Monthly Archives: August 2015

Minneapolis teacher at center of Reading Horizons storm identifies herself


Dickson teaches first grade at north Minneapolis’s Elizabeth Hall Elementary School.

Sarah Lahm

August 31, 2015

Minneapolis teacher Shana Dickson is “Roxanne Berger.” 

Last week, I wrote a series of blog posts chronicling Dickson’s reaction to an early literacy training session, provided by the Minneapolis Public Schools, and hosted by the district’s new phonics curriculum provider, Reading Horizons.

The training had a profound and upsetting impact on her, but Dickson was afraid to go public with her experience. Yes, the training was off-putting and offensive, to Dickson and others who were there with her, and the “little” accessory books handed out by Reading Horizons, intended for classroom use by the district’s K-2 students, were filled with shockingly dated, racist, sexist, and oppressive images and stories. 

Lazy Lucy

An attempt at diversity

Still, Dickson was worried that revealing her name would jeopardize her job, and her relationship with some of her fellow teachers. And so I shared her story, and identified her as “Roxanne Berger.”

But the blog posts took off, forcing the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) to respond to questions and anger from the public. At first, it seems MPS tried a “shoot the messenger” approach, by claiming that my original blog post, “Phonics or indoctrination? Minneapolis teacher training takes a step backwards,” contained “inaccurate and misleading information.”

Original MPS RH announcement

Original MPS response, posted on Facebook by Brian Hayden

Very quickly, MPS backtracked and removed the part where they imply my blog posts are false. Here is the beginning of MPS’s revised statement, which is attributed to interim Superintendent Michael Goar:

A lot of questions have been raised about parts of Minneapolis Public Schools’ early literacy program. Interim Superintendent Michael Goar helps answer those questions:

I have become aware that there is great concern among some parents and other stakeholders in the Minneapolis Public School district about an early childhood literacy curriculum MPS is launching this school year. I’d like to take this opportunity to address these concerns and share in the outrage of our diverse communities.

The whole statement, along with parent, staff, and community comments (including some who support Reading Horizons), can be found on the Minneapolis Public Schools’s Facebook page. Basically, the district is insisting that Reading Horizons be allowed to redo the accompanying “Little Books,” because their approach to phonics is so powerful:

Here is an important consideration. Reading Horizons works. Research shows this program has been successful in improving student outcomes across the country, including outcomes in diverse districts like ours.

But we are as concerned about the culturally inappropriate material as everyone else and we quickly addressed and removed the materials, as we should have. We will continue to explore options regarding this issue.

Let me say again, kids who read grow up to succeed, and early literacy is key to the future of our kids. Please don’t hesitate to let me know if you have further questions or concerns.

If anyone out there can find research about Reading Horizons’ curriculum that has not been produced by Reading Horizons itself, please send it to me. So far, all I can find to support the claim that “Research shows this program has been successful in improving student outcomes…” is research done by Reading Horizons, which might just have a stake in this whole thing (see this post about the $1.2 million contract they secured with MPS).

In the wake of Goar’s statement, more media coverage followed:

  • First, MPR reporter Bob Collins picked it up for his “Newscut” blog.
  • Then, StarTribune education reporter Alejandra Matos wrote about it.
  • KSTP News also covered the story.

According to Dickson, this groundswell of coverage and support helped her decide to publicly identify herself:

“…because I feel like enough people are in support of the cause, I have noticed so many people passing along your blog and I felt like even if there are those who disagree with me, there will also be many who stand with me. “

Up next: Minneapolis teachers, parents, and community members demand that MPS cancel the Reading Horizons contract

Start with Part One of this series: Phonics or indoctrination?

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Reading Horizons: A curriculum “even a janitor” could teach

Sarah Lahm

August 27, 2015

Stay with me. In early August, several Minneapolis teachers contacted me about an early literacy training session they had been to. What happened there shocked and offended many of them. I am happy to help tell their stories, which I decided to do in a series of blog posts. The stories center on two teachers–one white, one a teacher of color–and their reactions to the religiously tinged, “Common Core” ready, and all-around offensive training they attended. The teacher of color does not feel comfortable using her real name. Instead, I refer to her as Roxanne Berger.

Read Part One: Outsider’s imprint here.

Read Part Two: Why teachers of color leave here.

Context and background

One Asian character in 54 books

The sole Asian character in all 54 books. No Latino students were featured, as far as I know.

Emerging details show that, in July, Minneapolis school board members approved the district’s contract with the Utah-based company Reading Horizons. The contract is worth $1.2 million and is coated in promises that must have been tough to refuse, for a district desperate to close the “achievement gap,” boost test scores, and set all students on a path to success. 

If, the contract approval document declares, MPS buys the million dollar program, and if MPS teachers implement the Reading Horizons curriculum with “fidelity,” then this will happen:

All MPS students will demonstrate higher levels of reading skill in grades K-3. Achievement gaps between white students and students of color will narrow across all grades. MCA reading scores in grades 3-10 will increase over time, presuming implementation of the Reading Horizons program with fidelity.

But it turns out that Reading Horizons has an overtly religious public profile, and, another reader has pointed out, many of the company’s board of directors (all white men) appear to have connections with Mormon-based Brigham Young University.

