Dr. Nancy Molfenter, Associate Superintendent of Student Services, joins Dr. Jenkins to discuss special education in MMSD. Dr. Molfenter shares more about how department staff work in collaboration with families, caregivers, and scholars. They speak about the district’s anti-racist IEP work, Madtown Mommas community advocates, Project Search transition program, and Mission Possible robot technology. Throughout the conversation, the resilience and brilliance of scholars are kept at the forefront.
00:12 Student Speaker: 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: Hello, and welcome to Lead to Liberate. I am your podcast host, Dr. Carlton D. Jenkins, the very proud Superintendent of Madison Metropolitan School District, one of the best school districts in the country. Here on Lead to Liberate, we go behind the scenes and talk to some of our employees about what's going on. How are they really trying to lead to liberate? Today's guest, just like the ones of the past, very exciting. And I'm so glad to know that you're choosing to listen in today. Today, I think you're going to find a real treat, as we have with us Dr. Nancy Molfenter. Dr. Molfenter, how are you today?
01:05 Dr. Nancy Molfenter: I am fantastic. Happy to be here.
01:07 Dr. Jenkins: Yeah, we're happy to have you here, and so are a lot of our parents, a lot of our students, and a lot of other staff as well. Before Dr. Molfenter came on the scene, I had many conversations with parents. And they were trying to describe, as they were trying to describe, what we needed as our next leader in MMSD to truly give all the remarkable opportunities for our students who are receiving any kind of special needs services. And I'm just telling you, she's been dynamic. And it was very conformational for myself, when a parent said, ‘Hey, Dr. Jenkins, you heard us, and we have the right leader.’ What does that mean to you, Dr. Molfenter?
01:46 Dr. Molfenter: Well, I am truly honored to be the Associate Superintendent of Student Services with the Madison Metropolitan School District. This is beyond a dream job for me, not only because of the position, but because of the values of this school district, and what we are working to accomplish together across the district.
02:08 Dr. Jenkins: Wow, and you heard that title, right? Associate. Associate Superintendent. And that's one of the things that parents say, hey, we need someone elevated at the point and who could be at the table. And she also sits at the cabinet level, in on many conversations in the infancy. We think about all of our students – and thinking about all, really, truly means all. And I like to also say, our students with disabilities and new abilities. During the pandemic, we really found out our most resilient students may have been our students who are receiving services from our special needs department. Talk about that a little bit, and what you've seen in our students in terms of their resiliency, and the staff that you having to now supervise.
02:50 Dr. Molfenter: Sure. So we have across our school district, a truly incredibly dedicated, talented and highly skilled set of special education staff. That includes our special education teachers, we call them CC or cross categorical, special education teachers, and special education assistants. Some districts call those paraprofessionals – we use special education assistant as the title. And we had from the moment that the pandemic caused our school district to begin to provide services virtually, we had staff at all levels – Early Childhood, Elementary, Middle, High School and transition services – kick into action, and develop ways of connecting with students via Zoom, via the telephone, texting, whatever worked for the scholars, and setting up ways to provide paper materials for scholars who needed them. Anything that people needed, our staff went to students’ homes and took materials. I had staff who worked with chalk on the sidewalk with students outside when they couldn't be together, all in an effort to keep our students engaged. And many of our students, we found, returned to us – while they needed to adjust, like, just, like all of us did to being back in person – had not lost as much in terms of skills that as, we as we had feared, because our staff worked so hard during that time period.
04:27 Dr. Jenkins: Right. And we all know across the country, it was very much fear that our students, definitely with disabilities, our most marginalized students, our black and brown students, are the students who are definitely going to be impacted the most. And to find some success stories during this time, even though we know a lot of students were really impacted, and we’re still reeling today to try to accelerate some of that, to recover some of the things that were lost. But as you heard Dr. Molfenter say, we had a number of success stories. And we'll talk about the success stories here in a minute. But I want to know a little bit, uh, as I talk to parents, and they talk about IEPs. And some parents are very familiar with the IEP, some parents are not. And our team, I've seen your team get in and just beat it up And talk to us about the IEPs, and this whole idea about anti-racist IEPs, it’s like this thing and it's gotten out there. Even my colleagues are asking me about it. Tell me how you all are digging in, interrogating, and making sure we get the students what they need.
