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’s “Beacons” after-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.