Monthly Archives: August 2016

Minneapolis Superintendent Sings Prince, Peddles Hope

August 28, 2016

Tomorrow, August 29, school starts in Minneapolis. Friday, August 26, new district superintendent, Ed Graff, did something that hasn’t been done in years.

Using story, song and warm fuzzy-like swirls of hope, Graff delivered a “State of the Schools” address at Minneapolis’s Orchestra Hall. Displaying a knack for crowd-pleasing action, Graff also joined the newly-formed Minneapolis Public Schools’s Intergenerational Choir (what a lovely idea) in a medley of Prince songs, including his hit for the Bangles, “Manic Monday–surely intended as a nod to the tangle of emotions parents, students and staff have on the eve of a new school year.

The showmanship worked, judging by the beaming faces, clapping hands and renewed energy bouncing around Orchestra Hall’s golden interior. Graff somehow managed to walk through a PowerPoint about the Minneapolis schools without once mentioning test scores, the achievement gap or any other typical “failure factory” attributes. 

Instead, Graff floated in on the reverberations of a “cheers and chants” performance by students from north Minneapolis’s Lucy Laney Pre-K – 5 school. The kids, part of Laney’sBeaconsafter-school program, shook the house with shouts of “Yeah, I’m hyped/Yeah, I’m ready!” The audience joined in, helping to set the stage for Graff’s upbeat address.

Graff’s theme for the morning was “MPS Strong,” and In his walk-through of what that means, he focused on the good by drawing attention to student voices and adult and kid success stories. There was a montage of young students defining what strong means to them; it was sweet, but not cloyingly so, with kids saying strong means someone is “healthy, fit, strong of heart,” and “confident,” mentally, physically and academically.

Graff prefaced the kids’ view by noting that “being strong doesn’t mean we’re perfect,” but insisted that “our challenges aren’t the most important part of our story.” He later highlighted the success story of a boy from the River Bend Education Center, which serves kids with high behavioral and emotional needs, and a young woman who just graduated from the district’s Longfellow School, for pregnant and parenting teens, and is on her way to community college.

Graff also called attention to Edward Davis, a former special education assistant at River Bend who is about to start his first year as a fifth grade science teacher at Lucy Laney school. Davis was part of the first cohort to go through the district’s Grow Your Own program, designed to diversify MPS’s teaching pool by helping classroom assistants become licensed teachers. Davis’s toddler daughter was there in his arms, stopping the show with her excited cries of, “There’s Daddy right there!,” every time Davis’s image flashed on the big screen in front of the crowd.

The jubilance of Davis’s young daughter infected the somewhat sparse crowd, as many classroom teachers were back in their buildings getting ready to welcome students on Monday. (The event was live-streamed, and can be viewed here.) Graff ended the morning with a brief turn at the piano, before adding his voice to the intergenerational choir’s tribute to Prince, a MPS grad from the “warm fuzzy” era. Wherever Minneapolis students are engaging in the fine arts, Graff declared, “I’ll be there.” 

This was enough to buoy the crowd of administrators, school board members, teachers and staff (along with Mayor Betsy Hodges), and send them off on their Friday–without the usual mountain of edu-jargon and acronyms to hide what goes on behind classroom doors. The whole scene may have prompted the more cynical among them to ask what a nice guy like Graff is doing in a place like this (and how long will he last?).

However, three personnel developments over the summer indicate that perhaps MPS, under and inspired by Graff, might be turning a new page. First, Washburn theater teacher Crystal Spring’s job was reinstated, after she was threatened with dismissal by MPS’s Employee Relations division for being arrested on her own time (the charges were later dropped). Observers said the harsh treatment Spring received from HR was nothing new, and feared her quick reinstatement came only through public pressure.

Then, Washburn staffer Elisabeth Geschiere, also facing HR discipline she felt was unfair and unjust, had a “not recommended for rehire” letter put in her employee file. After public pressure, a meeting with Graff and then a further sit-down with Employee Relations staffers, Geschiere has reported that this letter–which could bar her from future employment in MPS–has been removed from her file.