05:30 Dr. Molfenter: Absolutely. So, we pride ourselves in MMSD on making sure that parents are a part of the process – parents, and other family members, and caregivers – are a part of the IEP process. We… last year hired a Family Ombudsperson in Student Services. And she helps work with our families to make sure that if they have questions, they can get their questions answered, providing education to families across the district. In fact, we have an event that's happening just tonight for families to provide them with resources. And in addition to our Family Ombudsperson Anna Moffitt, we also have a program support teacher at every school, who is a special education leader to help answer questions for families and scholars on the IEP process. And then in addition, we have an assistant director of Student Services, who is also available to any family member or caregiver who reaches out to them. And I'm always happy to take calls and answer questions and meet with people, as well. In terms of our anti-racist IEP project, it started in the midst of the pandemic when we were virtual. And we had been for a long time in Madison, like many other districts in the state and across the country, grappling with our disproportionality. We have, um, disproportionality in terms of special education, identification; but also outcomes for our scholars of color, and particularly our scholars who identify as Black. And so what we decided to do in MMSD, was to create tools for teachers and IEP teams to use, to work toward having all of our IEPs for our black and brown scholars be anti-racist. And a very critical part of that process is engaging family members and caregivers and asking them along with our scholars: ‘Does this IEP look anti-racist to you? Does it read anti racist? Does it feel, it feel anti racist? Is it capturing your strengths and your goals for your life that we are supporting you to accomplish?’
07:46 Dr. Jenkins: Wow, so you’re tell me, our core goals, our values, talks about belonging and talks about voice, right? [Absolutely.] Talk about social justice and equity. So you’re actually putting that into play, in an IEP, the family members can say how it feels to them. [Absolutely.] Wow, that's, that's really powerful. And I just tell you, I am so proud to know that we're doing that type of work in our district. But before you even came on board, right, we had parents communicating. We have Madtown Mommas, yeah, I think probably know that group, right. And one of my favorite people in the district was probably the one calling the most and really advocating, not even for her own child. She was advocating almost like an attorney, and not an advocate, but an attorney for everyone else, and as well versed as anyone. And that's Martha. Can you tell us a little bit about Madtown Mommas and what does that mean, Madtown Moms?
08:43 Dr. Molfenter: Sure, I definitely can. Madtown Mommas is a group of passionate parents and family members who, anytime that a parent or family member has questions about the IEP process or the services, or just how their child is doing, and they can, they can contact the Madtown Mommas, they have a Facebook page, they have an email address, they offer up their phone numbers. And they've been working closely with our Family Ombudsperson, and myself, and the Assistant Directors of Student Services. I genuinely appreciate Martha, as well as the other Madtown Mommas representatives, because they let us know when something's not right for a child. [Mmhmm] And when something's not right for a child, or family member in our school district, we want to help resolve the issues. That's our goal. Our goal is to work together for the best possible outcome for each scholar in our school district. So I just have, I genuinely have and will continue to appreciate working closely with them. When Martha calls me or emails me I know that it's because she cares. And I know that we can work together to come to a resolution. Um, we've had some really great successes. And I believe we will continue to do that. So I appreciate that they're in our community. And even beyond Madison, they go beyond Madison as well. But I just, I appreciate knowing we consider ourselves – every staff person in this district – considers ourselves an advocate for scholars. And we appreciate having community partners who do the same thing.
10:21 Dr. Jenkins: Yeah, definitely. Community partners make a big difference here in the Madison Metropolitan School District. And when I first arrived, I tell you, we had a situation with a parent that did not feel like, and I would honestly say, we probably did not meet their needs to that level. And Martha was involved, I was involved, and we just did not pull it off, and I’ll tell you that was one of – even to this day – that's still one of my saddest experiences. Because we want to serve all of our children. And I tell you, similar situation, since you've been here, and the way that your team, you have communicated. And I've heard from parents, you know, when we don't communicate; but now I hear from parents to whom we do communicate. And I just want to tell you how much I appreciate that. And it's been a number of things that have been challenges. But I've seen a lot of opportunities, and you all have risen to the occasion, that I really appreciate it. I want to talk a little bit about Project Search. I had a chance to go to the graduation. And oh, my goodness. This year, we had an opportunity to have what, maybe you want to talk about Jomar a little bit more than I do. We had a special speaker to open up for our staff at the beginning of the year. And I don't think there was a dry in the house. But when we talk about lead to liberate, we mean everyone having an opportunity. Talk about that just a little bit, in the Project Search, and how do we come about that, and tell the impact that he had on our staff?
