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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Minneapolis Superintendent Search Rushes to a Potential Close

May 11, 2016

If there is any hope for the Minneapolis Public Schools–and of course there is hope–it was represented in the bodies jammed together last night in the wood-paneled confines of the district’s Davis Center headquarters.

Multitudes of people were there for the school board’s regularly scheduled monthly meeting, which included not only a farewell (complete with personalized chair as parting gift) for interim superintendent, Michael Goar, but also a cavalcade of students, parents, staff and community members–each with something to offer, ask for, or demand from the district.

I hope Minneapolis’s next superintendent, whoever he or she may be, was watching. 

On Monday, May 16, the public will get to interact with the finalist(s) for the top job at a series of specialized, daytime meet-up events, and an evening session for a broader audience. The stamina that the superintendent candidates (there will be anywhere from one to three of them; names are expected to be announced at the end of this week) will need for this day-long action will be nothing, of course, in comparison to what the job will require. Heather Pic 2

Last night, a contingent of parents and kids came to deliver the latest recess petition. It has over 2,500 names on it and makes a plaintive demand: give all MPS kids, K-8, a 30 minute, guaranteed, daily recess period, followed by a 30 minute lunch. (A main reason recess has shrunk, at many schools, to an ungodly 15 minutes or less, according to district officials, is the 90-150 minutes of reading and math instruction that some schools adhere to more literally than others.) 

Before these parents and kids could step to the mic during the public comment period, school board member Josh Reimnitz, chair of the policy committee, announced that he would be bringing this new policy up for discussion at the next committee meeting–doing what he can, it seems, to help the request become a reality. This was joyously received, but it did not deter a handful of people–including 11-year old Molly Reehl, from Barton K-8 School–from speaking up in favor of 30 minutes of recess for all kids. 

A cohort of Southwest High School students, some wearing t-shirts that read, “Scholars of Color Union,” also addressed board members on a range of topics, from their experiences as students of color in a majority white school to the need–now–for more mental health support at Southwest for staff and students. We need a room, one girl said, or a place to go, for students who are struggling with anxiety or depression. The only space available now, apparently, is a “Check and Connect” office that houses a drop-out prevention program.

This office–and the program–will be closing next year, due to budget cuts, the students said. So, if we are going to get a saner recess policy for all K-8 kids, perhaps we should start advocating for safe space in each of our high schools, where kids and staff can go to regroup, play pool, or otherwise combat the anxiety that has somehow become the price of admittance to a “better future.” Heather pic 1

There were kids being honored at the board meeting, too, for their winning History Day projects, which they will be taking all the way to a national event this summer. A couple of teachers were also recognized for their work, and some people got up to speak positively about Goar’s legacy in Minneapolis. Still more parents raised pain-stricken questions about their schools’ budgets.

One woman said her kids’ school is slated to lose its school counselor, art program, and media tech position next year. Another parent then took his turn before the board, saying that, if three six-figure jobs were cut from the Davis Center, there would be enough to pay for all of this and more.

Students and community members also pressed the board to pass a resolution in favor of the Restore the Vote legislation currently moving through the Minnesota legislature. Later, the board did just that. (Next up: board members who don’t regularly visit MPS sites might want to get out and do so, to better understand the behavior issues bubbling–hotly–just under the surface of the suspension data that was presented last night. From what I hear, student and staff safety issues have the potential to knock this district on its feet.)

This district still seems capable of so much. Maybe it just needs a good superintendent to push it forward in a recess-heavy, art-filled, student-led direction. Come check out the candidates on Monday, May 16, and see what you think.

We must understand that every child has a right to the experience of culture. We must fully understand that without stories and poems and pictures and music, children will starve.

–Author Phillip Pullman, 2012

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Michael Goar Says Goodbye to the Minneapolis Schools

May 4, 2016

Michael Goar, interim superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools, will leave the district in June. In an email sent to district staff this morning, Goar announced that he will become the next president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Greater Twin Cities, and expects to begin his new position early next month. 