Most troubling, however, has been the news that the classroom books Reading Horizons had prepared–and attempted to make “diverse,” at MPS’s request–were deeply offensive, and loaded with racist, sexist, narrow images and stories. (Please refer to Part One and Two above for further details about this.)

Teachers also report that the training itself was problematic, as it was led by a Reading Horizons employee who has asked not to be named. Her company profile, however, includes language that might raise some red flags, including these statements:

Now that I am a Reading Horizons trainer, it has become my mission to help transform teachers into reading specialists. I give them the tools to “save” the students I couldn’t.

Roxanne Berger, the teacher of color who asked not to be publicly named, wrote down nearly everything this employee said during the two-day, early August training session she attended. Here is some of what she shared with the teachers, according to Berger’s notes:

“I have a passion for poverty culture”

“They say you can’t stay in high poverty spaces for more than 5 years or else you’ll burn out. Well I’ll tell you what, I stayed for 7 years.”

“I was ready to quit. My empathy for people in poverty started to decline.”

RH Kings

All kings are white men. There is one prince and one princess who are not white.

Read the company’s July 23, 2015 press release, announcing its new contract with MPS. 

Part Three: Money for what?

As the Reading Horizons training scandal broke in early August, emails sent among Minneapolis staffers reveal efforts to try to explain why the district entered into a contract with Reading Horizons in the first place.

It is clear that a continuous lack of adequate classroom resources factored into the decision.

Teachers and staff report choosing Reading Horizons because at least the curriculum did come with some companion books for kids. Other programs were only technology based, which did not seem appropriate. Plus, the emails say, district teachers have been repeatedly asking for money to build up their classroom libraries, only to be told no.

In fact, one teacher has said–behind the scenes–that this is the third time in 10 years that MPS teachers have had a district-selected early literacy curriculum pushed on them, without adequate companion books for classroom use. 

And so going with Reading Horizons seemed like a good option because it would bring books into the classroom, even if they are a little “problematic.”

MPS communications associate Dirk Tedmon further defended the contract with Reading Horizons, from a different angle, by minimizing the “Little Books” and highlighting the quality of the company’s work.

“The Reading Horizons training was very expensive and very thorough,” Tedmon explained, and about much more than the accompanying set of books for children to read. “They are even called ‘Little Books’ because they are such a little part of the training,” he asserted.

The contract with Reading Horizons which is, again, worth $1.2 million, includes follow-up coaching services–to be done from afar, as the company is based in Salt Lake City and its trainers are not local.

Six-year-old Lucy, who lives somewhere in Africa, is “lazy.”

But, given what she has seen so far, Berger is not seeing the value: “It baffles my mind to think of the money the Minneapolis Public Schools spent on this.”

Especially when, many teachers say, the district’s Teaching and Learning department has been decimated by recent layoffs, not to mention an abrupt 2011 reshuffling that saw nearly all department staff “released” from their positions.

Former Teach for America member Mike Lynch then came from a job with McKinsey and Company (global business consultants) to head up MPS’s new “Teaching and Learning” department. His primary job was to oversee the implementation of a more explicit teaching program called “Focused Instruction.” 

Lynch is now gone, and the future doesn’t look bright for Focused Instruction, either. Some teachers are reporting that, when they try to access Focused Instruction online, they are being met with a big STOP sign, cautioning them that Focused Instruction is not adequately aligned with the Common Core State Standards.

Hence, the need to purchase a new early literacy curriculum arose.

So scripted “even a janitor” could use it

Mandy Perna, an Armatage Montessori teacher who attended the training with Berger, also noted that the Reading Horizons approach–beyond the offensive “Little Books”–struck her as odd: “The company’s ‘Implementation Coach’ kept emphasizing how scripted their curriculum is, saying things like, ‘isn’t it so great? It’s so scripted even a janitor could use it!”

Berger, too, found the scripted nature of Reading Horizons’ work “a little excessive.” It’s built around a carefully sequenced method of teaching, where students would be given concrete lessons in decoding and reading, and then be given a “Little Book” to read that would match their own reading level.

And those reading levels are to be determined by a computerized diagnostic test for the 5, 6, and 7 year olds in the district. Berger says a Reading Horizon rep told teachers that she herself had taken the test, and that it took her 45 minutes to complete it.

“I wonder how long it would take my kids to finish it, then” Berger wondered incredulously.

All of this is taking place within a national push for teachers to be held accountable for the test scores of their students, with an additional emphasis on controlling what happens in the classroom. Teaching explicit, sequenced lessons might have some value, especially for new teachers, says Perna, but it doesn’t reflect what she does in the classroom.

“Reading Horizons seems like a one size fits all approach, and I wonder about the kids who don’t need these lessons. I have first graders who are reading Harry Potter books. Will there be behavior problems, if they are supposed to sit through this?”

Continued pressure from teachers

By August 12, district employee Amy Jones had sent a more thorough email to K-2 teachers, giving them explicit instructions for how to return the offending  “Little Books” so that Reading Horizons can redesign them.

Noting that the Minneapolis Public Schools “will be seeking teacher input on the redesign,” Jones’s email makes it clear that, at this point, the district has no intention to cut ties with Reading Horizons. Instead, the email indicates that the books will be revised, with staff input, for use during the 2016-2017 school year, with no indication of what books teachers will be using this year.

