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“Hold Me Accountable” – Joe Gothard’s Interview with Simpson Street Free Press

New Superintendent Addresses Key Issues Facing Madison Schools

Following an introductory press conference at Thoreau Elementary School, new Madison school superintendent, Joe Gothard, sat down for an exclusive interview with Simpson Street Free Press.

Although superintendent contracts usually begin in July, Dr. Gothard pushed for an earlier start date. He will now start on May 20. Gothard told us he wants extra time to work with interim superintendent Lisa Kvistad and the Madison School Board.

“I know the board, but when you work with a board, you get to know the board differently. I want to establish the way we're going to work together. And already this week it's proven to be a good decision,” Gothard said.

This extra time will also help him reacquaint himself with Madison schools after working as superintendent for two Minnesota school districts. During his career in education, Gothard has implemented initiatives around literacy and access to advanced learning. Simpson Street Free Press closely follows these topics, and we asked him about his plans in Madison.

Gothard told us that running a large district like Saint Paul Public Schools, where he recently won superintendent of the year, has taught him about the nuances of meeting school needs on an individualized basis. He shared his concerns about trying to create a one-size-fits-all solution for access to advanced learning and literacy instruction across schools and districts.

“We know that if we do the same in all school districts, that we're going to continue to have students who aren't accessing it and being successful the way that others are,” said Dr. Gothard. “I'm very concerned that if not done well and done with an equity mindset, that we could just be perpetuating gaps, opportunity gaps, [and] access to learning.”

He also said there will be a focus on the structure for reading instruction. He wants to make sure every student has “time every day for a dose of a very individualized science-of-reading-based learning experience, where they can be monitored, day in, day out.”

Rather than prioritizing a district-wide routine, Gothard stressed the importance of flexibility to “truly meet the needs of students.” He explained the role of community engagement in raising awareness about reading and the traits that make a reader successful.

“I believe we can activate our community just by sharing with them, this is what it means to decode words. This is what phonemic awareness is. This is why fluency is important,” he said. This will allow the community to support the district's efforts in improving reading instruction and will also help the community keep him accountable. “If I want to be accountable for something as a superintendent, reading, I'm in. Hold me accountable for reading. But we must do it together.”

When more Madison students are proficient in reading, access to advanced learning opportunities will be an even more pressing matter. In past years, MMSD has grappled with whether to abolish traditional honors classes in favor of embedded honors options. When, however, the district got pushback from parents and the community, the plan was temporarily scrapped.

Reflecting on his own experience as a high school biology teacher, Gothard lamented the differences between his honors and general class sections. He remembered thinking, “why am I teaching so much better in honors. I have better equipment; my labs are way more hands on. Everything about the class was different. And to this day, it makes me think I should have been teaching that way with those materials to my general biology class.”

Gothard explained his philosophy on advanced learning. He said providing “opportunity for every student” is key to success. However, “that's never been the case when we look at who’s invited into honors classes,” he said.

Gothard then emphasized his plan to increase expectations for students across the board.

“We've got a lot of work to do, just in terms of what our expectations are for all students,” he said. “I think we can continue to support the advanced learners. But I think we've got to raise expectations and rigor for all students.”

When asked about his overall vision for the Madison school district, Dr. Gothard reiterated the need to be flexible, because “the future gets reinvented daily, in terms of the way the world is working right now.”

Gothard said he wants to prepare students for the world around them while instilling a sense of harmony and collaboration within schools. “We need to truly embrace emotional intelligence, for staff and for students. We just do. We have to recognize and learn how to interact. That might sound really easy, but it takes time and commitment,” he said.

Dr. Gothard also said he intends to be a figure of support. He wants to foster a sense of community within the district. While reflecting on the many years that he was a part of the Madison school district – as a student and then as a teacher and administrator – Dr. Gothard shared how important mentors were to his success.

“I had a series of people throughout my time in Madison who were always looking out for me, guiding me and pushing me. And I really credit them so much with my career,” Gothard told us. Now, back in Madison, he hopes to motivate others and give back to the community that helped him.

“I've got a lot to give. I’m really excited. I’d like to have a very long tenure here because I think it is important for the success of the district to have consistency. And again, as I mentioned in the press conference, it doesn’t mean we're always going to be perfect and we’re going to always get along,” Gothard said.

“There will be conflict and I'm going to have to say no many, many times. But the fact is that I want to be in a place at this stage in my life and career that is meaningful to me, and when I think of that, I can't really think of anywhere more than Madison.”

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