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Joe Gothard Hosts Inaugural Press Conference

The Incoming Madison Schools Superintendent Discussed Community, Transparency, and the Science of Reading

Incoming Madison school superintendent, Joe Gothard, had not spoken to news outlets since his hiring was announced six weeks ago. That changed on Thursday with an in-person press conference at Thoreau Elementary School on the city’s southwest side.

Gothard, whose start date has been moved up to May 20th, answered questions from reporters and students for about an hour. While he has not started the new job yet, Gothard stressed his commitment to Madison.

“It's meaningful for me to return to Madison because Madison is a community that never gave up on me and believed in me at times when I didn't always believe in myself,” he said. “I'm forever grateful for the opportunities I had in our schools working as a staff member.”

Gothard is a native of the area and attended Madison schools. He received his education degrees from Edgewood College and was a science teacher before moving into school administrator roles. He served as principal at Toki Middle School and La Follette High School, and later as assistant superintendent of secondary schools. More recently, Gothard was the superintendent of two school districts in Minnesota.

Kayla Huynh of The Capital Times asked Gothard about historically low reading scores and MMSD’s pivot to science-based reading instruction. Test results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress show Wisconsin students continue to struggle in reading/language arts and math. Persistent achievement gaps remain part of Madison’s education landscape.

Gothard spoke at length about the importance of literacy and efforts he led in Minnesota to improve reading scores. He said he would be straightforward with parents and the public as the district continues its switch to science of reading. He also promised to be open about MMSD’s challenges and frequently report progress.

“I have no problem saying that our community deserves better, students absolutely deserve better, that we have to do something different,” Gothard said.

Reporters also asked Gothard about the transparency issues that have plagued MMSD. He said he plans to make sure that "patterns and mistakes" don't continue.

After the press conference, in an interview with Simpson Street Free Press editors, Gothard again addressed questions around transparency and the public’s right to know. Simpson Street asked about repeated delays answering open records requests, and Gothard didn’t dodge the question.

“The law is spelled out. It has always been my job and my duty to make sure that that information is filed correctly, and that there is a timely way that we're responding to those requests,” he said. “So, I'm not going to create any new information. But if it's to share information that is public, it's our duty, it’s law.”

During the press conference, Gothard emphasized building relationships throughout the community. He said local schools provided effective community support for him as he was growing up in Madison.

"Relationships are perhaps the most important things that really power the system … it is about community," Gothard said. "That's the work we want to do, what we want to accomplish, ensuring that our students are at the center, that staff are valued and can support the community."

Gothard also spoke directly to the students, acknowledging their presence in a room full of journalists, cameras, and school staff.

“I want to understand students in Madison, I taught biology and I've been to thousands of classrooms throughout my career." Gothard said. "I'm more interested to find out what excites you and about what I can do to support you."

Although still not officially at the job, the new superintendent was able to call out several local innovations that have caught his eye, specifically mentioning the student-centered design at La Follette High School and the service work done by the Black Girl Magic program at Elvehjem Elementary School.

“How can we innovate to make the Madison School District the destination school district not just in Dane County but in the state,” Gothard asked. “You will not address achievement gaps or opportunity gaps unless you know your community and know what assets lie within your community. That’s where it has to start.”

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