But Berger is left with more questions than answers. She says she was told that the other reading curriculum vendors were “worse” than Reading Horizons. “Am I supposed to feel better about this?” she asked. “Do we continue to settle because it’s our ‘best option’?”

“Who looked at the books? Who was given a choice about this? If the problem will be blamed on Reading Horizons, then we should sever our relationship with them.”

The story is still evolving. Please stay tuned for MPS’s recent response to this story, as well as further input from teachers.

Cashing in on the “achievement gap”: Reading Horizons contract with Minneapolis reportedly worth $1.2 million

Sarah Lahm

August 26, 2015

Stay with me. In early August, several Minneapolis teachers contacted me about an early literacy training session they had been to. What happened there shocked and offended many of them. I am happy to help tell their stories, which I decided to do in a series of blog posts. The stories center on two teachers–one white, one a teacher of color–and their reactions to the religiously tinged, “Common Core” ready, and all-around offensive training they attended. The teacher of color does not feel comfortable using her real name.  Instead, I refer to her as Roxanne Berger.

Read Part One: Outsider’s imprint here.

Kenyans can run

Everybody knows Kenyans are good runners…

Background and further details: Reading Horizons cashes in on the “achievement gap” 

The teachers attended a two-day training in early August, sponsored by the Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) and hosted by a Utah-based company called Reading Horizons. The training was intended to get teachers up to speed on the new, Common Core-ready early literacy curriculum that MPS purchased from Reading Horizons for the district’s K-2 teachers.

But many teachers reported feeling angry and deeply offended not only by the shockingly dated, racist, and problematic early reader books that were created and distributed by Reading Horizons, but also by the training itself.

Yesterday, I reported that the contract Reading Horizons has with MPS is worth around $500,000. (I have requested a copy of the contract–which is a matter of public record–but have yet to receive it). However, last night on Facebook, a reader shared a district document that shows the contract is actually worth an incredible $1.2 million, paid for with referendum funds.

The “Deliverables” promised by Reading Horizons are telling (spelling error/typo is not mine):

All MPS studenst will demonstrate higher levels of reading skill in grades K-3. Achievement gaps between white students and students of color will narrow across all grades. MCA reading scores in grades 3-10 will increase over time, presuming implementation of the Reading Horizons program with fidelity.

If MPS implements the Reading Horizons program–at a cost of 1.2 million dollars–then test scores will increase. Quite a sales tactic, no?


“She was always in a good mood.”

Also, it is interesting to see that Reading Horizons is promising to “narrow” the “achievement gap” between white students and students of color–with the help of “Little Reader” books that have struck teachers and the general public as incredibly racist, sexist, and oppressive. Also, the books seem to have a colonizing, missionary vibe to them, which may be no accident, given Reading Horizons public profile (read on for more details). 

Read Part One: Outsider’s imprint here.

Part Two: Why teachers of color leave

Roxanne Berger–the teacher of color who did not want her real name used–says she walked out of the training after explaining how cutting and awful the Little Books seemed, only to collapse in the hallway, under the weight of the books and the lack of support she felt from her peers.  

Mandy 2015

Mandy Perna

Mandy Perna (this is her real name) is a first and second grade teacher at Armatage Montessori School in southwest Minneapolis and was seated with Berger at the Reading Horizons training. While Berger says she felt alone in her visceral reaction to the Reading Horizon books, Perna says many teachers immediately found the Little Books problematic, but didn’t speak up right away. 

Partly, Perna says, this was because a Minneapolis Public Schools employee–whose name she is not sure of–defended the books during the training, saying they were designed to make decoding words easier for kids.

Later, however, both Perna and Berger say they, along with other teachers, fired off emails to the district, only to be met with a gruff response.

“We were told, curtly, that if we didn’t like the books, we certainly didn’t have to use them,” says Perna.

An email from MPS that was sent to all teachers on Sunday, August 9th confirms this. The email was sent on behalf of Amy Jones, Director of Elementary Education for the district, and offers a terse look at the Reading Horizons uproar:

From: Amy Jones 
Sent: Sunday, August 09, 2015 7:10 PM
To: (name removed for privacy)
Subject: Reading Horizons little books

K-2 Teachers:

We have identified some issues with a small number of books from the Reading Horizons Little Books library.

We will collect the books from you and return them to Reading Horizons for redesign. We will be in touch with exact titles and the process for you to follow.

When the redesign is complete the books will be distributed to you.  We are working closely with Reading Horizons on this resolution.

Please keep in mind you can teach the program without all the little books so implementation can move forward as planned.

We appreciate your feedback and concerns and thank you for your patience.

Thank you.

“The feeling we got,” says Perna, “was that they don’t really care.”

The issue also raised the alarm of Minneapolis Federation of Teachers president Lynn Nordgren, who sent an email to teachers outlining the union’s response:

From: on behalf of Lynn Nordgren
Sent: Saturday, August 08, 2015 2:55 PM
To: All MPS teachers
Subject: New K-2 Reading Horizons books

It has come to MFT’s attention that there are issues with new K-2 reading books.  This summer, teachers who attended staff development on the new reading program found some pictures and stories in the books to be historically/socially/racially inaccurate and/or inappropriate.  Once I learned about this, I immediately contacted the Superintendent as well as the Chief Academic Officer, and the heads of MPS Staff Development, Teaching and Learning, Office of Equity and Diversity, and several other departments.  The CAO assured me they are looking into it and speaking with the company as well.

