“Touch, Touch, Touch”: Minneapolis Parent Reflects on A Year Well-Spent

June 20, 2016

Guest post! Today’s post was written by Minneapolis Barton Open School parent, Sarah Cooper Evans. Sarah has a great eye for progressive education–which is what the “Open” in Barton’s name is all about. As the school year ended, Sarah reflected on what made the year meaningful for her son, who is headed to third grade this fall. 

Hands-On

A chick is born

First, a few notes:

  1. Barton is a K-8 magnet school in southwest Minneapolis, built in 1915. It served as a neighborhood school for most of its 100 years, but has been an “Open” school since the 1980’s. This makes it one of the longest standing leftovers from the heady 1970’s, when experimental schools were offered throughout the Minneapolis Public Schools, thanks to a pioneering, district-sponsored choice program called Southeast Education Alternatives. The aim was to “decentralize administration” in Minneapolis, desegregate the city’s schools through choice (magnets) and promote teacher-led innovation. Sound familiar?
  2. What makes it “Open”? Nebulous things like multi-age classrooms, portfolio and project-based learning, an emphasis on social-emotional learning (the “whole child”), and dynamic programming for 7th and 8th graders. Read on for specifics, and check out the “Responsive Classroom” model, which Sarah credits for much of the positive, community-building work done at Barton.
  3. Barton is rapidly diversifying, but remains, for now, a majority white, middle class school. The challenge of how to be an Open school, and an open community, for all kids and families, and not just the historical Barton population, is right at the school’s doorstep. The push to prioritize racial justice, in addition to progressive ed, is happening, amid recent leadership turnover, large class sizes and an expressed need for more resources and support.

Take it away, Sarah!

As a parent at Barton, I am spending this small bit of time at the end of the school year reflecting on all that made my second grade son’s school experience progressive and beautiful. It is so difficult to choose where to focus because, as a parent, I felt as if my son was immersed in meaningful, collaborative, socially constructed, joyful, interdisciplinary learning every day of the school year. But I have come up with a shortlist of highlights.

Fall

  • In October, students wrote, illustrated and read their own books at an “Author’s Tea.” Students were both authors and audience members, supporting one another, helping other kids read their books, and giving each another child-driven feedback, as parents scribbled encouraging notes on yellow sticky paper. 

    Stone Soup

    Stone Soup prep

  • November brought a Stone Soup luncheon, held just before Thanksgiving. Students spent all week chopping vegetables, making soup, and then serving one another and their families in their classroom.  

Winter

  • Students made their own lanterns by gluing squares of pink, purple, yellow and green tissue paper onto Ball jars. Each jar had a tea candle glued into the bottom of it, making the tissue paper glow when lit. On a chilly Saturday evening, students and families gathered in a nearby public park. saying goodbye to fall and welcoming winter while singing together and carrying their lanterns through the darkness. 
  • Students in my son’s class let their own lights shine by completing a self-chosen project having to do with light–be it a historical person they admired because he or she had done good and added light to the world, a scientific inquiry into light and electricity, or how animals use light to survive and thrive (bioluminescence- my son’s beloved project).  It was up to them how they wanted to shine, and they all did so brightly.  

    Sampson LIGHT

    Light project

Spring

  • My son’s class did a bus tour of Minneapolis, as part of their “Timelines and Skylines” unit of study. As he got off the school bus that day, his excitement was electrifying. He gave me a report on the tour, and it was clear that my 8-year-old is much more knowledgeable about our wonderful city than I am, and I have lived here since 2000.  
  • In late spring the school hosted a “MoSaic” event,  where students and specialist teachers created a mini-museum to display the work students had done in media, art, music, and science, as it related to Dakota and Ojibwe cultures. The evening was complete with a Native drum circle, whose members shared their talents and then invited the students to create music with them, using buckets as drums.  
barton CAMP 4

Camping

If I must choose just one experience to exemplify the power of progressive education, it has to be the 1st and 2nd grade overnight camping trip to Baker Park in late May.  During that camp experience, students were not just learners.  They took on roles of campers, outdoor enthusiasts, environmentalists, artists, biologists, singers, authors, athletes, teachers, field guides, and of course, friends to one another. 

I saw the power in this type of experienDisplaying IMG_3410.JPGtial learning as I helped a group of students find a good spot to embark on “pond study.” A student was making her way down a well-trodden path, joyfully exclaiming “touch, touch, touch!” as she grabbed at all the green life surrounding her while she followed her friends.  I am not sureDisplaying IMG_3410.JPG there is a better example of hands-on, sensory filled, meaningful, child-directed learning within a class community than observing that first grader that afternoon.  

Sometimes people wonder what progressive education really is or really looks like. My response is to consider a series of questions. Are learners active participants, problem solvers, and planners? Are teachers fostering critical thinking and inquiry?  Is the community an extension of the classroom?  Is knowledge constructed through play, direct experience, and social interaction?  Are subject areas integrated to make the learning meaningful to students?  I can say very confidently that my answers to those questions are an emphatic “YES!” when reflecting on this school year in my son’s classroom at Barton Open school.  

City Tour

–Sarah Cooper Evans

 

Minneapolis Public Schools Shows Growth, Restores Teacher’s Job

June 14, 2016

After being threatened with losing her job, Minneapolis theater teacher, Crystal Spring, learned today that her position at Washburn High School has been fully restored. Spring’s friend and supporter, Minneapolis writer and teacher Shannon Gibney, spread the word this afternoon on Facebook.

Earlier this afternoon, Crystal Spring received a voicemail message from Steven Barrett, Executive Director of HR Operations at Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS), stating that she is removed from administrative leave effective immediately, and that her status is now as an active MPS employee. The voicemail included a personal apology from Barrett.

