Lead to Liberate. Our students now. When we’re talking about diversity. Diversity, there's diversity within diversity. [Yes.] And our students are truly identifying themselves today, as, as are some of our staff, and the community, the whole world is changing. How's that in terms of addressing socio-emotional, and also making sure that students are fit to learn without feeling it so they don't feel a part of MMSD?

19:25: Ms. Stanford: And that's an important piece as well, when we talk about student identity. So I think I mentioned before, like, how are we welcoming [mmhmm] students into our classrooms? How are we helping them to feel as though they belong?

19:40: Dr. Jenkins: Yeah, I think that's very interesting when you’re talking about wanting to make sure that all students are feeling like they belong in the classroom. What are those things, the conversations, that you're doing right now, or you all as a team, to make sure that all students mean all students?

19:56: Ms. Stanford: So there's intentionality around what, um, schools and classrooms are doing to ensure that all students are, are and do feel welcome in the school, in the classroom, that we're recognizing. That goes from what we're putting on the walls so that we're making sure that students see themselves in the building, that they see themselves in the classroom. And it's not just a matter of accepting, but it's a matter of respecting how students show up and what they bring. Differences are assets. And we need to learn from each other, and students are learning from each other in that way.

21:06: Dr. Jenkins: Okay, right here on Lead to Liberate, we come right at it. Being a leader, talking it is one thing, doing it as another. Talk about how you're trying to educate your central office, you're building principals. Because leading – you have to lead [yes] if you really want to liberate our students. How are you all doing that as associate superintendents and as a district?

21:31: Ms. Stanford: So as a district, we're working with C.I.S. And we're doing a lot of equity work. So we understand that the way in which we support our schools, it just can't be professional development at the school level. But as the folks who are supporting our schools, we have to have that professional development as well. So one of those ways, is we are bringing central office staff together to do equity work. We're also bringing principals together to have the opportunity to experience that same work. And then from there, we will go into the schools with that learning again, because we, we know that central office has to be just as prepared to support as the schools are.

22:23: Dr. Jenkins: Well, that's awesome. I've been in a number of districts, and sometimes it just doesn't happen that way. So I really applaud the work you're doing there. We see that you're doing a lot of work, and that one goal that you mentioned, Goal Three, why Goal Three? There's a lot of conversation about it, why Goal Three?

22:42: Ms. Stanford: Goal Three – African American students and youth will excel. We know that if we are able to do that, then everyone else will rise. We also know that we have not been able, based on our data, we have not seen that yet. Our African American students, are, have the lowest proficiency rate for our students in MMSD. And we have to do something different. We haven't been able to do that yet. And so again, the idea is that in being extremely transparent and pointing that out, that it's out there, we know that it's there. But the question is, what are we going to do about it? And that's what we're striving to do, is to make those changes within our schools, within our systems to ensure that our students are succeeding and that we are reaching that Goal Three.

22:36: Dr. Jenkins: Wow, that's exciting. I tell you the truth there, Ms. Stanford. Just to know that our district, and that your peers and yourself, are just really interested in moving that needle for all children, but particularly, you want to be really intentional about that Goal Three. So we appreciate having you here on Lead to Liberate. And we thank all our listeners for joining in again. Look forward to next week.

24:06: Student Speaker: You're listening to Lead to Liberate, a podcast by the Madison Metropolitan School District, demonstrating how the more we know, the more we grow.