Finally, in recent days, Barton Open’s principal, Jonas Beugen, was reportedly reassigned within the district, after months of internal and public protest from some members of the Barton community. Initially, Chief of Schools Michael Thomas and Graff both stated that Beugen would stay, despite an emotional outpouring at the July 12 Minneapolis board meeting. Staff at Barton, along with some parents, persisted in asking for an actual investigation into the climate at the school.

Thomas responded–the day before the Barton’s August 25 Meet Your Teacher event–with a Robocall indicating that retired MPS principal Cynthia Mueller will be helping lead the school this year. Thomas’s message did not mention Beugen, but it became known that he has been reassigned, and Mueller, along with new Assistant Principal Diane Bagley will be at the helm.

Insiders say this is surprising action by district administrators, who often have a reputation for delivering hard-edged decisions without rank-and-file input, or evidence of “best practices.” Is this because of Graff and his reputation for thorough decision-making?

Too soon to tell, but, like a blank composition book in a unscuffed backpack, there is hope.

As School Begins: What James Baldwin Has to Tell Us

August 21, 2016

Guest post! Minneapolis teacher and writer, Julie Landsman, reflects on the upcoming school year, and what it means for teachers and students–especially those ready to confront racial injustice.

In words to his fifteen-year old nephew, James Baldwin wrote:

And if the word integration means anything, this is what it means: that we, with love, shall force our brothers to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it. For this is your home, my friend, do not be drive from it; great men have done great things here, and will again, and we can make America what America must become. It will be hard, James, but you come from a sturdy peasant stock, men who picked cotton and dammed rivers and built railroads, and in the teeth of the most terrifying odds, achieved an unassailable and monumental dignity.-

-“My Dungeon Shook,” 1962

It has been fifty-four years since James Baldwin wrote these words. What is all too remarkable and depressing to many of us who teach and write from a social justice perspective is that his words are entirely relevant today. After a summer of killings of African-Americans by police officers, and in reaction the killing of five officers in Dallas, along with the recent unrest in Milwaukee, students will come to us in the fall and throughout the year wanting to know: what led up to this? 

What is our history that underlies much of Baldwin’s references? Of all the years of my teaching and working with teachers, this year feels to be one of great urgency. It is an urgency to recognize the initial genocides our country was built on; how important it is to have truthful, unflinching discussions about the difference between the perceptions of, and the reality of, our past.

If we are good at what we do,  we educators will present students with what Baldwin cites in his 1963 “Talk to Teachers”:

The paradox of education is precisely this—that as one begins to become conscious, one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated. 

If we are able, we will provide the space for students to ask questions and we will be ready to let them find the answers, let them disagree and argue. Teaching is a messy experience if it is done right. It may be that high school students will want to take part in direct action, conferences, letters to the editor, self-directed research projects, after what they have observed, absorbed, even participated in over the summer. Some of their work may have to do with what they observe about education itself, how classes for Advanced Placement are filled with White students and special education classes for behavior are filled with African-American males. Their questioning may lead a White student to ask why his Black friend was suspended for doing the same thing he did, and nothing was done to him for the same violation of the rules, the same walk down the hall without a pass.

More than ever, we must build time into our classrooms to listen, to allow discussion and to let these questions, fears, thoughts, interrupt our careful sequence of lesson plans; to let students work these things out together. If we are truly educating as Baldwin predicted in 1962, our goal has to be to provide the chance to examine the society in which our students are being educated. We do this without giving up a challenging curriculum that grows from these questions. At the same time as activists, we must examine the very texts and requirements we have been mandated to teach. We must become aware of whose perspective this curriculum is written from–who is chosen, who is included.

Again, from Baldwin’s “A Talk to Teachers”:

I would try to make him [my nephew] know that just as American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it, so is the world larger, more daring, more beautiful and more terrible, but principally larger—and that it belongs to him. I would teach him that he doesn’t have to be bound by the expediencies of a given administration, any given policy, any given morality; that he has the right and the necessity to examine everything. 

What this requires of us is a rethinking about what we do with our students each day: the amount of time we allow students to talk, to lead and to even devise lesson plans . It requires that we think deeply about what is absent from our books, our videos, our YouTube clips– what is not there, what part of our American history that is “larger, more various, more beautiful and more terrible than anyone has ever said about it” is not included in the pages of our texts, the literary anthologies we hand out in September.