Still, says Berger, teachers were told by the district to “assume best intentions” on the part of Reading Horizons and the reading curriculum they created.

District Response: “It is not our place to judge them”

Gail Plewacki is the Minneapolis Public Schools new Communications Director, and in a phone conversation, she, along with new Communications Associate Dirk Tedmon, confirmed that Reading Horizons would be given a chance to redo the books.

“They are accessory books that come along with the curriculum, and we understand there are some issues with the books,” Plewacki said. “We are working with the publisher to revise the materials.”

Plewacki downplayed the books, and said a team that included up to 60 teachers had selected Reading Horizons because they are “known for their accomplishments in literacy.”

“They have a strong core program in places like Louisiana and Tennessee,” Plewacki said.

But a look at the company’s website reveals another thorny issue: there appears to be a strong religious aspect to Reading Horizons’ public profile. A section called “Core Values” squarely putsFaith,” and a Christian faith, at the center of Reading Horizons’ work, with a tagline that states, “We believe in a higher purpose to life. We seek to do His will and to achieve balance in our lives.”

When asked whether or not it was appropriate for a public school district to be purchasing products from an overtly religious company,  Tedmon seemed surprised: “It’s not our place to judge them, as long as they don’t disseminate the values through their products.”

And, Plewacki insisted, “the books are being revised, and they are a very, very small part of the whole program.”

Kenya clothes

People in Kenya make clothes for people in the U.S.

Berger, however, is not satisfied with this line of reasoning. Not only does she believe that the choice of Reading Horizons’ curriculum is an “example of how and why lies, stereotypes, and oppressive ideologies are continued,” but it touches something deeper for her.

“This whole situation is an example of why students and teachers of color leave education, or feel unsuccessful and un-represented.The fact that the issue is being minimized/diminished  affirms that this is not a safe space for us.”  

Read Part 3: “So scripted even a janitor could teach it” here

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Phonics or indoctrination? Minneapolis teacher training takes a step backwards

By Sarah Lahm

August 25, 2015

Stay with me. In early August, several Minneapolis teachers contacted me about an early literacy training session they had been to. What happened there shocked and offended many of them. I am happy to help tell their stories, which I decided to do in a series of blog posts. The stories center on two teachers–one white, one a teacher of color–and their reactions to the religiously tinged, “Common Core” ready, and all-around offensive training they attended. The teacher of color does not feel comfortable using her real name. Lazy Lucy

PART ONE: Outsider’s imprint 

Roxanne Berger is just the kind of teacher the Minneapolis Public Schools says they want and need: She is bright, young, and devoted to the first graders she teaches in a northside elementary school. And, she is a person of color in a district, city, and country that constantly claims to want to “diversify” its teaching force.

But Roxanne Berger is not her real name. 

“Roxanne” does not feel comfortable going public for this story. She says that, in just under five years on the job, she has already spoken out about the entrenched racism and “white savior” climate she sees at her workplace. She feels she is on thin ice with the district and some of her coworkers.

She wants to lie low and teach but can’t stop herself from speaking out about a district-sponsored training she attended on August 5th and 6th of this year.

The training did not go well.

It was put on by a Utah-based company called Reading Horizons. Earlier this year, the Minneapolis Public Schools entered into a contract with Reading Horizons, said to be worth $500,000, to purchase a phonics curriculum and ongoing coaching services, intended for the city’s K-2 teachers.

Part of the reason for this new curriculum is to bring Minneapolis teachers more in line with the Common Core State Standards. a controversial set of K-12 math and reading standards that 43 states have adopted (Minnesota only brought on the Language Arts guidelines). Making sure all kids receive “foundational skills,” such as explicit phonics instruction, is part of this, as is the focus on getting all kids reading by 3rd grade.

But Berger says the training was flawed and offensive from the moment it started until Berger finally walked out on day two, unable to stand it anymore.

First of all, Berger says, the trainer immediately revealed her bias against the very schools Berger has worked in. “She introduced herself by saying she was from Kansas City, but lived in the suburbs. She said she didn’t go downtown because, ‘Frankly, it’s scary.’” 

Berger says the Reading Horizons trainer then kept referring to “poverty schools,” and how people should not work in them for more than five years. She knew this from personal experience, Berger says, as she told the teachers before her that she herself had made the mistake of working in a “poverty school” for seven years, at which point her “empathy went down.”


Berger says she wrote down everything the trainer said and has a mountain of Post-It notes to prove it. After the first session ended, she went in search of someone to talk to about what she was witnessing.

She found Minneapolis Public Schools employee Amy Jones, who is the director of elementary education for the district’s Teaching and Learning department.

Berger said Jones reminded her that “the Reading Horizons trainer isn’t employed by the Minneapolis Public Schools” and therefore doesn’t represent the district’s views and values.

Berger says Jones also promised to talk with Reading Horizons about the concerns Berger expressed.

Berger walked away, but came back for day two, fully expecting that Jones would have talked with the training employee. But, she says, that employee didn’t acknowledge anything or address the feedback Berger had put in Jones’s hands.

