It’s a funny old world. Back when R. T. Rybak was mayor of Minneapolis, he used to say he had the second hardest job in the city, next to Superintendent of Schools Bernadeia Johnson.
“People care a lot about potholes, but they care a whole lot more about their kids,” says Rybak.
Now Rybak is the CEO of GenerationNext, a school reform consortium. The previous CEO of GenerationNext, Michael Goar, moved on to being second in command to Bernadeia Johnson, and then to succeed her as interim school superintendent since she stepped down, effective last month. And former City Council Member Don Samuels, who ran to fill Rybak’s position of mayor as if he were running for school superintendent, later ran for and gained a spot on the school board. It’s almost like they were playing musical chairs, and then just when everyone was comfortably settled, Johnson, instead of putting the record back on, just took her party favors and went home, leaving an extra chair.
The four people in the above scenario—Rybak, Johnson, Goar and Samuels—are pretty much on the same page as far as school reform is concerned. Not that anybody is totally on the same page, but close. But there are plenty of players in this game who aren’t even using the same hymnal, if we can mix our metaphors a bit. More than a year before she announced her departure, Johnson launched a new initiative called “Shift” to tackle the many ills plaguing the Minneapolis Public Schools. This was announced in May 2013 and by early 2014, with Goar’s help, there was a strategic plan in place called Acceleration 2020. The goals of this five-year plan to “close the achievement gap” align very closely with the five stated goals of GenerationNext. And that worries people agitating for less corporate-friendly types of school reform. All in all, the Shift and its specific implementation plan, Acceleration 2020, are a mixed bag, with a few of the cherished desires of the teachers and their union, a few of the more maverick ideas, and a lot of GenerationNext’s vision and what this cohort considers to be positive lessons learned from charter schools.
At the most recent meeting of the school board, on Feb. 10, the new search committee for a permanent superintendent brought a proposal to hire a search consultant, which the board adopted. So now, before the search for a superintendent, there will be a search for a searcher. In an interview with NPR, another departing school superintendent from Montgomery County, Md., Joshua Starr, said this in reply to the question, why do urban school superintendents have such a short shelf life?
“I think the expectations for the superintendent can be not aligned with reality sometimes. One reason is the incredible polemics of the reform or school-improvement movement that’s going on these days. … People want to see dramatic improvement quickly. The expectation that a superintendent can do it alone I think just doesn’t work well. It takes an entire community to eliminate the achievement gap and raise standards.”
This agrees a lot with what I was told by David Tilsen, a former MPS School Board member from 1986 to 1994. What we want and need in a school superintendent, he said, are two main things, two things that are hard to find in a single person. One, they must be an educational visionary. But, two, they have to be a very high-powered, competent nuts-and-bolts manager. Johnson, he said, was by her own admission more of the former; Goar may be more of the latter, but he does seem to combine some of the visionary, too. The question will come down to: Is his the most consensual vision, or is it in fact too corporate and therefore too divisive? Or is this even an issue? Because one thing neither the board nor the search committee has spoken plainly about is whether, search process and all, they could end up offering Goar the permanent position.
Even if Goar is only in place for a year or less, he has already left his mark on the future of the Minneapolis School system. It’s clear that Acceleration 2020 is mostly his project, and although there is some controversy in it, the prevailing attitude seems to be that we have to give it a chance. The term “silver bullet” has come up, not in a nice way, to describe the previous flailing lack of direction that landed us where we are, in a dismal almost last place on certain key measures. This strategic plan will be inherited by any new permanent superintendent, so, barring a catastrophic failure, it will be pursued to its conclusion in 2020, when, if it has worked, outcomes will be dramatically better. Specifically the plan calls for 5% annual increases in students meeting or exceeding math and reading targets, 8% annual increases in the same goal for students of color, and 10% annual increases in the four-year graduation rate. (Since the current four-year graduation rate is a poor 50%, this will bring it close to 100%.)
The Minneapolis Public School system is a lot more than just students (more than 35,000 of them) and teachers (about 3,800). The total workforce is nearly 7,000, including a huge (and troubled) IT department, the largest food service organization in the state, and a transportation system that moves nearly as many people daily as the MTC. It owns more real estate than any other state entity. It has politics, boy, does it have politics (see Rybak quote again), and its stakeholders include students (as of February, one sits as a nonvoting member of the school board, by the way), parents, taxpayers, employers, unions and the city and state governments. A superintendent needs to be a super-hero to manage all of that.
Minneapolis public high school food drive
On March 12–14, 400 students from every Minneapolis public high school came together to put on a food drive. The primary recipient is Sabathani Community Center’s Food Shelf at 310 E. 38th St. The kids flyered at least 40,000 houses with the objective of raising 100,000 pounds of food. The project began 10 years ago at Southwest High School with great success. This year, the project was expanded to include other Minneapolis schools, including Roosevelt, Wellstone International, Washburn and South. You can give monetary donations online at http://www.sabathani.org/. Select “Family Resource Services” in order for the money to go to the food shelf. Every dollar donated to Sabathani allows them to buy 15 lbs. of food. The school that collected the most food won a trophy that plays “We Are The Champions” on a loop.