We can start with something like Langston Hughes’ 1959 poem, “Theme for English B”:

“The Instructor said,/Go home and write/A page tonight./And let that page come out of you—/Then it will be true.”

Later in the poem, Hughes writes:

“So will my page be colored that I write?/Being me, it will not be white./But it will be/A part of you, instructor./You are white—/Yet a part of me, as I am a part of you./That’s American.”

To open our classrooms with this command, to write a page that will come out of our students–be they seven or seventeen–as a way of understanding who will be sitting before us for the nine months we have them, will be one version of listening.

There is no list of ways to create an educational system that is truly equitable. Yet, the voices of students are the closest thing I know to a beginning for this work.

Julie Landsman (www.jlandsman.com) is the author of three books on education: Basic Needs: A Year with Street Kids in a City School (Milkweed Editions, 1993) A White Teacher Talks About Race (Rowman and Littlefield 2001) and Growing Up White; a Veteran Teacher Reflects on Racism (Rowman and Littlefield, 2008). She is also the editor of many collections of essays stories and poems, the most recent being Voices for Diversity and Social Justice, A Literary Education Reader, with Paul Gorski and Rosanna Salcedo, (Rowman and Littlefield 2015) She is a retired teacher from the Minneapolis public schools, and consults and teaches seminars on education, writing, race and culture.

Minneapolis Finds Itself Between a Referendum and a Hard Place

August 16, 2016

Tonight’s Minneapolis school board meeting promises to be a lively one. Friends and supporters of Washburn High School staff member, Elisabeth Geschiere, have promised to show up in force, to protest what they say is unfair disciplinary action against Geschiere.

Other school communities are planning to show up, too. Geschiere’s story–documented here–offers a rare, public window into what many Minneapolis teachers and support staff say is a district-wide climate of hostile management practices. At the most empowered schools–like Washburn or Barton–teachers and support staff who feel targeted can often spill their stories to parents and community supporters, who can help advocate for them.

In the least empowered schools, bullying administrators seem to run roughshod over a revolving door of teachers and staff–without consequence from the district. One northside elementary school, serving a very marginalized population of kids and families, has reportedly lost 40 percent of its teachers this year, due to what sources say are dysfunctional and harmful administrator-staff relationships. 

Staff and teachers of color often don’t feel safe speaking publicly about this, or asking supporters to rally with them at school board meetings. A comment on the Facebook event page for tonight’s school board rally makes this clear:

This story is not unique and we need to have a presence at tomorrow’s meeting to show support for all the teachers of color and advocates for teachers/students of color who have been targeted and silenced. We need to stand up for racial justice and fight against the status quo of power and intimidation that is present within the district.

This is the hard place Minneapolis finds itself in, with many behind-the-scenes hopes being pinned on new superintendent Ed Graff–who charmed the board and community members with his reputation for prioritizing “social-emotional” learning, and for being a breath of fresh air, imported from the Anchorage schools. 

Meanwhile, the district needs more operating money from Minneapolis voters. At tonight’s board meeting, which promises to start with another airing of the district’s dirty laundry, board members will vote on a resolution to put a referendum on the November ballot.

Documents available online indicate that the board is planning to ask voters for nothing more than a maintenance of the current referendum amount, which first passed in 2008 (some board members wanted to ask for an increase, but that hope has apparently died). The request for money often comes with promises of lower class sizes or new technology, but for Minneapolis and most districts around the state, referendum funds are actually needed for general operating costs, to make up for a long decline in state financial support (this trend has deeply impacted funding for public higher ed in Minnesota, too).

A 2008 report from the Minnesota Budget Project, called the “Lost Decade,” put it this way:

From FY 2003 to FY 2009: • Per pupil state aid to school districts fell by 14 percent. • School property taxes per pupil rose by 48 percent.

So, which comes first? The defunding or the dysfunction? As state revenue for public education has dropped, the number of children living in poverty has increased. The needs are greater, the resources are fewer, and the district seems to be going through an existential crisis. Since at least 2007–right around the time public aid for education, housing and child care was dropping–the Minneapolis Public Schools has embraced (or been pressured to embrace) a thriving international trend: the privatization of public education.