“That’s when I just got disengaged, and started checking my phone and email,” Berger said, noting that the district was paying her–and all teachers at the training–around $25 per hour for being there.

After a lunch break, Berger says the Reading Horizons employee rolled out the books, called “Little Books,” that teachers are to use with their students as a way to reinforce Reading Horizons’ lesson plans.

“We had heard on the first day of the training that MPS had contracted with Reading Horizons, and asked them to make books that were representative of the students we teach, so I was expecting that they would be.”

What she saw instead made her blood boil.

As the trainer handed out the packages of books–there were 54 books, total–Berger lost it.

RH Nieko & Dad

Click for a close-up

“I saw the book called ‘Nieko, the Hunting Girl,’ and I just said, Oh my fucking God. I started taking pictures of what I was seeing, and posting it on Facebook.”  

The cover of “Nieko the Hunting Girl” reveals a Disney-like version of “Indians.” The character Neiko is pictured with her father, and both are wearing simple headbands and indistinguishable “Native” clothing, intended to be reflective of the Stone Age era, it seems. In the story, Nieko and her father set off on a hunting mission. The animal they are seeking is the wooly mammoth, which became extinct thousands of years ago.

RH Nieko Cover RH Nieko Pic

Around her, in the training room, Berger found herself in a surreal scene, where she says her fellow teachers were mostly engaged in complaining about how the books had been packaged, while her own blood pressure was going through the roof. Book after book, she says, was loaded with racist, sexist, “heteronormative” themes and images. The only kings portrayed are white men, for one thing, and the books about Africa seem sloppily done, with an awkward, outsider’s imprint.

Example: A book called “Lazy Lucy” features a 6-year-old girl in an unspecified part of Africa. She is lazy and needs to get better about cleaning out her hut. Then, in another book called “An African Fable,” a man dressed in Western-looking clothing is trying to put a belt and buckle on a dog named “Uncle Chuckle.” African Fable cover

It’s hard to tell what makes the story an African fable.

There’s more. Berger noticed that, out of 54 books, “only one had an Asian character, who appeared to have been adopted by a white family.”  Yet the training was being held at Hmong International Academy, a north Minneapolis magnet school with a specific focus on Hmong culture and language.

Berger says she finally told the group her thoughts. “I told them, ‘I’m so angry, I can’t speak,” and that these books make me sick.”

She says she went through the offending books, giving Shirk each book’s title and the issues within them.

When recalling the last book, Berger becomes choked with emotion.

The book, about Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press (although the book refers to him as “Johann”), tells young readers that in 1492, Christopher Columbus “discovered America” after reading a book about Marco Polo’s own explorations. On the next page, a Christopher Columbus character is pictured standing amongst a globe and a few prominent question marks, with the following query:

“What do you think would have happened if Christopher Columbus had not read that book?” 

Columbus discovers America

Click for close-up

Her voice raw with pain, Berger reflected on Columbus’s complicated legacy: “I think of so much that would not have happened if he hadn’t read that book.”

It should be noted that in 2014 Minneapolis became the fifth city in the United States to declare Columbus Day “Indigenous People’s Day.” At the time, a National Public Radio report featured Lakota activist Bill Means calling the Christopher Columbus story “‘one of the first lies we’re told in public education.’”  

Click here for Part Two: Why teachers of color leave

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D is for Dyett High School

Follow Jitu Brown on Twitter: @brothajitu

Right now, in Chicago, 12 people are entering week two of a hunger strike.

Yes, in Chicago, Illinois. 

A local media blackout means the story of the hunger strikers is not getting out the way it should, so let’s all do what we can to help.

Read Chicago teacher Michelle Gunderson’s post in Living in Dialogue for some background info:

The twelve people have committed to withholding food – parents, grandparents, teachers, a minister, and community members – forming a hunger strike to keep the only open enrollment high school in the Bronzeville community of Chicago.

Dyett High School is named after Chicago Public Schools music teacher and all-around  very accomplished musician, Walter Dyett:  

…the tough and volatile bandleader who trained everyone from singer-pianist Nat “King” Cole to avant-garde trombonist Julian Priester, from comedian (and former bandleader) Redd Foxx to singer-guitarist Bo Diddley (who studied violin)….

Having received a bachelor of music degree from VanderCook College of Music in 1938 and a master of music degree from Chicago Musical College in ’42, Dyett clearly was the compleat teacher: triply blessed with a virtuoso’s ear, advanced musical training and the organizational ability to turn generations of poor kids into moneymaking entertainers.

When Dyett realized, for instance, that the Chicago Board of Education wasn’t going to provide the musical instruments  his band required, he created the “Hi-Jinks” show, a musical revue staged by students that drew audiences from across the city and generated enough cash to buy all the instruments he needed.

Source: Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune

But that was then. Dyett died in 1969. Today, the high school that bears his name has been under attack for at least a decade, thanks to the forces of public school privatization, who want to take over and control publicly (under) funded education:

The demand is simple – the hunger strikers want a public high school designed by the community to re-open at Dyett, not a contract school from a failed supplier or a charter operation.

The Bronzeville community wants to decide what happens to Dyett. But the Chicago Public Schools won’t give them an answer. Instead, they keep pushing off the decision, even in the face of the hunger strikers.