“I want to thank you, this community, for standing up for me,” said Spring, in response to the decision. “Thank you for the texts and letters and phone calls and messages of supporters—I read and listened to every single one. The community’s voice helped make this change. You ensured that I didn’t lose my livelihood, my career, my life’s passion.”

Barrett had sent Spring a letter on June 8, informing her that she was slated for termination, due to her arrest on May 19. On that date,  police rounded Spring up for allegedly interfering with another arrest; Spring has said she was simply observing that arrest, as the man involved was calling for help.

Questions have been raised about how the Minneapolis Public Schools’ Human Resources department found out about Spring’s arrest–which occurred at night, off school property–and why the district would attempt to remove a teacher without due process, and, seemingly, without allowing the criminal justice system to first decide her case.

As soon as word of Spring’s situation hit social media, a vocal and growing community of supporters rallied on her behalf. Students, colleagues, parents and other devotees of Spring’s work have been planning to show up at tonight’s regularly scheduled school board meeting to demand answers from the Minneapolis schools.

As of now, those plans are in flux, with interested people being told to check Facebook for further updates.

Organizers are still deciding if they will go forward with the rally planned at the school board meeting tonight, if it will instead be a celebration, etc.

A quick look at the reaction to this news, on the Facebook event page for tonight’s rally, shows a determined but relieved crowd:

This is a wonderful happy ending for a bad situation that no one needed to be put through. I hope Mr. Barrett and the school board will address what happened and how they will ensure such an ordeal doesn’t occur again.

FANTASTIC! Strongly encourage the rally to go ahead to demonstrate the power of our community! Let them hear this lesson.

Great job! But… I would like to see MPS define more specifically what activities would constitute grounds for discipline (including termination).

Should we still show up and lift up the message that students and their community want more teachers like Crystal Spring?

Tonight’s school board meeting begins at 5:30 p.m. at Minneapolis’s Davis Center headquarters.

Celebrated Minneapolis Teacher Guilty Until Proven Innocent?

June 13, 2016

The Minneapolis Public Schools unleashed a fresh round of outrage on June 8, when district administrators informed popular Washburn High School theater teacher, Crystal Spring, that she was being terminated. (This action came just a few weeks after the district honored Spring as one of six Washburn teachers who have had a “significant impact on students.”)

Crystal Spring

Although the case is still unraveling, sources say Spring was faulted for “conduct unbecoming a teacher,” after she was arrested by Minneapolis police in May. The police say Spring was interfering with an off-campus arrest on May 19; Spring maintains that she was cooperating with police and simply bearing witness to their arrest of an African-American man who was calling for help.

The district moved to fire Spring before her case was decided in court (some have speculated that Spring’s “crime” may have been not reporting her arrest to the district). Acting presumptively, Minneapolis Human Resources director, Steven Barrett, sent a scolding, June 8 letter to Spring, according to Minneapolis writer and teacher, Shannon Gibney:

Spring’s termination letter was signed by Steven Barrett, Executive Director of HR Operations at MPS, and CC’d to Washburn High School Principal Rhonda Dean, Mike Leiter, MFT; Human Capital; and Employee Relations.

In the letter Barrett writes, “…the District became aware of your arrest on Thursday, May 19, 2016. In that incident, you allegedly approached police officers involved with taking someone into custody. You parked your vehicle near the incident and confronted the officers on several occasions despite being told to step back. You then proceeded to follow the officers across the street and began to confront witnesses who were being interviewed by the officers, telling them not to cooperate with the officers and accusing the officers of being racist. Witnesses at the scene corroborated the officers’ account of your behavior. You were arrested and charged with obstruction of legal process and disorderly conduct.”

“This behavior is especially troublesome on multiple levels,” the letter continues. “You had no connection to the parties involved in the police action. You did not know the circumstances of why the police were taking someone into custody. Yet you determined that repeatedly confronting the police officers, and shouting accusations about the officers to potential witnesses to the police investigation, was necessary.”

Barrett’s letter makes it sound as though he was there the night Spring was arrested. If he was not there, then would he know, any more than Spring, the “circumstances of why the police were taking someone into custody”? Could he know for certain that Spring “repeatedly” confronted the officers, and shouted “accusations” about them to “potential witnesses”?

How does Barrett know that Spring was not doing the right thing by attempting to document the actions of the Minneapolis police?

Questions like these matter less than the devoted community of students, colleagues, and supporters that rose up quickly on Spring’s behalf, demanding she be reinstated. A headline-worthy Facebook event, called “MPLS Teacher FIRED for Cop Watch!,” burst to life, along with a planned rally for the June 14 Minneapolis school board meeting, where Spring’s official status was to be presented to board members.

Then, on June 12, the district buckled under mounting pressure (and action by the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers). According to Gibney, Minneapolis officials agreed to place Spring on leave rather than fire her:

MPS sent the following text to Spring and her union rep late this afternoon (June 12): “After reviewing the matter with the Superintendent and senior staff, we are pulling Ms. Spring’s discharge off the board agenda. We will place her on administrative leave pending adjudication of the charges.”

Placing someone on administrative leave pending the outcome of a legal matter is provided for under district policy. Union leadership viewed this as a positive development in the case.

Acting superintendent, Michael Thomas, is also said to have asked for a chance to further review Spring’s case before deciding her fate. Still, Spring’s supporters are planning to turn out for the June 14 board meeting to protest the district’s seemingly hasty and confounding actions. A sampling of comments on the above-mentioned Facebook event page reveal a stunned community:

It is the phrase “behavior unbecoming for a teacher” that gets me. For an urban teacher who must continually be aware of diversity, culture, inequality and social justice, I think Crystal’s behavior was courageous.