This trend, driven locally by a handful of wealthy power brokers, has fixed the blame for much of what isn’t working in the Minneapolis schools at the feet of teachers and school staff. To oversimplify, the narrative goes something like this: Test scores aren’t rising fast enough, so obviously teachers aren’t doing all they could to close the ever-present “achievement gap.” (Yet staff like Elisabeth Geschiere say they face retaliation for working closely with marginalized students who try to advocate for themselves.)

The district seems to have ground itself into a culture of fear and intimidation, coupled with the ongoing destruction of many departments–such as IT–that once drew praise for their resourcefulness and innovation. The only hope may be public demonstrations, like the one scheduled for tonight’s board meeting, where people from schools across the district come together to protest hostile employee relations.

Or, in the words of Brazilian teacher Eduardo Moraes, who participated in a five month strike that ended just before the Rio Olympics started, and recently spoke to a reporter about what teachers in the U.S. could do to improve their own working conditions,

 “I would say that only struggle changes lives,” said Eduardo. “The only way for them to overcome the issues that they face over there, which are similar in some ways to ours, is to organize and to get involved and participate in the struggles of education for the whole society.”

And then, maybe, the referendum campaign will also look more promising.

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Minneapolis School Staffer Challenges Harsh Disciplinary Action

August 6, 2016

How do you go from winning a work-related Peacemaker Award one year, to being told you are unfit for employment the next?

By working for the Minneapolis Public Schools, of course. 

Elisabeth Geschiere

For the past few years, Elisabeth Geschiere has worked for Check and Connect,  a dropout prevention program at Washburn High School. Geschiere is “conversationally fluent” in Spanish, and has worked closely with the school’s Latino population as both support staff and an advisor for the Latino Club. In 2015, she was lauded on the school’s website as “one of a very select group of nominees” to be considered for the district’s Peacemaker Award, which Geschiere then won. The website announcement ends on a high note:

We thank Elisabeth for her tireless commitment to equity, peace, for the students at Washburn.

Now, Geschiere has found herself on the nail end of the district’s often bludgeon-like HR hammer. This spring, students in the Latino Club became upset when the Chicano Studies course they had been told was coming to Washburn was instead rolled into a more general “American Civil Rights” class. The school cited low enrollment as the reason the class had to be scrapped. (Adding more ethnic studies courses is a new focus for MPS, but the classes are electives and thus not required.)

On a day when Geschiere happened to be out sick, the students met with Washburn principal Rhonda Dean to express their dismay over the situation, vowing to make their concerns public at the next school board meeting. When Geshciere returned to work the next day, she says Dean asked her to help the students try to boost the enrollment of the Chicano Studies course they wanted, in order to keep it alive as a possibility. (The students say they have proof that, during their meeting with her, Dean also told them to ask Geschiere for help.)

Geschiere says that is just what she did, by sending out emails to fellow Washburn staffers, alerting them to the course, and otherwise supporting the Latino Club students in their push to make the ethnic studies course a reality. 

Somehow, though, Dean accused Geschiere of telling her students to go to the school board meeting with their complaints. On May 12, one week after Dean asked her to help the students drum up enrollment, Geschiere says Dean called her boss, Colleen Kaibel. Dean wanted Kaibel to “immediately remove” Geschiere from her position–but not until the school’s upcoming Multicultural Arts Festival took place. “I know she is doing good work on that, and the students are excited about it,” Dean told Kaibel, according to Gescheire’s records.

Side note: Geschiere and her Latino Club students started the annual Multicultural Arts Festival three years ago. According to Geschiere, the festival “attracts around 300 parents, students, staff, and community members and happens to showcase Washburn students’ diverse backgrounds and talents as well as the arts.” 

Elisabeth and Latino Club

Geschiere and the Latino Club

Next, Geschiere says she was called to a meeting with the Washburn principal, as well as an assistant administrator and district HR associate, Emma Hixson. During the meeting, Geschiere says she was told that she was “inciting students” and acting “beyond the scope of her duties as Check and Connect staff”–something she was not faulted for when helping to set up the Multicultural Arts Festival, mostly on her own time.)