Michael Goar

Goar has worked for school districts in Minneapolis, Memphis and Boston for the majority of his career. Now, according to his email, working for Big Brothers Big Sisters will represent a slight shift in focus:

Big Brothers Big Sisters helps children realize their potential. I am going from an organization that builds brighter futures through education to one that does the same through mentorship. I have a deep appreciation for the role of mentoring in putting children on the right path. We all realize schools can’t do it alone.

Goar’s recent history in Minneapolis has been tumultuous, in the eyes of many observers. It was once expected that he would land in the superintendent seat, permanently, in the wake of Bernadeia Johnson’s 2014 resignation, but missteps along the way prevented this from happening. Most notably, Goar’s handling of the 2015 uproar over the Reading Horizons curriculum seemed to curtail his rise to the top.

But it appears he has landed on his feet, in a job that sounds like it will provide a comfortable distance from the often bureaucracy-plagued world of the Minneapolis Public Schools. As he prepares to exit the district, the school board will continue on with its drawn out search for a new superintendent. Lessons learned from Goar’s time in MPS will undoubtedly shape who the board choses to carry the district forward.

I want to thank each and every one of you who makes MPS what it is—a school district that puts students first, that will never stop trying to be better and do more for kids.  

–Michael Goar, May 4, 2016

With R.T. Rybak situated as the new president of the Minneapolis Foundation, and Goar’s next position now known, two key education hot spots remain open: CEO of Achieve Mpls, the “nonprofit partner” of the Minneapolis schools, and Generation Next, the data-centric organization that both Goar and Rybak have led.

Stay tuned!

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Star Power: R.T. Rybak to Lead Minneapolis Foundation

May 2, 2016

The stars sure seem to be aligning for former Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak’s lately. Recently, he got an actual star on the hallowed outside wall of First Avenue (perhaps because of the “Prince Permit” he helped secure for the club, while mayor, or because of his super-cool-guy mayor stage dives). 

Now, he has vaulted to the top of the local philanthropist world. Many have suspected that Rybak would be first in line to take over at the Minneapolis Foundation when current president, Sandra Vargas, retires this summer, and today, these rumors were confirmed. 

Mpls Fdn RybakAround noon, a smiling photo of Rybak graced email inboxes across the Twin Cities, as the formal announcement came through:

“After a long and robust national search, the Board of Trustees of the Minneapolis Foundation has selected R. T. Rybak to become the seventh CEO/President in the Foundation’s history.”

A long and robust search? That seems odd, since most people assumed Rybak would be the one to fill Vargas’s reform-built shoes at the Foundation. Vargas has been busy while head of the Minneapolis Foundation, by serving as the board chair of the national 50CAN ed reform group (parent to local offshoot, MinnCAN).

Under her leadership, the Foundation has directed incredible resources towards bringing the market-based education reform movement home to roost in MInneapolis. Here are some examples of that:

  • Teach for America
  • 2013’s RESET campaign, which was a festival of sorts for half-baked, top down reform plans
  • MN Comeback, the latest iteration of sure-fire solutions for the ever-failing Minneapolis Public Schools

Will Rybak follow Vargas down the yellow brick road of ed reform? The Minneapolis Foundation seems to think so. Today’s announcement assured email recipients that Rybak has been “very supportive” of the foundation’s work in education, among other initiatives. This support will allow Rybak to “hit the ground running” when he takes over on July 1, according to the email’s author, John Sullivan.

Rybak’s own past suggests that he will have no problem following Vargas’s lead. Aside from his reputation as a stage diving, bike riding groovy mayor, he has embraced not only Teach for America, but also the rap about how certain charter schools “outperform” district schools. These two concepts–the “transformational” powers of Teach for America and charter schools that “beat” out regular old public schools–are ripped right out of the neoliberal playbook on how to “fix” our schools. 

