BY LYDIA HOWELL
As 29,000 students return to in-person learning, COVID-19 has exposed undeniable challenges for the nine-member Minneapolis school board. On Nov. 8, voters will elect two at-large (city-wide) seats and three district seats. The board faces a teacher shortage, budget deficits and continued concerns about less than half of students having reading and math skills at grade-level proficiency. These issues are intensified by recognition of a youth mental health crisis, plus the racial reckoning touching every societal institution. The board must choose a new superintendent of schools by July 2023.
Each candidate was asked about reading skills, bullying, special education, and their priorities. All acknowledged the necessity of having more teachers of color and an inclusive curriculum to serve a majority of students of color.
At-large seats (vote for two)
KERRYJO FELDER is a longtime community activist who collaborated with community members to stop the closure of North High School.
“Children are born lovers of learning. We can see that in their development. One way to wreck that love of learning is by not teaching them to read,” Felder says. “What needs to happen is making education where students go from learning to read to reading to learn.”
Felder favors phonics with a literacy equity lens, using literature where students can see themselves reflected. “It’s not an achievement gap, it’s a belief gap. We need different modes of access so students can show us what they know,” Felder says.
She sees that school buildings can be sites that generate income through things like hosting amateur sports. She also wants to see programs and curriculum measured by an “audit for effectiveness. It’s more cost-effective and resource-effective to make things work better!”
Felder addressed bullying by saying, “There are serious safety concerns in the schools. There’s an overuse of detention. We have to address culture and climate. We have to set clear expectations.”
COLLIN BEACHY is a veteran special education teacher with a master’s degree in Autism Spectrum Disorder, currently working at Transitions Plus school for 18-to-21-year-old students with often severe disabilities.
“I want to work for public schools – not Public Schools Inc.,” Beachy says. “We have to create outside-the-box solutions before we close schools. That means utilizing the people where you live. Bringing in community people so kids see new possibilities. We can’t go back to pre-COVID ‘skills and drills’ and standardized tests.”
He cites an inspiring example of one of his autistic students. “Think about ways to learn differently. During the pandemic this student worked independently and he flourished. He never spoke before that! We have to rethink how we do things. Be more proactive.”
Beachy’s view of teachers of color is also a philosophy of how he sees students: “Listen to them. Be respectful. Value life experiences.” He emphasizes, “the school board has to restore trust with teachers and trust in the community.”
SONYA EMERICK is a parent of a child with disabilities and a disability justice activist.
“There’s evidenced-based research on how to teach literacy to kids with complex learning and developmental disabilities,” Emerick says, implying that all kids’ reading levels can be raised. ”You have to have the supports and texts rich in diverse cultures.” Emerick emphasizes their own experience of disability and advocating for their child with disabilities. “I want to bring parents into the schools.”
LISA SKJEFTE is vice president of community engagement for the Minnesota Indian Women’s Resource Center. She could not be reached for an interview.
District 5 (vote for one)
LORI NORVELL is a math teacher with 20+ years of experience, eight of them in Minneapolis schools.
Norvell saw New Orleans schools taken over by corporations after Hurricane Katrina. “When we’re looking at new curriculum, we need to ask, ‘Where’s the data? Will it work for urban schools?’ And we need to get feedback from teachers!” Norvell says. ”People on the board need to understand classroom implementation.”
“Parents and educators feel unheard. The board really has to work to restore trust,” Norvell says, echoing other candidates’ views.
“Bullying is something to be taken seriously. We have to see this as part of social-emotional learning, how we coach kids in how they develop as humans,” Norvell says. “I’d like to see restorative practices for all staff. Restorative practices coach kids in how their actions impact others.”
LAURELLE MYHRA is Director of Mino Bimaadiziwin (“Good Life”) Wellness Clinic and member/vice chair of the American Indian Parent Advisory Committee for Minneapolis schools. www.laurellemyhra4schoolboard.com
While all the candidates see teachers of color as critical to student success, Myhra also says, “Retaining is the issue. Make the work culture safe for teachers of color. Root out the bias. Teachers of color need to feel supported and valued.”
From her work on trauma-informed healing, Myhra underscores the idea that “we have to have culturally responsive mental health services for our students. Unaddressed trauma is a block to learning.”
When it comes to bullying, Myhra also supports restorative practices. “Restorative justice gives people the opportunity to ‘right their wrongs.’ You’ve bullied someone or started a fight. It’s a process where you can make amends to the person harmed. There’s no ostracism. It’s a way to repair relationships.”
Education corporations target public schools nationally, selling curriculum and testing packages or poaching students for charter schools. Special education students are excluded. Profits are the priority – not students.
In contrast, these candidates reimagine public schools that are more effective than ever, as they become more inclusive.
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Lydia Howell is an independent journalist.