“We’ve been pushed to the point of putting our bodies on the line to say enough is enough,” said Jitu Brown, one of the organizers of the coalition that includes the Chicago Teachers Union, the Chicago Botanic Garden, Teachers for Social Justice and other groups.

Brown and others said the hunger strike was prompted by what they characterized as a long series of delays to make a final decision on the future of Dyett since announcing in 2009 the school would be phased out in 2015.

Is this what school choice comes down to? From Michelle Gunderson: “Rhoda Rae Gutierrez and Pauline Lipman consider Dyett High School a victim of the 3Ds of education reform – destabilization, disinvestment, and disenfranchisement.”

 Activists said they were becoming more emotional but thinking clearer now that they hadn't eaten for five days in a campaign to force a decision on Dyett High School by CPS.

Some people care too much

Barton mosaic

New kid, parent, and teacher constructed mural at Barton Open School

In my dream life, I could be everywhere at once. 

It’s been tough this week to feel homebound, stuck behind my computer working on a deadline (I’ll let you know when the article is out!) while exciting back to school events are happening across Minneapolis.

I’d love to be at all of them. 

A friend said I should come over to Harrison , an alternative high school for kids with “severe emotional and behavioral needs.”  The new principal there–Dr. Monica Farbre–is doing amazing things, she told me, and calling on the community to get involved and help make the place work the way it should.

I wanted to see this up close, and hope to get over there before too long, given all of the controversy surrounding special ed in Minneapolis, St. Paul, Chicago, Newark….

And there was Patrick Henry’s Back to School night: Patrick Henry BBQ

And probably a dozen more that I would have loved to for myself.

GRIF background

A telling picture: my son in the background, waiting and watching before joining in

Instead, I only made it to my own kids’ event, at Barton. It was a lovely scene, at a school fighting to hold on through ch-ch-ch changes, as we welcomed our third principal in four years last night. We’re planning on this one being a charm.

My youngest was sick, so I went only with my 10-year-old, who is nervously and excitedly gearing up for 5th grade. He’s the kind who doubts himself mightily but loves to learn. He is prone to spouting catastrophic thoughts (“this will never work out.” “I’ll never learn math,” I won’t have any friends in my class”) and often requires an incredibly patient adult to help him get things done. Sweet kid, but not simple to parent or teach.

Like everyone else’s kid, maybe.

Here’s hoping everyone’s school year gets off to a loving start–

Felicity's bench

Barton has barely any green space, because it shares a city block with residents. Last fall, a small slice of yard in front of the old library entrance was converted–through the sweat and vision of many volunteers–into a wildflower garden, in honor of teacher Felicity Crosby, who died unexpectedly last fall.

The bench is inscribed with this Winnie the Pooh quote:

“Some people care too much. I think it’s called love.”

Minneapolis Public Schools: Boondoggle Part 2

Back to the boondoggle

So, a group of Minneapolis Public Schools’ administrators, along with a school board member and a state senator, take a $25,000 trip to Boston for a PELP fest. (PELP=A Harvard sponsored Public Education Leadership Program, sort of a reform-soaked summer camp for public school districts).

But that $25,000, of course, is just a drop in the bucket, considering PELP is co-chaired by John J-H Kim, who is also the CEO of the Boston-based consulting company, District Management Council (DMC), that has contracts with the Minneapolis Public Schools worth up to $2 million.

$25,000 here, $2 million there–it has a nice way of adding up. Especially when the Minneapolis Public Schools are constantly emphasizing–or creating–the need for budget cuts and “right-sizing.”

Don’t forget–the “right-sizing” concept, along with a new scarcity-driven “student-based budget” model–has all been brought to MPS by Kim’s District Management Council. Austerity measures and layoffs for regular folk, summer trips for the rest? 

Or, as the DMC website puts it:

As school districts are faced with dwindling budgets and increasing needs–smart and strategic allocation of resources is imperative to maintaining and improving performance.

Back to the Boston junket. 

Patricia Torres Ray

Patricia Torres Ray, D-Minneapolis, is the state senator who went along on the trip. Her airfare and PELP costs were not covered by the school district, which would have of course been unethical, but instead by AchieveMpls, the non-profit “partner” (in which private corporations get to pull strings) of the Minneapolis Public Schools, run by one-time school board member Pam Costain.


AchieveMpls provides MPS’s superintendent–even an interim one, it seems–with a pot of discretionary funds. This fund was in the spotlight recently, when it was revealed that former school board member Dick Mammen had been paid $10,000 from the AchieveMpls fund, for “poring over contracts,” in connection to a community pool project.

On some level, no one needs to know how the hot dogs are made. But in an ever-increasing era of “accountability” and test-based ranking of teachers and schools, perhaps everyone should have a better idea of where district funds–secret or not–are going, and how policy decisions are being made.

The focus of this PELP trip to Boston was MPS’s English Language Learners (ELL) program. 

In 2014, Senator Torres Ray helped secure an extra $5 million dollars for MPS’s ELL program (how? I’d love to know). Sources close to the situation say a good friend of Torres Ray’s, Elia Bruggeman, was then hired by MPS–in a no-bid sort of way, as the job was never posted–to manage this $5 million.