Rybak will have to leave behind his position at Generation Next, which creates an opening for some other bright star. Departing interim superintendent Michael Goar’s name has been mentioned, but he is more likely to end up taking over for Pam Costain at Achieve Mpls, the school district’s official “nonprofit partner” (as opposed to the unofficial ones, such as MN Comeback and the Minneapolis Foundation).

Musical chairs! What will all of this mean for the Minneapolis schools, in an era where Minnesota legislators seem to be doing the absolute minimum to support public education in this state? 

I’m not sure. But while we wait and see, here are two good reads:

  • Joanne Barkan’s recent article in the Nonprofit Quarterly, “Charitable Plutocracy,” is about education reform and the growing power of private foundations. Barkan’s article includes this gem: “…anyone hoping for a grant—which increasingly includes for-profit as well as nonprofit media—treats donors like unassailable royalty. The emperor is always fully clothed.”
  • The recent news that the sugar daddy of the privatization/charter school movement, the Walton Foundation, is taking its money and running from several U.S. cities, including Minneapolis. This might hamper MN Comeback’s plans for Minneapolis, or it might make them more dependent on the kindliness of local groups like the Minneapolis Foundation.

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated!

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Do Not Interrupt a Girl Doing a Dandelion

April 25, 2016

I will admit it: my six year-old daughter is late for school almost every day. There are a few reasons why. One, she is the youngest of four kids, and thus, our sleep schedule is so different for her than it was for her older siblings. When they were in first grade, I am pretty sure they were in bed by 8 p.m. at the latest. These days, we are lucky if the youngest is in bed by nine. 

Going to bed at 9, and hopefully falling asleep by 9:30, makes it tough for my daughter to be up, dressed, fed and in school by its 7:30 start time (driven by busing needs, I think). In fact, most mornings, it feels impossible. My husband and I both work from home, which is a blessing and a curse. We don’t have to be at a job site by 8 a.m.; this means we often can let her sleep in a bit.

This morning, she finally got out of bed at 7:30, after more than a half an hour of us trying to shake and cajole her awake. Once up, she was cheery–eating a big breakfast, talking animatedly with her siblings, and asking to hear that Prince song again, as the singer’s recent death has been a big topic of conversation in our Minneapolis household (“My Name is Prince” is her current favorite).

Violetta 1

Violetta

At last, my patience with her extended morning routine ran out. She rushed upstairs at the last minute for “one more thing.” I turned away to check emails and organize my thinking for the day. When I turned back to her, she was seated at the dining room table, surrounded by a pile of pens and pencils. “Come on, Anna,” I said with exasperation, “You’ve got to get to school.”

Without looking up or stopping her pen, she said, “Mom, do not interrupt a girl doing a dandelion.” A dandelion? I took a look at the little notebook I had given her once, as a cast-off from a conference I’d attended. Inside, she had started to make her own collection of Shopkins characters (after four kids, I’ve learned not to actually purchase many of these fad toys, so she’s making her own). Last night, she told me, she created “Violetta,” a violet-colored, flower-shaped creature with a smiley face. Now, she was working on “Dandelion.”

I looked on her page and saw a round dandelion flower with a face. The eyes are closed, and five purple lines float in the air above the dandelion’s head. She finally dashed off to school, in the pouring rain, before I could ask her to explain the picture to me. Were the slashes supposed to be purple rain? It’s possible–that song has been playing everywhere this weekend–but I don’t want to assume, in her absence.

My own connection to Prince is about me, not him. I was a little too young to fully ride the Purple Rain wave when it hit Minneapolis in the early ’80’s, but I do recall–vividly, deeply–how every high school social experience I had (from attending awkward, crepe paper-strewn dances to screaming around corners in my dad’s smoke blue Saab) was accompanied by the Prince albums Controversy, 1999 and Purple Rain.