…Why are they accepting only the police version of events in making their decision? I presume it’s because MPS, like many public institutions, is so afraid of further scrutiny of its own shortcomings that it expects its employees to be in complete solidarity with all government agencies. What’s next–firing teachers who get arrested as part of a peace demonstration or other public protest? 

Even if the police report were true, and she was vocally challenging an arrest, how is political/social activism unbecoming conduct for a teacher?!

If the district wants to close the achievement gap, this is the worst thing to do. Crystal Spring’s black box program is the SINGLE BEST THING THAT COMBINES STUDENTS OF ALL BACKGROUNDS I’ve seen as a 13-year MPS parent. She treats all students equally according to who they are. Fire her for a MISDEMEANOR? Outrageous.

Scene from Washburn’s Black Box theater, via TPT.

Gibney’s full account of Spring’s story–complete with a statement from the Minneapolis schools–is scheduled to be published in the City Pages today. For an overview of Spring’s work at Washburn, watch this video from a recent Twin Cities Public Television program. In April, the station featured Spring’s Black Box Theater, which she describes as a “social justice theater program based in youth voice.”

But it is clearly more than that. One student’s Facebook message might just say it all:

Crystal Spring has done too much for me and everyone else in the social justice community for me to not go and pour my heart out to that board…I’ll be there on Tuesday. We love you, Ms. Spring!

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Minneapolis Parents Question Administrator’s Ties to Principal, Nonprofit

June 9, 2016

On the front panel of a closet door in Norma Gibbs’s bright, open office is a smattering of inspirational sayings, including this one, from poet Maya Angelou:

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel

This saying might prove to be an apt summary of Gibbs’ first few months as a Minneapolis Public Schools principal. Since February, she has been the head of Whittier International School, a K-5 IB magnet in south Minneapolis. Almost as soon as she walked in the doors of the school, Gibbs has found herself embroiled in controversy over a number of issues, including employee relations, parent concerns, and her close ties to her boss, Minneapolis Associate Superintendent, Lucilla Davila. 

Lucilla Davila

Davila invited me to Whittier to interview Gibbs, after a tense May 19 meeting–called by parents–brought many of these controversies to the surface. (Davila and another district employee, Deb Anderson, sat with Gibbs during our interview.) The parents who spoke at the meeting were upset over Gibbs’s alleged attempts to remove a popular community education employee, Jeff “Nacho” Carlson, as well as her handling of the mostly Latino parents who had tried to advocate for Carlson. 

Whittier parents such as Patricia Almaraz tell stories of being angrily confronted by Gibbs, simply for gathering in the school’s cafeteria to discuss soccer sign-ups and, they acknowledge, the latest news about Carlson. (The parents I spoke with say they were shocked to hear he had been told his work wasn’t satisfactory, a claim Carlson supports with district emails Gibbs sent in March, but a claim Gibbs did not admit to.) 

Almaraz is a Whittier site council parent whose story shows what a tightly woven community Whittier is. She says she knew nothing about what was going on with Carlson, a Whittier parent and employee who speaks several languages, including Spanish, until her sister called in early May to tell her that parents were standing outside of the school, gathering signatures on Carlson’s behalf. (Almaraz says she has known Carlson since 2004, when she was a high school student at Minneapolis’s Wellstone International High School. Carlson was then a classroom assistant.)

Almaraz says neither she nor her sister had any idea what was going on, and so they agreed to meet at the school the next day, to see what they could find out. What happened next is an incident that still upsets Almaraz. She says that, once she met up with her sister at Whittier, they proceeded into the school’s cafeteria to talk, and were joined by two more mothers, whom Almaraz says she did not know.

Here is Almaraz’s story:

We moved to the lunchroom, and around 5 minutes later, Mrs. Gibbs arrived. She saw us. We were sitting at a table, and she started saying, ‘I’m tired of this.’ Tired of what? parents asked. Gibbs said she was tired of ‘rumors, lies, and gossip,’ and said she knew we were talking about her.

She said her staff told her that there was a Latino group meeting to talk about her, and that, in her culture, this was an attack. I told her we were not going to fight with her, and that we were not talking about her. I did tell her that we were talking about Jeff, and she said she was tired of talking about him because he wasn’t her employee. She said he only worked five hours a week for her, and the rest for community education. She then said Jeff had been disrespectful to her, and that she knew he was telling us parents to come to Whittier and make trouble. 

That’s when I felt sad, because he never told me anything. I told Norma (Principal Gibbs) that I was there by my own feet. I told her that I don’t need anyone to tell me where to go, what to think, or what to say. I told her this and she said, ‘Come on. It’s so obvious.’ People asked me why I didn’t take out my phone and start recording this, but you are in your kids’ school. You don’t expect this. You don’t expect a principal to act this way.

Now I am supposed to be ready with my cell phone, to record her? We were kind of arguing, and eventually she said, ‘I have emails and more important things to do than waste my time with you.’ Then, she opened the doors for us, like, ‘Hey, go.’

I’m worried, because I feel bad if she thinks Jeff told me what to say and do. What is she thinking of me? That I’m not self-sufficient, or independent? Then, I wonder what she is thinking about my kids, my children?

They’re not smart enough to think for themselves?

Almaraz says she was stunned by Gibbs’s behavior, but during our interview, Gibbs chalked it all up to panic on her part. She said she was obligated to look at “any timecard issue,” as the Whittier principal, and that’s what she did with Carlson. When the community found out, she said her true intentions–making sure everything at the school was being done properly–were “lost in translation,” and that she was rattled by parent pushback (another group had presented her with a petition on Carlson’s behalf.)