11:46 Dr. Molfenter: Absolutely. Well, Project Search is definitely one of our transition programs that we are incredibly proud of. We, as a school district, had the first Project Search program in the state. And it was in collaboration that we, we work with our UW-Madison Hospital, and also with the Veterans Memorial Hospital. And we, it's a national and international program to train scholars with an IEP and barriers to employment on different jobs so that they can ultimately have a job that pays minimum wage or higher. The majority of our Project Search graduates have jobs that pay $15 an hour plus in the community. And that's the goal. And so, at the graduation, in August, Dr. Jenkins and I, and a number of other staff members had the pleasure of seeing one of their keynote speakers who was an intern and scholar with the district at the time, a Project Search intern – that's what we call them – and scholar with a district who presented and talked about his story. So then, we had Jomar speak at our Welcome Back for our staff this year, in August. And Jomar is a scholar who struggled with some mental health challenges. He's open about that. He also was an English learner - English language learner - when he arrived in the district, and didn't always feel like he had a place in school, before he came to MMSD and during. And Project Search really gave him what he describes as a family, and the kind of support and training that he needed to be successful in life. Jomar now holds a job at the University of Wisconsin Hospital & Clinics. And Project Search staff get to see him; when I go visit the hospital, I always try to stop in and say hi to Jomar, and other people do the same thing. But he, I think he, he shared with us his life philosophy. And I think it's something that everyone in the district thinks about from time to time. I know I do, which is just everybody needs to bring out their sparkle every day. So no matter what we're going through, or what kind of work we have to accomplish, bring out our sparkle. And I know Dr. Jenkins, you talk a lot about leading with humanity. And I believe that that's what, what Jomar means when he says ‘bring out your sparkle’ to lead with humanity and bring kindness and caring to others. [Yeah] And he does that, he sets a wonderful example for us all.
14:16 Dr. Jenkins: He really is, and he's so inspiring. And he challenged our staff, and he told us, he knew because he knew what our staff did for him, but he could do for others and that we could do it. And this is the year that we're gonna have a breakthrough in MMSD. And we're leading to liberate. So we see students like Jomar, and others, and we see programs like Project Search, we're so excited about the possibilities for our future. But I'll tell you one of the probably brightest students in our district, if not in our state, I know you know who I'm talking about, right? Leani. Talk about Leani and then the special technology that we have. When we talk about lead to liberate, don't underestimate anyone, because anything is possible. And if you just have one conversation with this young lady you realize, like, whatever you thought that couldn't happen, erase it. Leani is like, inspirational and a real teacher. Talk about her a little bit.
15:09 Dr. Molfenter: Absolutely. So Leani is a scholar in our school district who is currently in second grade. She has very complex medical needs. And I can tell you as a 30-plus-year veteran educator that just a few short years ago, and outside of districts like Madison Metropolitan School District, scholars who have the same kinds of complex medical needs as Leani, don't really get an opportunity to be at school. But, we are living in a world of technology. MMSD has embraced that technology. And one of our projects during the pandemic, that grew was called Mission Possible. And it's robots on a mission. So we have robot technology that we use in MMSD. Leani is one of our scholars who uses that technology, so she can participate in school every day with her peers from home. She also has eye gaze technology. And in addition to being one of the most brilliant second graders that I've ever known, she also is one of the most proficient people that I've ever met with eye gaze technology. So that means that she has a screen above her head, in bed, she spends most of her time in bed at home, because of her complex medical needs. But she communicates using eye gaze technology; she engages in her classes using eye gaze technology; she talks to her peers and her teachers; and she is a champion speller at her school in second grade. So we are incredibly proud of Leani, and her hard work. She also, this year, she has started a new challenge for herself, and she will not take any breaks. She loves music, she loves to listen to music, and she loves to make her robot dance at school and participate in any other recreational activities going on. But she will not take a break until her work is done. And even when her teachers tell her it's okay to take a break, she won't until her work is done. So I'm looking forward to seeing where she goes in her life. She's gonna go far.
17:25 Dr. Jenkins: Most definitely not to tell you what's so liberating about Leani too, her ability to just see all people as people. She had one of her friends actually, during the time of the pandemic, and just when we can begin to come back in person with one another, one of her friends came over, at school, really monitoring and watching her when she can get out during those activities, but the way that she can just inspire people to just be better people. And I just love just everything about Leani and what she has done for us. And I say to you, Dr. Molfenter, we have accomplished quite a bit in your short time and I know we're looking to really do a lot more. And I just say to all of our parents, if you know that you want some more assistance, please reach out to Dr. Molfenter, reach out to Madtown Mommas, reach out to us here in MMSD, because we are here for you. We thank you for listening in again this week. And we look forward to more conversations about how our scholars – all of our scholars – are doing in MMSD. Have a great day.
18:35 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.