My body and soul rejoiced then, as now, with Prince’s explosion of bawdiness and reverence. In the hours and days following his death, I have learned more about the person behind the flash, and some of my favorite stories have to do with Prince’s time in the Minneapolis Public Schools, where I grew up, and where my late-to-school daughter is now a student. 

His Minneapolis classmate, Eben Shapiro, penned a quick piece for the Wall Street Journal, on April 21, the day Prince died. Hindsight and shock can undoubtedly color our memories, but Shapiro’s seem pretty consistent with other things I’ve read about Prince:

When I was in seventh grade at Bryant Junior High School, an old three-story brick public school in inner-city Minneapolis, we all knew that one kid was the best player in the band. He played the trumpet, and he handled many of the band’s arrangements. We all thought the Bryant band’s rendition of “Shaft” was even better than the original.

Dandy 3

Dandelion

….At school he had free run of the band room. Many days, he spent hours playing the piano, alone in a small glass-enclosed practice room. 

My heart stopped, of course, with this: “At school he had free run of the band room.” I don’t want to use Prince’s life or death to make a point about ed reform, but I do wonder. How many Prince-like kids today are we allowing “free run” of anything? Where would Prince’s talents and ambitions fit today, on the college and career pipeline?

My oldest two kids go to South High, near Prince’s now torn down high school, Minneapolis Central. Yesterday, a letter from a South High teacher’s mom popped up on Facebook, and on South’s website. The teacher’s mom, Jenise Doty, went to Central High with Prince, and reflected on who he was as a student:

As a kid, Prince was short, shy and not remarkable looking. He was not as popular a basketball player as his half brother.

But he loved music, and he pursued it relentlessly (sometimes skipping class to do it).

Today is a perfect opportunity for us and our students to take another look at that person at school that we have been underestimating. Look left, look right and look within and ask ourselves: how awesome would it be if this person found something they really loved to do, worked at it, and shared it with others? You don’t have to be world famous to have impact.

Today, I guess, is also a perfect day not to interrupt a girl when she’s drawing a dandelion.

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated!

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St. Paul Mom Fights to Keep Galtier Community School Open

April 21, 2016

Ms. Gant, a St. Paul Public Schools parent, is in the process of adopting two young boys, and, because the situation is delicate, has asked that only her last name be used in this story. But–it is her story, and she wants to tell it.

Gant has three children: a baby boy, and the two foster children–twin boys–that she and her husband are adopting. The twins are kindergartners at Galtier K-5 Community School in St. Paul’s Midway neighborhood, and Gant loves the school. Last year, it was not clear whether or not–or when–Gant and her husband would be able to adopt the boys, so Gant says she missed the district’s spring enrollment deadline. 

Shawn Stibbins, Galtier principal

Instead, she had to trek down to the St. Paul student placement center, and was directed to sign the twins up for kindergarten at Como Park Community School, the one closest to her house. But Gant toured Como Park, and the atmosphere just didn’t feel right to her, which she says “meant a lot.” 

Gant and her husband decided to also check out Galtier, another school near their home. There, they attended an Open House, but it was unlike any they’d ever seen before. “So many teachers were around, and coming up to us. I thought, ‘Either these people are crazy, or they really want to talk to us,'” she remembers with a laugh.

Another thing Gant and her husband noticed? The school’s principal, Shawn Stibbins, was manning the grill. “My husband thought, ‘That can’t be him!,” Gant says, but it was. “The whole thing was just beautiful.” Another teacher came up to Gant and offered to hold her baby, so she and her husband could look around the school with their twins. 

It all felt very non-traditional and welcoming to Gant, who is an African-American parent, and well aware of the stereotypes about who does and who doesn’t get involved in their kids’ education. But when she asked Galtier teachers how often she could volunteer at the school, they didn’t miss a beat, telling her, “This is your school, too.” The message Gant heard? Come as often as you’d like.