“I am a new principal,” Gibbs admitted, with chagrin. She went on to describe her actions at Whittier as focused, thus far, on tightening up a school she says was disorganized–with kids coming and going, bathrooms getting plugged up during after school programming, and a security system with dismantled, and therefore useless, cameras.

But parents like Almaraz, as well as some Whittier staff members, point to a handful of issues with Gibbs’s tenure at the school. Here is a short list of those concerns, along with responses from Gibbs and Davila, who was present throughout our interview.

Parent/Staff Concern: Davila and Gibbs are friends outside of school. Does this mean Davilla had her placed at Whittier?

  • Response: Davila says that, yes, she and Gibbs are friends, but insists that she did not “handpick” her for the Whittier job. Gibbs was one of three candidates for the job (the candidate pool was first thinned by Davila), and was the unanimous choice for the position, according to a Whittier parent and staff committee of ten. (Davila acknowledged that another friend of hers was made principal of Sheridan Arts Magnet School under Davila’s leadership.)

Parent/Staff Concern: Gibbs has pushed to bring a new after school program to Whittier called WERC (Windom Enrichment Resource Center).

  • The conflict? WERC is a nonprofit Davila started several years ago, while principal of Minneapolis’s Windom Elementary School. WERC now operates at several Minneapolis Public Schools sites–including schools managed by Davila, in her Associate Superintendent role. On WERC’s most recent tax return, from 2014, Davila is listed as the full-time president of WERC, making $11,000 per year (Davila was moving at this time, from her principal’s job at Windom to her current associate superintendent’s role). Blanca Raniolo is listed as WERC’s secretary, making over $60,000. In the past ten days, WERC’s website has been taken down, for necessary maintenance, according to Davila. (Former Minneapolis school board member, Richard Mammen, is a WERC board member.)
  • Gibbs’s role: Minutes from the March 14, 2016 Whittier PTA meeting announce a WERC “taskforce,” designed to help implement the fee-based program at Whittier in the fall of 2016. (Gibbs’s husband is the principal of Minneapolis’s Kenny Elementary School, which also hosts a WERC program. The program appears to operate on grants and program fees, and not on contracts with the Minneapolis schools.)
  • Davila/Gibbs Response: Gibbs maintains that she is looking at bringing outside programming into the school, such as the nearby Joyce Preschool, that would help Whittier more fully implement its IB and language programming. WERC fits this description, according to Gibbs, because it can offer students more exposure to advanced Spanish instruction, especially for the school’s Somali students (Spanish is taught at Whittier). Although WERC programs cost money (up to $220 per week for summer classes, according to a 2016 brochure), Gibbs and Davila both say students are offered financial assistance through grant money.
  • Davila also says that she has minimized her role at WERC since becoming an associate superintendent for the district, and that WERC is used in non-Minneapolis sites, such as Annunciation K-8 School and Hiawatha Academy charter school. Davila also mentioned that WERC “helped close the achievement gap at Windom,” but did not elaborate.

These examples are either evidence of Davila’s ability to create and maintain close, successful relationships in the Minneapolis schools, or, as some parents and staff members have alleged, they are evidence of relationships that seem too cozy and convenient, if not perhaps, a direct conflict of interest.

So far, Davila has maintained that Gibbs will not be leaving Whittier, as some parents and teachers have requested.

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Parents United Says Goodbye and Good Luck

June 6, 2016

Who would have guessed that Muhammed Ali and local education advocate Mary Cecconi would have something in common? Ali, of course, died on June 3, at the age of 74. He is most fondly remembered, by many, as a true champion–of human rights, that is. More than just a swift pair of hands in the boxing ring, Ali was a radical advocate, or, as Dave Zirin put it in The Nation recently,

“What Muhammad Ali did—in a culture that worships sports and violence as well as a culture that idolizes black athletes while criminalizing black skin—was redefine what it meant to be tough and collectivize the very idea of courage.”

Mary Cecconi

How does this relate in any way to Mary Cecconi? Let me explain. On June 4, I sat in a crowded conference room at the Roseville, Minnesota library, listening to Cecconi give her final legislative session wrap-up, as head of the grassroots advocacy group, Parents United. 

Parents United began in St. Paul around 2002, as a way for parents to keep tabs on the important education funding and policy decisions made at the state capitol every year. Cecconi, a former Stillwater school board member, was asked to lead the organization a couple of years later. Since then, Cecconi has been a fighter in her own right–staying late at the Capitol, tracking legislators and breaking down complex info so that parents and other public school advocates can grasp it.

Here is Cecconi’s problem: she can’t be bought.

Parents United is a nonprofit, and for years received funding from local foundations and grants. About five years ago, that stopped. The foundations–I won’t name them, but anyone can search Parents United’s tax records and find their funders–began diverting their money directly to organizations, such as MinnCAN, that have an agenda–driven from the 1 percent on down–that the foundations agree with. Such as? Pushing for alternative licensure (seen by many as a door opener for Teach for America), clinging hard to test-based accountability measures, and advocating for “scholarships” (or, vouchers) as a method of privatizing preschool.

Side note: For an actual look at how far to the right education policy “groupthink” has swung in Minnesota, watch this brief video–compiled by one of my readers–from an April, 2016 “Almanac” show on PBS. And, consider this power couple: Republican House Education Finance Chair, Jenifer Loon, is married to Doug Loon, president of the MN Chamber of Commerce, whose legislative agenda for education sounds a lot like MinnCAN’s, and pairs well with the House’s recommendation for no new education funding this year.