Some MPS staff–who have asked to remain anonymous for fear of being right-sized on out of a job–are saying that the executive director of MPS’s English Language Learner program has been cut out of discussions about how this money should be spent.

Bruggeman makes over $140,000 per year for MPS, as a “Deputy Education Officer.” She also went along on the MPS trip to Boston, to study how to manage, in a Harvard Business School kind of way, the district’s ELL program.

Trying to find her name and place on MPS’ org chart is not easy these days:


MPS Org Chart


In an interview about the trip to PELP, Torres Ray said she was invited along to help MPS develop a “comprehensive plan” for ELL students. She said the district is seeking “heavy duty advisors, like Harvard” in order to find a “scientific approach” to serving ELL students.

Torres Ray called the PELP experience “excellent,” and said it provided a “really different lens” through a  “business-driven model.” 

Politically, she said, implementing it will be a challenge. One area of difficulty she mentioned is that “some people don’t want change.” Specifically, Torres Ray spoke of “teacher hiring, training, and evaluations” which are “out of the control of the district.”

Union policies, she said, “control” problems with teachers (as in, “What do we do with this teacher?“), not the district.

It’s not so easy, perhaps, to get rid of teachers who may not agree with a PELP-driven reform plan.

Her goal on the trip, as a community representative, was to figure out “how to support MPS through policy.”

How that will happen and what that will look like is not yet clear.

And, while MPS’s ELL numbers continue to grow, it is not yet clear who will be driving change, and who will be held accountable for it.

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Early Childhood Worker: Shuttled Out the Door After 20 Years

“Twenty years of experience doesn’t matter because I don’t have a two-year degree.”

That’s the feeling former Minneapolis Public Schools employee Mary Kaasa–a slight woman with a hidden, steely determination–has been sitting with since the spring of 2014, when she was laid off from her job as an Education Assistant (EA) in the district’s Early Childhood Family Education (ECFE) program.Mary Kaasa 2

“I was shuttled out the door with no chance to say anything. It was a slap in the face.”

Kaasa was laid off, along with 7 of her ECFE co-workers, when the district’s “Human Capital” department decided to phase out the Education Assistant position and replace it with a new job title: Associate Educator.

The only difference, according to Kaasa, is that Associate Educators, called AEs, are required to have a two-year college degree. 

Kaasa does not have one.

What she has instead is 20 years of experience, a stack of glowing references from her supervisors, and the devotion of the families she worked with.  

Example: In the spring of 2014, when Mary informed ECFE parents that her position had been eliminated, parent Anat Sinar says she and her husband were very sad. Instead of returning to the ECFE program, they decided to explore area preschool options for their daughter, saying they would have considered staying with the ECFE program if Mary would have been there.

Mary with kids

Kaasa with kids, 2011

“I have no sense of why these changes were necessary,” says Sinar, “ and I am curious as to why the position Mary had would require a college degree. Why is her experience in the program not equivalent to a two-year college degree? Why not Grandfather people like Mary in?”

Fellow ECFE parent Adam Nafziger also remembers Mary well. He took a “Daytime Dads” class at ECFE, and called Mary a “constant” in the classroom. Nafziger said he was “especially impressed with how quickly she learned the quirks and personalities of the dozen little ones she was in contact with.”

When Nafziger found out what happened to Mary, and her early childhood co workers, he said, “Not only does this fit a sad, broad pattern of destabilizing unions, but specifically, letting go of the most experienced workers (when the early childhood program relies on the experience and wisdom of those who have come before us) seems incredibly short-sighted.”

It’s not as if Kaasa wasn’t “highly qualified” for her job. Literally.

When Kaasa started working for the Minneapolis Public Schools in 1994, she did not need a college degree. Instead, a high school diploma was good enough for her job as a childcare assistant. 

Through the years, Kaasa stuck with her job, because she liked being close to the children and families who came through the ECFE program. While she never pursued a college degree, she did many training courses and achieved stacks of certificates as evidence of her continuing education, which the school district paid for.  Kaasa also says that when the No Child Left Behind law was passed in 2002, a new mandate came with it, which required all school employees to be “highly qualified.”

In lieu of a college degree, employees could take a test in order to meet the highly qualified designation; Kaasa says she passed, and her union president, Linnea Hackett (of the Education Support Professionals division of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers), confirms this. 

But, as an EA, Kaasa had job security. AEs do not.

As an EA, Kaasa says, “as long as there was a position available, we were guaranteed a job.” But AEs work instead on a yearly renewable contract, making them more like adjunct staff members than permanent employees. 

Mary’s union initially tried to fight for her job and those of her co-workers (there were more than a dozen impacted by this, I am told).

In February 2014, ESP president Hackett says she approached the Minneapolis Public Schools’ newly named Human Capital division, which operates within the broader Human Resources department, and offered two pathways for educational assistants like Mary to keep their jobs in the early childhood program. They could become special education assistants, of which the district had a shortage, or complete the coursework—on the union’s dime—to get the credentials necessary for the associate educator position.

The decision lay in the hands of DeRay McKesson, who was then a newly arrived Senior Director of Human Capital. A 2007 graduate of Bowdoin, McKesson had served a two-year post-college stint in Teach for America before rising quickly through the ranks of the education management field. McKesson declined both of the union’s offers. (He has since gone on to a prominent national position in the Black Lives Matter movement.)

