Minneapolis Southwest High School Investigation Leads to Administrative Shake Up

August 2, 2017

“We look forward to appointing these new assistant principals as quickly as possible.”

With that, Minneapolis Public Schools administrator, Cecillia Saddler, confirmed rumors swirling through the district’s Southwest High School community: when school starts up again in August, the school will be without three of its four administrators. In an email sent to parents and staff on August 1, Saddler informed them that assistant principals Sue Mortensen and Brian Nutter are “leaving the Southwest community.” 

This notice comes on the heels of the surprise July 28 announcement that Southwest’s longtime (and high profile) principal, Bill Smith, is retiring–a year earlier than most people expected. Mortensen, according to Saddler’s email, is also retiring while Nutter–a young, Roosevelt High School graduate–has been moved to an administrative role in the district’s Davis Center headquarters. 

Bill Smith in his Southwest office

This news sent shock waves through the community, leaving parents and staff to wonder what has caused all three of these administrators to suddenly exit the school. Only Tara Fitzgerald, an assistant principal new to both Southwest and the administrative tasks of a large high school, will be returning to the school this fall. Saddler’s email gives no indication what, if anything, has caused Smith and Mortensen to suddenly retire, and Nutter to be moved elsewhere.

It is known, however, that an internal investigation has taken place at the school, although MPS officials have yet to share this information with the community. It is believed that the investigation began in 2015, before current superintendent, Ed Graff, took the helm. The fallout from the investigation appears to have included this last-minute administrative shake up at Southwest, a high school that consistently ranks high for both academics and community support.

On July 31, Southwest staff and parents gathered for an impromptu meeting to discuss the loss of the school’s administrative team. Among the concerns outlined by supporters was the level of upheaval this is expected to cause for the school and its students, as the August 28 start date rises on the calendar. Letting go of Smith and Mortensen seemed inevitable for those gathered, yet a desire to bring Nutter back to the school was expressed. He had been given the key tasks of managing both the school’s budget (which is buoyed by a private school-like foundation, in the face of shrinking district dollars) and schedules. And he has been instrumental, some said, in building relationships with students.

The fact that Nutter was responsible for these fundamental aspects of running a large high school led many to believe that he was being tapped to take over for Smith upon his eventual retirement. Why, then, is he being moved from the school?

Anyone looking for answers in Saddler’s email will be left wanting. Also, parents and staff seeking protection from district decision-making via the school’s “autonomous,” Community Partnership School status have thus far been disappointed. One parent assumed that the school, thanks to its carefully crafted, independent “by-laws,” would be able to now choose its own administrative team.

Not so fast, she was told. Those Community Partnership School by-laws are not valid unless they’ve been ratified by the district, and they haven’t. The Community Partnership School ballyhoo appears to have been a flash in the pan, anyway, as many expected. It was a project of previous interim Superintendent Michael Goar and former teachers union boss, Lynn Nordgren. Both are gone, and the “self-governed” Community Partnership School agreement they put in place just a few years ago–selling it as the solution to the achievement gap, of course–is on its way out. (SeeAll That Glitters: Top Down Change in MPS.“)

Saddler’s email does make it clear, however, that the community will be invited to help select replacement assistant principals in the next few weeks, although any final hiring decisions will remain in Superintendent Graff’s hands. Whether or not the reappointment of Brian Nutter is possible remains to be seen.

Southwest consistently ranks as one of Minnesota’s most successful high schools, based on its relatively high four-year graduation rates (hovering at or above the 80 percent mark for most student groups), its strong IB program and the amount of high level course offerings available. The school is whiter and wealthier than any other Minneapolis public high school (just over fifty percent of students are white), and sits in one of the city’s toniest neighborhoods. Still, it draws students from across the city and remains a school of choice for many–as evidenced by the looming, suburban style expansion the school recently underwent. (A contentious expansion at that!)

Smith is known throughout the district for being a non-stop booster of the school and is famous for showing up at countless events dressed in the school’s purple and white colors. He has an inside baseball reputation for being a tough administrator who has successfully stood between the district and the school for years (my 2014 interview with him regarding Focused Instruction, another short-lived district initiative, was telling). 

The IB approach tends to be more application, or outcome focused, where Focused Instruction is more of a skill set that promotes a right or wrong answer. Both methods are standards-based, but those of us who practice IB believe it is a holistic approach to living and learning. IB practitioners are interested in self-mindedness and collaboration.

–Bill Smith on his preference for the IB method

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