What Parents United has offered, in contrast, is not an agenda but an exercise in civic engagement. Cecconi has always maintained that the needs and interests of parents are what drives her organization’s work; others may have wished her to take a stronger stand against the local market-based ed reform movement, but my sense is that Cecconi wasn’t comfortable in that role.

Education spending is the second largest state expenditure.

Long story short–Parents United is folding. When the foundation money dried up, the group tried to switch to a funding model that relied on fees for services (such as community engagement training sessions for school board members) and member support. It hasn’t been enough. The work Parents United does is high quality and labor intensive, and driven from the ground up. It is expensive and unsexy.

This is our collective loss. At yesterday’s farewell gathering, several people in the audience were near tears as they described the valuable role Parents United has served, in guiding many people–including state legislators–through the gnarled ins and outs of education policy. The two big sheet cakes at the back of the room–one with a school bus on it, the other with Parents United’s signature phrase, “Childhood has no rewind,” painted on it–sat mostly untouched as Parents United devotees mulled over the gaping hole that must now be filled by an as-yet unknown person or group.

Yes, but what does this have to do with Muhammed Ali? Forgive me, but in Cecconi and the work of Parents United, I see a similar spirit. Ali obviously faced a much different world, as an African-American man pigeon-holed as just a boxer, but his indomitable insistence on speaking truth to power resides in all kinds of non-spotlight seeking people, such as Cecconi. 

As her presentation yesterday was concluding, Cecconi made a simple statement: If you want education policy and spending to look different, then vote, and know who you are voting for.

That reminds me of something civil rights legend, John Lewis, posted on Twitter on June 4, in honor of Ali’s memory: 

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Minneapolis Superintendent Search: A Direction Home?

May 24, 2016

There is one central question hanging over today’s expected announcement of Minneapolis’s next superintendent:

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the reformiest of all?

Is it former Minneapolis administrator, Brenda Cassellius, who helped guide the district through its romance with McKinsey & Company consultants, back in the mid-2000’s? Cassellius is also cut from the same professional cloth–sewn by former superintendent Carol Johnson–as recent MPS administrators, Bernadeia Johnson and Michael Goar. 

This fact alone has scared off some potential supporters, who worry that Cassellius, as superintendent, will push Minneapolis further down the flash in the pan path of the market-based reform movement, where no shiny stone–or successful MPS department–has been left unturned. (Read my series on McKinsey’s influence on the Minneapolis schools for more info about this, starting here.)

Oddly, rumors are surfacing that the local reform glitterati (read the McKinsey series for names) are lining up behind Cassellius’s soft-spoken competitor, Anchorage superintendent, Ed Graff. Graff, if selected, is poised to either be a miraculous uniter, unknowingly aligning divided camps, or–some might hope–a blob of putty in the hands of Minnesota Comeback-like forces, who want to take apart and rebuild the Minneapolis schools in their own, highly proficient image. 

Cartoon by Stephanie McMillan

There can be no denying that Graff interviewed well. He was calm, cool, personable and actually had something of a vision for education. His focus has been on social-emotional learning, which sounds as refreshing as a warm day in Alaska. He smartly would not nod along to board member’s questions about student-based funding and autonomous schools, and instead offered grounded answers that implied he is not likely to be any plutocrat’s puppet. 

Cassellius has earned her marks, too. There must be a reason certain reformers–the kind who would like to convince us that alternative licensure is the burning issue of the day–do not want her in as head of the Minneapolis schools. Is she too savvy? Too familiar with their soulless data maps? Maybe she is the Carol Johnson protegé Minneapolis has been waiting for–the one who, like Graff, is not likely to fall for reform-minded shenanigans imposed on the district by outside political influences and agendas, propped up by hedge fund excesses.

Now that I think about it, either one of these candidates sounds pretty good. And it’s Bob Dylan’s birthday, too. 

Although the masters make the rules
For the wise men and the fools
I got nothing, Ma, to live up to

–Bob Dylan, “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” 1965

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Fire First, Ask Questions Later? Minneapolis Parents Demand Answers at Tense Meeting

May 23, 2016

On May 19, under a full moon in a cloudless sky, groups of parents–like sparks hopping from a fire–gathered outside Minneapolis’s Whittier International K-5 magnet school. The fire they were hopping from was a meeting called by Whittier parents and held inside the building’s library (the school, rebuilt in 1997, is one of Minneapolis’s first). 

The meeting began at 6 p.m. and was supposed to last two hours; by 8:20, however, the library was still crowded with parents, kids and Minneapolis Public Schools staffers. Finally, a building engineer pushed the group outside, insisting that he had to close the building and get home for the night.

Whittier principal, Norma Gibbs, (in black jacket) talks with upset parents

The parents–mostly Latino–were there to defend a beloved Whittier employee who goes by an unlikely name–Nacho. “Nacho” is Jeff Carlson, a blond-haired jack-of-all-trades who speaks several languages–English, Spanish, Somali and perhaps some Swedish or Danish (the Nacho fan I spoke to wasn’t sure). He is a Whittier parent as well as a school employee, serving as a part-time family liaison. Carlson rounds out his day by also working at Whittier as a community education coordinator. (The school shares space with Whittier park on a hilly, green lot in south Minneapolis.) 

Carlson was recently fired by Whittier’s new principal, Norma Gibbs, and this action unleashed a firestorm of outrage for Gibbs and Minneapolis Public Schools higher-ups, as well as a torrent of love for Carlson and Whittier. 

Gibbs became principal of the school just three months ago, after the previous principal, Anne DePerry, was fired in 2015 for misusing school funds and, according to district officials, using inappropriate hiring practices. That backdrop framed administrator Lucilla Davila’s defense of Gibbs at the Whittier meeting (Davila is the district’s Associate Superintendent of Magnet Schools, and therefore Gibbs’s supervisor). “Your voices are extremely important,” she told the near-capacity crowd. But, she told them, she would not be firing Principal Gibbs any time soon–a demand brought forth by parents.