The district said later, via email, that the layoffs were necessary in order to provide more flexibility in hiring practices, as the new job title is “not subject to seniority-based layoff and allows for more site influence in the hiring process.” The goal, says the district, is to hire a more diverse workforce. 

Still, the fact that Kaasa had to answer to something called the Human Capital Department rubbed her the wrong way. “It sounds like we are chattel,” says Kaasa,” as if they are saying, ‘What do you bid for this person?’” 

It’s been over a year since Kaasa was let go. She never got a chance to say goodbye. 

Now, she has been listed as “terminated” in MPS’ HR system. The district’s benefits department told her this: 

“Once it’s in the system, we can’t change it.”

But no termination letter was ever sent to her. 

Her unemployment benefits ran out. Kaasa decided to retire, so that she could start collecting her pension. She knew, after all, that she wasn’t going back to the early childhood program. All of the EA positions were gone, and she was not qualified to be an AE.

She is still fighting to get the sick pay that she says the district owes her.

“it’s a couple thousand dollars, and I earned that. If I had known they weren’t going to pay it, I would have taken those sick days, instead of coming in when I didn’t feel well, like a diligent worker.”

All of this prompted Kaasa to speak out at an October 2014 school board meeting, where she addressed the board and then Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson:

“You may not know how it feels to be so easily dismissed,” Kaasa told the board. “But I can tell you that I feel sad and frustrated and angry and unheard. I still don’t understand why, after twenty years of dedication to children and their families, I am pushed aside.”

In March, 2015, the union filed a grievance on Kaasa’s behalf. It was denied by the district. A resolution will not be cheap:

MFT says the district always disputes a grievance. It may take a few more months before it goes to arbitration, though, and I am ‘the case’ that will determine if I will get my benefits and then see if it applies to any others that have lost theirs over the past few years.

The attorney fees will cost them (MPS) more than just paying me my sick time. Kaasa in Coffee Shop

“I felt strongly about my job and didn’t want it to end,” says Kaasa.

Especially not like this.

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Boston Boondoggle for MPS?

By Sarah Lahm

The Minneapolis Public Schools has no money; we all know that. It’s in constant belt-tightening mode, with a side of publicly touted layoffs and “right-sizing” to make it all real. 

MPS to Staff

Remember this, from March 2015?

Central office staff at the Davis Center will be reduced by one-sixth, saving the district $11.6 million. The money will primarily go toward reducing class sizes, lowering special education caseloads and additional study time at middle and high schools, the district said.


“’We want schools to have the flexibility and autonomy to make decisions at the school level that are in the best interest of their specific students,’” Minneapolis Public Schools spokeswoman Rachel Hicks said.

Hicks is gone, of course, as is most of the rest of MPS’ Communications department.

Maybe that’s why someone forgot to trump up the fact that a cohort of MPS brass, along with a school board member and a state senator, recently went on a $25,000 jaunt to Boston.

Harvard Delegation

Click to enlarge

They were there to study the district’s English Language Learner (ELL) program, under the watchful eye of John J-H Kim. Kim is the faculty co-chair of Harvard’s Public Education Leadership Program (PULP–no, PELP. Sorry).

Pulp: the substance that is left after the liquid (money) has been squeezed from a fruit or vegetable or public school district

Rest easy, everyone. PELP is a joint project between the Harvard Business School and the Harvard Graduate School of Education. For $2,800 per person–not including airfare and other transport needs–your local school district dilletantes can drink from the Harvard fountain of knowledge for four or five days, and probably get a handsome, superintendent-worthy stamp on their resume.

I’m imagining PELP 101: How can I run my school district like a business?

It makes perfect sense that John J-H Kim would be helping run the thing. He is not only the co-chair of PELP, which brings in public school district types for an undoubtedly transformational summer camp experience, but he is also the CEO of Boston-based District Management Council (DMC).


DMC makes money–a lot of it, I’m guessing–by getting million dollar contracts with school districts around the country. And, they also have a private club for these districts, if they will shell out $25,000/year.

Minneapolis is listed as a member of DMC’s secret club, but I haven’t been able to verify yet whether this is a wish list kind of thing, or an actual list of districts that are paying to play with DMC. (In case you were wondering: membership does include discounts on DMC’s technology products).

DMC has also been quite busy in MPS of late, pushing a special education audit that has put them in the glare of parents with kids in the autism program. DMC’s audit is being used, it seems, as a reason to push abrupt change on MPS’s special ed staff and families. 

Or maybe they just need to go along on the next PELP junket, in order to see the DMC light?

Lingering questions:

  1. What big PELP-y surprises are in store for MPS’s ELL department?
  2. Why didn’t any teachers go? 
  3. AchieveMpls–“As the strategic nonprofit partner of the Minneapolis Public Schools, our shared goal is every student career and college ready. Join us!”–paid for state senator Patricia Torres Ray to go? More on that later.
  4. Budget watch! DMC is also the brains behind MPS’s awkward efforts to implement a “student-based” funding model–watch out, folks. Wonder if that came up at PELP?

I’m no John J-H Kim, but please consider throwing some funds my way. I’ll even make up a certificate for you!