Matthew Gutierrez, the new superintendent of the Madison Metropolitan School District, spoke to students and reporters about his priorities at Glendale Elementary School in southeast Madison today.
At the top of his list: Responding to concerns raised by black community leaders in Madison over how he’d advocate for black students.
Last month, thirteen black community leaders in Madison signed a letter expressing concerns about Gutierrez. They criticized the process, saying it did not represent the interests of Madison’s black residents.
Gutierrez’s experience as a superintendent was in the Seguin Independent School District in Texas, which is one fourth the size of Madison’s. Less than 5% of that district’s students are black, compared to almost one fifth of Madison’s. Gutierrez said he would meet with community leaders to address their concerns.
“They care deeply about these students and they are advocating for not just black students, but all students, and it’s going to be important that I listen and understand their frustrations and what they want to see in a superintendent, and listen,” Gutierrez says.
“So, as I go on a listening and learning tour in June and July, they are going to be one of the first groups that I take the time to sit down and talk with and listen to. It’s going to be most important to listen.”
Three days after that letter, seventeen Latino community leaders sent an open letter praising Gutierrez’s qualifications. Seventy percent of the students in the Seguin Independent School District are Hispanic. In Madison, about a fifth of students identify as Hispanic.
Gutierrez grew up in central Texas, and is a newcomer to Madison. He acknowledged that he was unfamiliar with the concerns specific to Madison and emphasized that he wanted to learn more before making any changes, pointing to his reforms in Seguin.
When pressed for an example, he pointed to breaking up elementary school recess into four fifteen-minute chunks throughout the day.
“This is a program based on some extensive research that was conducted in Finland, because they are highly successful,” said Gutierrez.
“So, the two components of this program in our elementary schools are unstructured recess time, four times throughout the day, but also a character development component that is critical in order for this to be successful. It has decreased behavior issues in the schools. You think you lose instructional time but you actually gain instructional time because you have fewer disruptions, transitions become smoother, and then you have that character development piece that really prepares students to be problem solvers, prepares them for secondary when they’re going to have much more freedom. The teachers need that break too, but it gives teachers the opportunity-four times throughout the day-to engage with students.”
Gutierrez says the program is not right for every district, but it helped his district
He was also asked about school resource officers, a controversial subject in the Madison school district.
School resource officers are officers from the Madison police department that work in schools. Last June the Madison School Board approved a contract to keep school resource officers in the district’s schools, but three of the board’s seven members voted against it.
School Board member Ali Muldrow, who voted against approving the contract, said a month after the vote that “incarceration is a developmentally inappropriate thing to expose children to.” Gutierrez said he would have to think about the issue.
“We really have to have some productive conversation surrounding that and really talk about school safety, [and] students’ emotional safety as well,” said Gutierrez.
“We have to think about what we’ve seen happen in recent years, since Columbine, since Parkland. These are real issues that hit home for me because just a few miles out of my school district, Sutherland Springs, there was a mass shooting where one of my [seventh grade] students was a victim. So, this is the world that we’re living in. So we have to find a healthy balance between safety and security and preparing for an incident but also understanding students’ social and emotional well-being.”
Gutierrez says that one advantage to school resource officers is that they know the students well. The alternative — no SROs — would mean calling police for any incidents, and the officers that come won’t know the students. But, he says he understands where the critics are coming from.
“As a 21-year-old professional, a teacher, in my hometown, visiting my older brother, police being called to his home for a disturbance, loud music, being removed from the home, handcuffed and thrown to the ground,” said Gutierrez. “So, I’ve lived it. It’s vivid, it’s real, it’s fresh, and that was almost two decades ago in my hometown of Brady, Texas, a community of only 5,500 people. So, I get it. And so we have to find a healthy balance where we keep student safety a priority but we also need to understand the emotional well-being of our students.”
Gutierrez is slated to become Madison’s superintendent in June.