“There are a lot of layers to an onion,” Davila said, speaking in her native Spanish before translating her own words into English. The previous principal, DePerry, left a host of problems for Gibbs to tend to, Davila claimed, and DePerry’s past behavior–including, allegedly, hiring people who signed in while not actually at work–had caused Gibbs to have to turn over every stone at Whittier, to make sure there were no lingering troublemakers.

That was the explanation given to Whittier families and staff, but no one seemed to be buying it. Even Davila’s assurance that she had met with Gibbs recently, and that Carlson would be reinstated, did not quiet the crowd. Parents stood up and insisted on being heard, again, even though they had started the meeting by taking to the microphone to express their anger and disbelief.

“How do you justify the damage done?” one mother called out, while others demanded answers for what they said was Gibbs’s “lies about Jeff.” A group of mothers–eight, total–apparently went to Gibbs to defend Carlson when they heard his job was being threatened. They say they were told by Gibbs that Carlson was being fired because he is a “Caucasian man who doesn’t speak English well, that he is disrespectful, and doesn’t know anything about immigration,” among other things. 

The Latina moms also said Gibbs told them, “If you are coming to ask about Jeff being fired, you’re wasting my time.” Meaning, they believed, that their input and ideas were not welcome. 

That squares with Carlson’s own narrative about the situation. In a typed letter, available at the meeting, Carlson said he was fired for approaching Gibbs about another employee, Chris Sanville, who Gibbs had also let go, shortly after becoming principal.

Whittier 2

Tense times at Whittier International School

“On March 8th, our After School Bike/Nordic ski instructor Chris Sanville approached me with the news that Norma (Gibbs) had opted not to renew his contract for the following year,” Carlson’s letter read. “This was sad to me, given that Mr. Sanville had been one of the most amazing After School leaders that I had ever seen.” 

Carlson says he then went to Gibbs about Sanville, deciding to share with her his “positive experience” working with him. That’s when trouble hit, according to Carlson. Instead of reinstating Sanville, Carlson’s timeline indicates he was then targeted: “Shortly after this conversation I was copied on an email to my Community Education supervisors citing several concerns about my work in After School: disorganization, lack of proper student supervision, messes in bathrooms during after school hours.”

Carlson says he did what he could to address Gibbs’s concerns, and then went to her again, to try to repair their relationship. He says Gibbs gave him nothing but “ultimatums” before shooing him out of her office with these words: “You will never, ever, challenge my staffing decisions. Those decisions are mine and mine alone.”

Gibbs herself took the mic at the May 19 meeting, after Davila tried to calm the crowd. “My first apology is to Jeff and his family,” she said, before promising to spend time “trying to figure out all of the excellent things he does” and how to replicate, or reinstate, them.

Gibbs did her best to walk the packed and restless room through her thought process regarding Carlson’s firing. “I found myself in fear,” she said, at the thought of losing another employee, whom she referred to as Beth. “I wanted Jeff to take her job. He couldn’t. I panicked.”

Carlson stood nearby, seemingly in tears and surrounded by a throng of devoted Whittier parents. Perhaps as a peace-offering, Gibbs promised that Carlson would be rewarded for his willingness to “go forward,” telling the crowd that,”In the fall, his hours will be increased.”

This gesture did little to settle tensions. One woman, later identified as Carlson’s wife, Monica Mesa, stood up and said, “Wow. What a show. I commend you for that.” Many parents and staff nodded in agreement with Mesa’s rebuke of Davila and Gibbs’s apologies and explanations.

“What’s in your heart? That is my question,” Mesa emphatically asked, before everyone was shuttled out of the building by school staff.

Outside, no one seemed to want to leave. Even Gibbs stayed on, squaring off–unintentionally, no doubt–with a group of parents, some with babies snuggled close to their chests. Carlson’s wife, Mesa, acted as the group’s spokesperson and translator, continuing to press Gibbs about her swift actions at Whittier. 

Others present outside the school insisted the issues at Whittier were about more than Carlson’s firing. A woman who works at the school, but says she is leaving along with many other upset staffers, offered a laundry list of complaints about Gibbs’s leadership:

  • People’s credentials and licenses were being combed over in an intimidating manner.
  • Gibbs has given staff and families the feeling that Whittier is “her school,” and that she will spend money how she sees fit.
  • Special education buses now pick students up in an alley, instead of the circular drive in front of the school, supposedly to reduce traffic on 27th street, on the south side of Whittier. “We have to end class twenty minutes early now, to line these students up and get them to their buses.”

Gibbs may just be out of her league. A district employee familiar with Gibbs’s pre-Whittier work called her a “lovely person,” and said she is “very knowledgeable about English learners who also qualify for special ed.” But, this employee cautioned, Gibbs has never been a building administrator before, and was reportedly placed in the Whittier job by her supervisor, Lucilla Davila.

Many parents lingering outside the school said they want Gibbs gone. If she is indeed removed from her Whittier post, the school will join a growing list of Minneapolis sites–including Northrup, Hmong International Academy, Keewaydin, Sheridan, and Ramsey–going through principal unrest. 

Perhaps there is something rotten in the state of principal training, mentorship, and expectations in the Minneapolis Public Schools.

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Minneapolis Staff and Families Protest Dirty School at Superintendent Reception

May 17, 2016

What’s more important? Clean schools or a new superintendent? At the Minneapolis Public Schools’s May 16 reception for the district’s superintendent finalists, Ed Graff and Brenda Cassellius, these two questions vied for the public’s attention.