Weeks later, on June 27, Geschiere received a letter from Hixson. In icy tones, Hixson’s letter accuses Geschiere of telling the students to go to the school board with their concerns about the Chicano Studies course:

Your actions in this matter were outside the scope of your duties as a Check and Connect staff person and inappropriate for your advisory role with the Latino Club outside the duty day. If students brought concerns to you, you should have brought those concerns directly to the administration. It is not constructive or appropriate to take the time of professional staff with questioning, nor is it appropriate for you to have discussed the matter of school curriculum with (other staff).

Finally, Hixson brings the hammer down in the last line of her letter:

This document will be placed in your personnel file and evidence that you are not recommended for rehire with Minneapolis Pubic Schools.

Geschiere says this letter was labeled a “Written Reprimand,” but was clearly intended to end her five-year career in the district. There is no due process apparent here; only a cold note, informing Geschiere of her wrongdoing, which Geschiere insists is based on false information. Moreover, questions linger about what, exactly, Geschiere is being accused of. 

If her alleged crime is talking with students about going to the school board to advocate for themselves, is this considered worthy of dismissal in the eyes of the Minneapolis Public Schools? 

Hixson’s suspiciously toxic letter still sits in Geschiere’s file, although she has written letters to the district’s HR director, Steven Barrett, asking to have Hixson’s letter removed. (She has also received support from her union, the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers.) After receiving no reply from Barrett, Geschiere wrote to the district’s new superintendent, Ed Graff, and the district’s Chief of Schools, Michael Thomas.

When she also received no reply from these district higher-ups, some of Geschiere’s friends organized a “phone/email zap” on August 5, asking supporters to flood MPS with this message:

I am writing/calling in regard to the unfair treatment of MPS employee Elisabeth Geschiere by the Washburn Administration and HR Department. Geschire has been an outstanding support for marginalized students at Washburn and it appears she is being punished for that. She did nothing wrong. She simply supported students from Latinx Club as their staff advisor. The claims by the Washburn Administration, and subsequently HR, that Ms. Geschiere “incited students” are not only patently false, they are disrespectful to the students who took the initiative to advocate for themselves. I ask you to do the right thing and immediately remove the “letter of no re-hire” dated June 7, 2016 from Ms. Geschiere’s MPS file.

By mid-afternoon on August 5, a message on the Facebook event page created on Geschiere’s behalf held this message: “The public pressure is working! Keep it up y’all! The superintendent reached out to set up a meeting with Elisabeth for Monday. Will keep you posted!”

Geschiere’s experience with Minneapolis’s seemingly hot-headed HR department is just the latest in a string of high-profile encounters between staff and the district, indicating a pattern of behavior some might consider abusive:

  • July 12: Parents, teachers, students and staff from Barton Open School flood Superintendent Graff’s debut school board meeting, advocating on behalf of teachers investigated by Barton’s new principal, Jonas Beugen. District administrator Michael Thomas recently announced his continued support for Beugen, and blamed the Barton events–documented here–on problematic district “procedures and practices.”
  • June 9: Questions emerge about the conduct of Minneapolis administrator, Lucilla Davila, who was then put on leave by the district. Davila was running a nonprofit that did business with the Minneapolis schools, and was responsible for the placement of several principals–including Whittier’s Norma Gibbs. In May, Whittier parents went public with their own complaints about Gibbs and Davila, including the attempted firing of a beloved Whittier staff member.
  • June 8: Geschiere’s coworker, popular Washburn theater teacher Crystal Spring, is threatened with termination by HR director Barrett after being arrested while off work. In a letter sent to Spring, Barrett upbraided Spring and seemed to cast judgment on her actions, telling her it was “troublesome on multiple levels.” Charges were later dropped against Spring, who also had her job restored after a public demonstration on her behalf.

There has been no official word since June regarding Davila’s status. Geschiere has resigned from MPS, a decision she says she made before being put through the HR wringer. Still, before she leaves, Geschiere wants the district to acknowledge and correct the “appalling” and unjust treatment she and her supporters believe she has received–not just for her own sake, but also in light of acknowledged district-level patterns of “problematic” HR practices.

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