UW−Madison Researchers Partner with Madison Schools on Equity Advances, COVID Fixes

MEP's sponsored research for 2021 offers six projects on 'pressing topics' totaling $100K

March 1, 2021   |   By Karen Rivedal, WCER Communications

Major themes of this year's MEP-sponsored awards include MMSD projects around anti-racism, equity and COVID-19 innovation.

Major themes of this year's MEP-sponsored awards include MMSD projects around anti-racism, equity and COVID-19 innovation.

Work is underway on six new collaborations for 2021 between UW−Madison researchers and educators in the Madison Metropolitan School District. With total funding of $100,000, the research teams will explore equity in learning and teaching amid the constraints and challenges of COVID-19.

The six awards – one for $50,000 and five for $10,000 each – tackle topics identified in the Request for Proposals as “pressing topics” for the school district under “unique circumstances.” Themes of the selected proposals revolve around:

  • Anti-racist school environments and teacher development;
  • Equity in academic and career planning, and in the integration of school mental health services with multi-tiered systems of support and family-school collaborations; and,
  • COVID-19 impact on early-grade literacy instruction and on innovations in family-to-family supports and family-school partnerships.

The awards were announced by the Madison Education Partnership, a research-practice partnership formed in 2016 between the Wisconsin Center for Education Research in the university’s School of Education and the school district. MEP has funded nine sponsored projects from university researchers on MMSD issues prior to this year, at $50,000 each, for $450,000 total.

MEP issues RFP-driven awards annually to university researchers, supplementing research done internally by MEP directors and staff. The partnership is led by Katie Eklund and Eric Grodsky, MEP’s co-directors on the UW−Madison side of the collaboration, and by Beth Vaade for the school district. MEP received 24 proposals for 2021’s sponsored awards, more than twice as many as any previous year. The number of grants awarded for 2021 also was triple that of most previous years of MEP’s sponsored-research program.

This year’s grants are:

One $50,000 awardPreparing Culturally Relevant, Anti-racist Secondary Teachers - Maxine McKinney de Royston in the School of Education’s Department of Curriculum & Instruction, and from the school district: Jen Schoepke, Jorge Covarrubias, Lachele Fisher, Najjah Thompson and Donald Dantzler (MMSD Forward Madison, Department of Professional Learning and Leadership Development, Human Resources & the Research & Program Evaluation Office).

Slated for a full year of work, this project will use interviews, surveys and classroom observations to examine how to assess and support the growth of early-career teachers in MMSD middle and high schools as to their anti-racist dispositions, knowledge and teaching practices. The study also will determine whether resources of different types either support or constrain this growth, whether they align with UW−Madison’s teacher preparation program for secondary teachers, and how early-career teachers’ anti-racist teaching efforts affect the classroom and learning experiences of students.

Five $10,000 awards ─ These projects each are to take between three and six months:

— Identifying Innovation in Family-to-Family Support and Family-School Partnerships during COVID-19 - Erica Turner, Amy Hilgendorf and Linn Posey-Maddox from SoE’s Department of Educational Policy Studies and from the Center for Community & Nonprofit Studies in the School of Human Ecology, with Angela Fitzgerald-Ward, Emily Peterson, Hannah Nerenhausen and Grady Brown (Dept. of Family, Youth, & Community Engagement and the Research & Program Evaluation Office).

This project will surface “novel, ground-up approaches that are emerging amidst COVID-19,” according to the proposal page, using a multiple-case study of innovative ideas and partnerships taking place across the district in the current academic year that have been “particularly successful” in supporting BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) families. Through development of a “promising practices guide,” the aim is to preserve and multiply these ideas across the district for use when the pandemic is over.

— Radical Belonging in Racist Systems: A School-University Partnership to Enact an Antiracist Learning Community - Mariana Pacheco, Leema Berland, Carl Grant, Nicole Louie and Kat Nichols, from SOE’s Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction, and Andrea Richichi, Elizabeth Callies and Samantha Head from MMSD’s Lindbergh Elementary School and Brianne Monahan from the Research & Program Evaluation Office.

Researchers chose Lindbergh to create an “antiracist learning community” because it mirrors the national norm of most students of color being taught by white faculty, according to the proposal. The project will study what kinds of dialogues and learning opportunities lead to all students experiencing multiple dimensions of “radical belonging,” including social, academic and democratic. Social belonging pertains to a student’s comfort and connection to others, while academic belonging refers to a student growing as a thinker and learner. Democratic belonging refers to students collaboratively solving community problems.

— Academic and Career Planning Equity Study in MMSD - Robin Worth and Grant Sim from WCER’s Wisconsin Evaluation Collaborative, with Cindy Green, Jen Wegner and Julia Steege-Reimann from MMSD’s Department of Secondary Programs and Pathways and Eric Lequesne from the Research & Program Evaluation Office.

This project proposes an evaluation case study to develop actionable ways to close gaps in participation between Black and white students in the state’s Academic and Career Planning program. WEC will identify and study “pockets of excellence” in ACP participation to glean the knowledge, beliefs and practices associate with success in the pursuit of activities such as career-based learning and dual enrollment/credit, with end products of the research including a “promising practices brief” for educators.

— Improving Equitable Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Outcomes by Aligning and Integrating Mental Health Systems and Family-School-Community Collaboration in Multi-tiered Systems of Support - Andy Garbacz and Steve Kilgus from SOE’s Department of Educational Psychology, with Wendy Johnson, Kristen Guetschow and Jay Affeldt from the district’s Department of Student & Staff Support and Brianne Monahan from the Research & Program Evaluation Office.

Students require well-aligned mental health resources, multi-tiered delivery systems and family-school-community collaborations to experience an equitable, effective continuum of social-emotional and behavioral supports, the proposal says. But these elements often are perceived as disconnected by educators, families and students.

To correct that, the project will examine current practices to evaluate whether and how well the three services are integrated, what the barriers and facilitators to service integration are and to what degree MMSD schools have the needed infrastructure to properly align and sustain these integrated services. An implementation blueprint also will result with processes, tip sheets for parents, videos for school personnel and parents, and scripts for “family chats” about mental health to facilitate collaboration.

— Early-grade Literacy Instruction in a Pandemic - Amy Claessens and Lesley Bartlett from SOE’s Educational Policy Studies and Gabi Bell and Kaylee Jackson from the district’s Department of Curriculum & Instruction and Grady Brown from the Research & Program Evaluation Office.

This study will ask how teachers for kindergarten through second grade in MMSD are providing remote instruction in reading and writing, especially for students of color, English learners and students with disabilities. Recommendations for improving remote, early-grade literacy will result by examining solutions that teachers are developing for the challenges and by exploring how efforts vary by individual school context. Insights into which areas may need emphasis next school year also will be provided.

Grantees for each of the six projects must at least produce a final report with actionable recommendations and hold a meeting with MEP and MMSD leaders to discuss the findings.


MEP’s overarching mission is to improve outcomes and experiences for all district students and to reduce disparities in opportunity and achievement. MEP research can be more efficient due to its collaborative nature, potentially translating more quickly into daily practice, policy changes and new strategic approaches benefiting Madison students, families and schools.

MEP has a steering committee made up of UW-Madison faculty and MMSD staff that meets quarterly to offer guidance on MEP research priorities, including helping to select the winning proposals for the sponsored-research awards. A 10-member advisory group provides insights from community stakeholders including city, county and non-profit leaders.