At the district’s gleaming, ergonomically correct Davis Center headquarters, the candidates stood at the front of the school board meeting room, wielding easy campaign smiles and chatting up their past successes and future challenges. Meanwhile, at the back of the room, a crew of students, staff, and families from Minneapolis’s Andersen United Community School stood, hoisting signs and managing squirrely kids throughout the two hour session. 

The capable and affable superintendent candidates–the last two standing in a search that has gone on for eighteen topsy-turvy months–tell one story of the Minneapolis Public Schools. The Andersen school signs tell another.

The candidates signify hope for a new beginning–except for those too cynical to believe that one new leader will be able to tackle the dysfunction that currently occupies the Minneapolis Public Schools. Cassellius seems like a catch, with her current, high-profile position as commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Education and her past experience as a teacher and administrator in Minneapolis. 

But many people have exchanged quiet, surprised whispers since getting introduced to Graff, who has an extensive background in the Anchorage, Alaska schools. “I think I like him better,” a friend told me. He speaks naturally about the importance of social-emotional learning. He remembered people’s names when they were peppering him with questions about cultural responsiveness, staff turnover and other sore spots. His vocabulary seems refreshingly devoid of data-driven dark clouds.

The headlines for the next week or so, until one of them is chosen as superintendent, will be about them. Who is better? Who is worse? Which one will best protect the Minneapolis schools from the shaky overreach of Minnesota Comeback? (There probably won’t be a headline about that, but there should be.)

So, what will it take for someone, anyone, to address the Detroit-style failure going on at Andersen school? The families and staff who showed up to draw attention to Andersen shared this background information:

Issues around cleanliness, safety, and equity have been ongoing for many years. There is documentation dating back to 2004 showing the efforts of staff to make improvements in order to provide adequate learning and working conditions for Andersen families and staff.

The school is infested with cockroaches and mice. Sidewalks are not properly cleared of ice and snow in winter. Dust clogs the air inside the school. Bathrooms are not being adequately cleaned, sanitized, or stocked with soap. 

No one is doing anything about it, the parents and staff said. They brought a stapled-together document, four pages long, outlining the recent history of complaints and demands for action that have, apparently, fallen on deaf district ears.

They’ve petitioned, emailed and called interim superintendent Michael Goar. No real response. They once got promises for a resolution from former district CFO, Robert Doty, only to be told that those promises left the district when Doty did, in 2015. (Apparently, the big school, which hosts a multitude of programs throughout the day, once had a large number of building engineers, but today has just a handful.)

At yesterday’s candidate reception, Andersen staff said district associate superintendent, Paul Marietta, recently told them that they could not use any school resources–such as a Robocall or flyers–to “inform families about a meeting concerning the cleanliness and sanitation of their children’s learning environment.”

Andersen’s demographics also tell a story about the Minneapolis Public Schools:

  • 1,101 students attend Andersen. 97 percent, or 1, 064, of them are poor, according to federal measures 
  • 11 percent are homeless or highly mobile
  • 72 percent do not speak English as a first language

Is this why their cleanliness needs have been ignored for years? When asked, both Graff and Cassellius said they would not tolerate such conditions as superintendent. Any school in the district has to be good enough for my own child, said Graff. Cassellius emphatically said clean schools are a basic right.

At this point, I suspect action–in the form of a steady stream of mops, brooms and soap–is the only thing that will convince Andersen staff and families that their school is more than just a low point on someone’s data map.

Instead of planning and preparing for our students’ success, many of us are spending much of our time sweeping, mopping, vacuuming, and sanitizing our own rooms as well as sending emails, making phone calls and having agonizing conversations about the same issues, day after day.

–Andersen teacher testimony, shared at a 2015 school board meeting

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Brenda Cassellius: Most Likely to be Minneapolis’s Next Superintendent?

May 14, 2016

Brenda Cassellius. Photo: MPR

Minnesota education commissioner, Brenda Cassellius, and former Anchorage, Alaska superintendent, Ed Graff, are the two finalists for Minneapolis’s school superintendent position, according a May 13 press release. 

Cassellius’s name on the list is no surprise, since she has publicly shared her interest in the job. In November, 2015, while the previous superintendent search was in full swing, Cassellius told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that she wanted the job, but “not yet.” Her hesitancy may have had to do with interim superintendent Michael Goar’s assumed rise to the district’s top position–an expectation that was dashed after months of page-turning headlines and twists in the road.

Now, Goar is leaving the Minneapolis schools, and Cassellius would seem to be an ideal superintendent-in-waiting, given her extensive background in the city’s school district, as a teacher, administrator and parent. Cassellius has certainly made her own mark in education leadership, but, like Goar and his predecessor, Bernadeia Johnson, she has clear ties to former Minneapolis superintendent, Carol Johnson.

Cassellius, also like Goar and Bernadeia Johnson, followed Carol Johnson from Minneapolis to the Memphis schools and back again. This may be comforting to some, who admire Johnson’s leadership legacy, but troubling to others, who may have been hoping for more of a “fresh start” for Minneapolis. (Casselllius did hold her own in a recent University of Minnesota forum on why we still haven’t “closed the achievement gap,” which is kind of like asking why that war in 1984 never ended.)

Graff, a Minnesota native, became superintendent of the Anchorage schools in 2013, and saw his three-year contract cut short in October, 2015. The reasons for this are not immediately clear, but an article in the Alaska Dispatch News hints at a situation that might sound familiar to Minneapolis residents, or residents of any urban school district facing perpetual “urgent” challenges:

Anchorage School Board President Kameron Perez-Verdia said…that the Board has “very aggressive goals” and in order to achieve those goals, as well as face financial and political challenges, it must find a new leader. 

