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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12 thoughts on “Minneapolis Southwest High School Investigation Leads to Administrative Shake Up

  1. Nicole Lindberg

    I’m not sure how SW isn’t considered a Community Partnership School, when in fact the School Board minutes state:

    NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT HEREBY RESOLVED, that the Board of Directors, Special School District No. 1, Minneapolis, Minnesota hereby approves Southwest High School plan and designates it as a Community Partnership School for the period of July 1, 2016 until June 30, 2019.

    Reply
  2. Aubrey

    If there is any shred of justice in this world, those who fomented this will also be investigated—heavily. In the past 10 years it has become the District way to do away with the most competent and respected administrators, and replace them with the most deficient and mercenary.

    Reply
  3. Alex T

    The school serves a mostly white affluent population and caters only to those families. They transfer out African American students by the dozens and make conditions such that some of the neediest students don’t get the service they need and choose to transfer to schools that do serve them and do so happily. The untold story of Southwest is that it’s success is built on the white-ification of the school. Public education should serve all, the administrative team there ensured they only served the white families of affluence and only the students of color that conformed to that level of whiteness. No one tells that story. But there are dozens. MPS has perpetuated its inequitable practices by giving SWHS millions in renovations while other local high schools have gotten far less and suffer from basics like lack of air conditioning. Ask questions, dig deeper. This needed to happen. Unfortunately, MPS chose to take the easy route and allow for easy exits as opposed to bringing to light the inequitable, racist practices that we should identify and ensure doesn’t happen again.

    Reply
    1. sarah.lahm@gmail.com Post author

      It sounds like you might know more than most about what’s going on with this administrative shake up. If you have further details you’d like to share, feel free to email me. I’m curious when you say, “This needed to happen.” I’d like to know more about any “inequitable, racist practices” that have been, perhaps, documented.

      Reply
    2. Simon W

      wrong on all counts
      – SW Graduates African American Students at a Higher rate than any other school in Mpls
      – SW receives the least amount of financial aide per student of any HS school in Mpls
      – the students who get transferred out are usually guilty of serial abuse of teachers and fellow students, physical assault or serial theft.
      All students including minority students do very well at SW if they show up to class ready to learn.
      The comments above are uneducated and insulting. Minneapolis PS unfortunately continues to release highly qualified and experienced professionals in reaction to a small but vocal group with a distinct agenda.
      I do not live in or work in Mpls anymore but the silent majority who want an organized, focused and challenging envirnoment for their children better stand up and be counted …

      Reply
    3. Ann

      Alex,

      I am curious what specific data you base your allegations on. SWHS gets much lower funding per student than many of the other schools. The district has drawn the boundaries to make sure minorities are included in the school. They expanded the school so more students can attend, not to serve white kids. They transfer out any student who can not show basic respect to teachers and fellow students, I know of white kids who have been barred from the school, so claiming that this is just a thing that happens to African Americans is false. No one of any race should get to disrupt the education of other students. Respectful, thoughtful and considerate behavior is not the sole domain of white people, to say so is racist in the extreme.

      As for SWHS only serving white kids, you are wrong. There are many very successfully African American students at Southwest (I know at least two African Americans from my daughters Southwest class are going to Ivy League schools – one was voted to give the speech at graduation). If you were alleging sexism, I might agree since of the four Valedictorians, only the two males were allowed to speak at graduation while the two women stood 5 ft behind them on the stage and did not speak. The only allegation of racism I know of was ridiculous and involved several African American students who were asked not to swear around the preschool and grade school age students who attend community events at Pershing Park. Not sure how that could possibly be deemed racist, but apparently someone feels that setting a poor example for young children should not discouraged.

      Reply
  4. SP

    The comment by Alex T makes me really upset. I am a parent with kids that I hope will attend Southwest High school – we bought a house in the community as a direct result of the schools, especially Southwest. This current situation has our family extremely concerned for the future of the school for our kids – and all the students that attend plus the teachers that work there. For us, this is not about race, but about all students of this community that this school serves. The rhetoric of Alex T and the fact that the author of this article responded to his comments is really divisive, when the community should be coming together to talk about how to continue to make this school excellent.
    What exactly is “white-ification”? Is this a bad thing? This is a really divisive term and pits people against eachother, which some in the media will love to perpetuate. If I said “black-ification” would this be a bad thing or a good thing? What I am concerned about is edu-cation which isn’t black or white or brown. I’m just a parent, who lives in this community, who chooses to invest my tax dollars and time in this part of the city because I want a good school for my kids to attend in our neighborhood. That is my priority – not a social agenda. This shouldn’t be about race or politics. This is a community school that serves the public that invests in it (Southwest Minneapolis) by providing great education. And right now, there is not administrative leadership right before school and the district isn’t talking about why or what. Not good for education!

    Reply
    1. sarah.lahm@gmail.com Post author

      Thanks for weighing in. I don’t believe that responding to someone’s comment is “divisive.” Instead, I am interested in learning more about this situation, from all points of view. Yours counts; so do other people’s, in my opinion. I asked for more info from the previous commenter, and I have received it. I am grateful.

      Reply
    2. Alex T

      The fact that people are responding with what is ultimately a defense of whiteness concerns me. Public education should absolutely put race at the forefront. We are failing our students of color. If we are not serving them – because they don’t “show up ready to learn” – that’s racist practice! And we have to call it out! As parents, as employees, and tax payers. Equity is about all of us serving the most needy. Southwest and its defenders are failing to do that.

      Reply
  5. Dave

    If someone does not show up ready to learn, it doesn’t matter what color they are- they are being irresponsible. There are many factors that contribute to such situations, and trends will likely point to such students being of color, but that does not mean that students do not show up ready to learn because they are of color. “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink.” This is true of all colors of horses.

    Reply
  6. Adam

    Bill Smith’s loss will be felt. In a school SWHS’s size, it is difficult to figure out how to apportion credit for the successes, but Smith obviously had a role. We graduated one from SWHS last year and another starts there next year, so we are very invested in the stability of the school.

    Our kids have attended Barton Open School, which this fall will be on its 5th principal in 6 years. Once a shining star of the district, Barton has suffered for a lack of consistent leadership. MPS’s instincts for who should lead the school have been bewildering. If the SWHS school community does not have an integral role in this decision, it will inevitably not be a successful one.

    Reply
  7. George

    For an informed article on capital spending in Minneapolis schools for the last decade, see this article: http://strib.mn/2sZA62N

    Here is a summary of how much has been spent on schools per student, broken down by districts:

    North Side (2): $23,624
    South (3): $22,008
    Northeast (1): $21,855
    Downtown, East Isles, Bryn Mawr (4): $14,742
    Southwest (6): $12,416
    South (5): $11,835

    Something obviously caused the abrupt shakeup of so many administrators. It would be great if the School District actually kept the public informed rather than acting as if nothing happened.

    Reply

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