Silvia Romero-Johnson is the Madison Metropolitan School District's new executive director of multicultural and global education and she could not be more excited.
“This time of year right now is a very exciting time for me,” she tells The Madison Times. “It’s an exciting time when we start preparing for the year and we get our teams back together. I will be out in the schools on the very first day and after that will be visiting them regularly. It is exciting.”
But late August has always been an exciting time for Romero-Johnson who started out teaching as an English as a Foreign Language teacher in her home country of Argentina. After immigrating to the United States, she was a bilingual resource specialist (BRS), a bilingual classroom teacher, and a program support teacher (PST) for bilingual education programs. Two years later, she became the coordinator for Bilingual Education and Dual Language Immersion.
“I've had multiple roles in the District working in classrooms and supporting classrooms,” Romero-Johnson says. “I think I've done every position that our division supervises so that gives me experience and hopefully empathy for how the work takes place and how the work is done.”
Romero-Johnson has also been a principal — her most recent job was heading up Nuestro Mundo, a charter school founded in 2004 to develop, manage, and promote K-adult language, cross cultural education and leadership opportunities.
“Being a principal is a very complicated and complex position,” Romero-Johnson says. “But I hope all of my experience will serve me well as we move forward with the new position.
“I will miss the interaction with students as a principal immensely. As a principal, you have that immediate feedback of kids and families,” Romero Johnson adds. “But one of the areas that the new superintendent is asking us to implement is going out to schools on a regular basis, so that will be something really positive and I'll be able to stay in touch in knowing what schools need.”
As the executive director of multicultural and global education, Romero-Johnson will be one of many new faces at the Doyle Administration Building this fall.
“The name, we hope, captures the main values of our office. We have over 65 languages in the district that are spoken in the students' homes,” Romero-Johnson says. “This is an asset that students bring and it's important to not only acknowledge that, but to start utilizing those languages as part of the instructional day for students.”
Romero-Johnson's passion resides in providing access to quality bilingual and multilingual education to all students, and more specifically to students who have a family language other than English in the home. “Home languages and cultures are an asset to build on in the educational process,” she says. “I believe all students need to be prepared for college, careers, and communities that are highly diverse and globally connected.”
Spanish is clearly the largest group and the district has been implementing bilingual programs and dual-language programs for years that utilize both English and Spanish in instruction. By the time that current MMSD kindergartners are in their 40s, the Latino population in the United States will have tripled, expanding to 132 million in 2050, according to the United States Census Bureau. As this minority becomes a majority, the school district is taking note and expanding the school's program.
“The dual-language immersion program continues to grow,” Romero-Johnson says. “There's ongoing interest in the program as well as an ongoing growth in enrollment of English language learners in the district. So, with this — along with the new superintendent and a renewed vision for student achievement in the district — I felt it was the right time to go back and put my experience at the school-base level to work on helping the programs district-wide.
“The global education is important in that students need the instructional practice to be prepared for an increasing connected world where communication skills are essential,” Romero-Johnson adds. “Students will need to be able to work with others productively across cultures.”
Romero-Johnson officially started her new position on July 1. “I've been preparing quite a bit as school is about to start. It's been a very exciting time to be at the schools. I'm glad to be part of the solution and to be part of this new leadership team at central office supporting the schools,” says Romero-Johnson, who is also an adjunct professor at Edgewood College where she teaches courses in curriculum and assessment design for the bilingual licensure and a course of language strategies for the graduate dual language immersion certificate. “I know I will miss Nuestro Mundo quite a bit. It wasn't an easy decision to leave.”
There are 16 people in her Office of Multilingual & Global Education including four district translators, six elementary support teacher leaders, three secondary teacher leaders, and two administrative and clerical support people. Romero-Johnson says she's very exciting to have Jennifer Cheatham taking over as the new MMSD Superintendent.
“Dr Cheatham is a very good communicator; not only to external stakeholders, but within the central office and the principals,” Romero-Johnson says. “She talks about inverting the pyramid so instead of all things coming from central office, that the work takes place at schools and we exist to support the principals. She really makes a point of communicating her message and she does a good job with that. I think a lot of people are very impressed with how hands-on she has been with the work ... so she's not just delegating but also really being involved with what's happening on the ground. That's really refreshing to see.”
Romero-Johnson is excited about Cheatham's strategic framework — which has a renewed focus on teaching and learning in the Madison Metropolitan School District — that was recently announced at a press conference.
“I was part of the district staff that worked on the strategic framework,” she says. “We had three all-day meetings where we went through different processes of looking at what our priorities were. It was a very, very interesting process.
“I think what's important with the direction that we are going is that we are focusing on what's taking place in the classroom,” Romero-Johnson adds. “The focus is on helping and supporting teachers. We want to implement a smaller set of priorities so we're focusing on implementing common core standards and working on data analysis and making our decision on data .... concentrating on an instructional practice called gradual release of responsibility. So, we're narrowing our strategies to a few that we know that are implemented well and can have a big impact on students.”
Romero-Johnson believes that Cheatham's ideas will make a dent in Madison's decades-old minority achievement gap. “I think we’re moving in the right direction. We have a new way of working on it and I think we should be able to see some very concrete and needed improvements right away and ongoing from there on,” she says. “I'm confident we will be successful here in the Madison School District. We are willing to work with others to make it happen —other departments in the school district, other partners in the community, parents ... everyone. I think we're all ready to do it.”
Romero-Johnson says that her goals are to make sure she aligns her work with the district priorities so that she’s not working in isolation. “I think in the past we may not always have been aligned. It's important that we all go in the same direction and at the same time,” she says. “Another priority for me is to build capacity in the other departments to be able to support our English language students and our dual immersion programs because all of our departments need to support all kids just like we want to support all students.”
On a personal level, Romero-Johnson wants everybody to feel like they are supported and valued. “I want to establish relationships with teachers and principals where they feel our division is responsive and we get back to them in a timely manner and get their feedback and implement it in improvements for our division,” she says. “My hope is that all of our stakeholders — parents, principals, teachers — will see us as responsive and part of the solution.”