Ed Graff

Graff (like many city superintendents) sits on the board of the reformfriendly Council of the Great City Schools and was most recently a candidate for superintendent of the St. Michael-Albertville school district in suburban Minneapolis. Part of the reason he wasn’t fully considered for that position, according to a May 10 news report, is that he does not currently have a superintendent’s license:

…there was somewhat of bombshell shared by board chair Doug Birk at the beginning of the meeting — it was learned this same day that candidate Graff lacked superintendent licensure in Alaska and would need lengthy procedural approval from the state of Minnesota in order to get his license.

Graff, with no superintendent’s license and no known connection to Carol Johnson, may be  a long shot for the Minneapolis job, especially given the drama that has accompanied the district’s drawn out search process. (Goar also did not have a superintendent’s license.)

Missing from the list of finalists is Michael Thomas, Minneapolis’s current Chief of Schools. Thomas was a known candidate for the district’s top spot, and a 2015 contender for superintendent of the Robbinsdale Area Schools.

The community is invited to meet Cassellius and Graff this Monday, May 16, at the district’s Davis Center headquarters. The school board will then interview the two candidates at a public meeting on Tuesday, May 17.

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No Art, No Counselor: Budget Concerns Follow Goar’s Exit From Minneapolis

May 13, 2016

At the Tuesday, May 10, Minneapolis school board meeting, interim superintendent, Michael Goar, received something of a hero’s farewell from several board members, along with a handful of parents and community members. Board member Don Samuels, for example, praised Goar for many things, including his negotiating skills with the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT), which resulted in “unprecedented concessions” from the union.

It is not clear which concessions Samuels was referring to, but they probably have something to do with the still-nebulous “Community Partnership Schools” plan that Goar and MFT president, Lynn Nordgren, agreed to during 2014 negotiations. More principal power over “hiring and firing” of staff is a key aspect of this “autonomous/accountable” school model. (The academic freedoms supposedly associated with these schools don’t make sense in a district flush with a diversity of school models, from magnets to IB and beyond.)

Coincidentally, or not, the day after the May 10 board meeting, the Minneapolis Star Tribune published an article about the slippery budget practices that have gone on during Goar’s time as district CEO and interim superintendent. The gist of the article is that MPS has a “$15 to $17 million budget deficit” this year, in part due to the practice of purposefully cooking the books ahead of time–by willfully underestimating costs for known expenses–to make the budget look better. (Goar has faced budget-related issues in previous school district jobs.)

This issue was actually presented at the June, 2015 school board meeting, when board members first approved the 2015-2016 budget, while also agreeing to an emergency addition to plug the gaping $17 million hole within it.

Red flags also flew up in February, 2016, when an audit of MPS’s finances revealed the shifty budgeting practices that local media outlets are only now covering, months later. (This audit was discussed at the February 9 school board meeting, just after Goar withdrew his name from consideration for the superintendent position.)

The multimillion dollar budget discrepancy for this year could be attributed to any number of things, such as:

  • The sudden addition of an extended school day this year, at district middle and high schools, with no apparent planning for what this would cost.
  • Community Partnership Schools (CPS). How are these schools being funded? What additional monies are being given to the four CPS sites? It is not clear, partially because the funding formula (called “student-based allocations”) used for these sites is different than the one applied to every other district school. A Minneapolis parent requested the formula months ago and has yet to see it.
  • Ongoing patterns of mysterious budgeting, as when, in 2015, Goar publicly announced he was “right-sizing” the Davis Center, by cutting staff, only to hire many of them back, under different job descriptions. Positions were also pushed off onto schools, which were required to absorb the cost of jobs previously included in the Davis Center budget. 
  • The auditor presenting information at the February 9 board  meeting raised–ever so politely–questions about the board and district’s budget processes, noting that there did not seem to be an accurate “paper trail” attached to district requests for additional spending.

The good news is current district CFO, Ibrahima Diop, seems unwilling to continue on with shady budget practices, telling the Star Tribune that he “did not know why the previous financial staff crafted the budget in such a manner, but he and his staff members, who are almost all new to the district, have committed to budget expenses accurately.”

In the meantime, some Minneapolis schools are finding it difficult to navigate the capricious spending priorities of the Davis Center. At the May 10 board meeting, Field Middle School parent Darren Selberg described the painful choices confronting Field this year, as it struggles to absorb what parents say is a new, district-imposed program for special education students, without additional district resources.

“As I understand it,” Selberg later said, “the budget was essentially flat but Field is now required to add a program that eats up $100,000. so other cuts were needed. The choices were to fully cut a language arts class, which is part of the core curriculum. The most viable option–if it can be considered that–was to cut art completely, a Media Tech position, and the school counselor.”

Selberg has daughters in fifth and seventh grade at Field and is especially concerned about losing the school’s counselor. “My fifth grader’s classmate has been subjected to bullying most of the year from a group of boys. She’s a little quirky and has some behavior issues herself, so the bullying has been difficult,” Selberg noted. He says the child had further trouble coping at school, and even attempted suicide while at Field. Thankfully, Selberg reports, the counselor was able to help the girl access potentially life-saving outside resources.

“My concern without a counselor is how much time staff may have to spend dealing with these issues that they’re not trained for, nor have time for, when they should be teaching their subject.  Additionally, with the behavior issues around the district, who will implement whatever plans they put forth?”

In June, Goar will leave the Minneapolis schools for a new job, and the school board will be tasked with final approval of the 2016-2017 budget. Whether or not that budget will include a counselor for Field Middle School remains to be seen.

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