And she has. Gant has thrown herself into Galtier, but not quite in the way she’d expected. Shortly after her boys started kindergarten, just this fall, she heard rumors that the district was planning to close the school, citing low enrollment (the school is about half full). Instead of planning bake sales to fund an art program or a field trip, the Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) has had to launch a PR campaign on behalf of Galtier.

“I took my three boys with me on a Saturday this winter,” Gant recalls. “We hit the barbershop, the clinic. We recruited families to come and check out the school. And for our Open House, we had 17 families show up. Last year, there were only two.” What Gant didn’t realize is that the St. Paul Public Schools left this kind of recruiting up to parents.

“We asked the district to help us highlight the school and how great it is. Well, that didn’t happen. We asked them to update Galtier’s brochure, which still showed kids in red uniforms, from when the school was a science magnet.” The district converted Galtier from a magnet school to a community school in 2013, when the school also underwent a substantial, grant-funded overhaul. 

Clayton's daughter 2

Fellow protester!

When Galtier became a community school, it lost enrollment, and it lost the confidence of some neighborhood families, according to Gant. As a science magnet, Galtier’s numbers were higher (partly because it could bus kids in from outside the neighborhood). It was also able to offer a wide array of programming, such as art classes, that Galtier, as a community school with fewer students, has not been able to afford.

But Gant says that hasn’t stopped the school from becoming a great place to be. After getting a redesign, it offers open classroom spaces and flexible, small groups, so that kids can work more at their skill level–and not be confined to their grade level. “It’s all so aligned!” She remarked with joy. “From preschool, to kindergarten and first grade, the kids can move up and around and get to know the teachers. What a beautiful transition plan for kids! I was so excited for my boys to have this.” 

Despite the recruitment efforts, the St. Paul Public Schools told parents in March that Galtier will close next year. Gant doesn’t mince words about the impact of this: “I felt misguided, misled, lied to by SPPS. You don’t tell parents to go recruit, and then give them an empty box to do it with.”

“I told them, ‘This Mama Bear s already upset. You don’t want this Mama Bear upset and pissed off. That’s a deadly combination. Education is very important to me, especially for my three Black boys.” And the boys are doing well at Galtier: My boys didn’t have very strong English skills, but one boy ran home recently and said, ‘Mom, I’m in Level C!’ They have come so far with reading.”

Gant says she is giving nearly everything she has to the school: “I’m there almost all day. I’m trying to keep the school open. My energy should be with my children, but my voice is for all the children. That’s my vehicle that I’m using, but it upsets me a little bit that I have to.”

Her frustration comes from all the good things she sees happening at Galtier, despite the fact that the school looks “low performing” on paper (Galtier’s population is racially diverse, and they serve a high number of kids from marginalized groups): 

How can we really support it and help it grow? Let’s spotlight some of the good things. The data is subjective, and no one is talking about the number of homeless kids we have. A lot of kids transition in and out because of housing issues. There are so many different factors that are not looked upon.

Galtier was just redesigned three years ago. Anyone in business or the corporate world knows it takes at least 5 years to be viable. We’ve lost a year because we’ve been trying to save the school. We can’t do fundraising for the other things we’d like. Any event this year has been on the backs of the PTO. We do yard sales, donations–all done by the PTO. It’s been exhausting.

Gant and her fellow Galtier parents are not giving up without a fight. Tonight, they have invited district administrators to the school, to answer parent questions about Galtier’s fate. “I’m not waving the white flag yet,” Gant insists. The district might assume other Galtier parents aren’t paying attention, but Gant is ready to dispute that:

History has shown that people of color won’t always speak up, don’t always feel comfortable at meetings, or feel their voices will be heard. Families don’t always like board meetings. But we have to keep advocating for parents, helping them understand they have power. I want to start out the meeting by telling parents that. 

  • Meeting today: 5:30 p.m., Galtier Elementary, 1317 Charles Ave, St. Paul, 55104 

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated!

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