Tag Archives: Ed Graff

Minneapolis Protester to School Board Members: “You are Trash”

August 9, 2017

Minneapolis Public Schools superintendent, Ed Graff, reportedly had to be escorted to his car by in-house security officers late on August 8, at the tail end of a long and loudly contentious school board meeting.

The regularly scheduled meeting included the board’s vote on a new contract between the district and the Minneapolis police, worth over $1 million. The three-year contract, which the board approved 8-1, will pay for fourteen school resource officers, or SROs, to work in Minneapolis, mainly at the high school level. North Minneapolis board member, Kerry Jo Felder, voted against the contract, citing concerns over how district resources are being distributed to support the most marginalized students. 

Image result for ed graff

Ed Graff

Felder also pushed to have the board vote on the contract right after the public comment period ended. This prompted lengthy discussion among board members, who seemed taxed not only by the anti-SRO crowd evident in the room, but also by attempts to hammer out what, exactly, they would be agreeing to by entering into a new contract with the Minneapolis police. Board members Nelson Inz and Ira Jourdain, for example, sought clarity around the depth of training the officers (and any potential substitutes) would receive, as well as who would be in charge of the SROs (the schools or the police department?). 

Eventually, after two recesses, the board voted for a modified contract, calling for fourteen SROs, rather than the current sixteen. Other reforms, such as “soft” uniforms and a commitment to monthly progress reports were discussed and agreed to. Most significantly, the board–mostly at the insistence of Felder, Inz and student board member, Gabriel Spinks–pushed Superintendent Graff to further explore alternatives to SROs.

“Can we have a team that researches alternatives?” Spinks asked, before offering up what seemed like conflicted feelings on SROs. On the one hand, Spinks acknowledged, many students report feeling intimidated by the presence of SROs, who have historically worn a full police officer’s uniform, gun included. On the other hand, he said, eliminating these officers from the Minneapolis schools might increase tension “between minorities and the police.”

At the opposite end of the spectrum, board member Don Samuels elicited groans from the audience when he spoke of police officers as knowing “testosterone” and “teenage boys.” He also spoke emotionally about his time as a city council member, when he says members of the local Hmong community approached him about the bullying they were experiencing in Minneapolis parks and schools. This experience, combined with knowledge that Minneapolis principals apparently overwhelmingly support SROs, were factors in Samuels’ stated support for the continued use of such “resource” officers. 

In this way, the meeting’s conversation among board members, the public and district administrators seemed fruitful. What are our values, many seemed to ask, and how can we best use our limited resources? What does it mean to have SROs in our schools, in light of the long-acknowledged school to prison pipeline? What would happen if the board voted the contract down, essentially ending the district’s use of SROs? Is there a replacement plan in place, primarily for the district’s high schools? Police would still be in our schools, someone pointed out, because school leaders would be pressed to call 911 in a crisis. 

This back and forth was repeatedly drowned out, however, by a group of people in the audience who are vehemently opposed to SROs. The protesters described themselves as being affiliated with both the Black Liberation Project and a new group called “Stand Up.” Some faces were familiar–such as Tiffini Flynn Forslund, a frequent advocate for education reform who is currently running for a seat on the Minneapolis city council. The protests were matched with a petition, signed by 74 northside residents, who represent five Minneapolis schools and are in favor of SROs. 

As the meeting progressed, some members of the protest group grew increasingly confrontational, lobbing threats at board members that they would soon be “voted out,” and accusing them of not caring about Black students. Finally, after the SRO vote was taken, one woman strode to the front of the dias where board members sit. Most of the board had left already, as the meeting was being moved due to continued interruptions, so only citywide representatives Kim Ellison and Rebecca Gagnon remained.

“You are trash. I hope you know that,” the woman told Ellison and Gagnon. 

With that, the meeting’s live video stream was cut off, and the meeting reconvened on the fifth floor of the Davis center. Few, if any, media representatives followed the meeting upstairs, as I understand it (I was watching the video stream at home), and so no one realized that the disruptions continued–to the point where Superintendent Graff had to be escorted to his car. 

Can Graff be held accountable for the sins of the past, when restorative justice initiatives were promised by district leadership but never really “implemented with fidelity”? (Look to former Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson’s legacy for evidence of this.) Last night, Graff seemed eager to move headlong into embracing SROs (after a lengthy community engagement process, which reportedly resulted in broad support for their continued presence) while also promising to bring “integrity” and “intentionality” to their presence in the schools. Graff is a known proponent of “social-emotional learning,” and spoke about wanting to assess the “climate and culture” of each district school.

This ties into another key issue that members of the public raised at the meeting: the fate of Southwest High School administrator, Brian Nutter. Nutter has been reassigned to Davis Center headquarters as part of an administrative shake up at Southwest, reportedly due to an Office of Civil Rights complaint that was filed by a previous administrator. That complaint is said to focus on allegations of racial bias in the school’s “climate and culture,” as Graff might say.

At last night’s meeting, Nutter’s wife, Jada, spoke up on his behalf, explaining that he was away fulfilling his duties as a member of the Minnesota Army National Guard. Nutter said that she and her husband met while both were students at Minneapolis’s Roosevelt High School, and that they were “humbled and grateful” for the support they’ve received from the public, since Brian’s removal from Southwest was announced. This turn of events was “surprising” for Brian, his wife told the board, and came with “no community engagement,” leaving the school with “three unfulfilled administrative posts.”

If this is true–that no one from the Southwest community was involved in the decision to remove Nutter–than it would seem to fly in the face of an assertion Graff made at the August 8 board meeting. When the board’s discussion of SROs included talks of whether or not they should be in the schools at all, Graff had this to say (bold type added for emphasis):

I’m not focused on removals. I’m focused on listening to concerns. My goal is not to reduce SROs. My goal is to listen to concerns, around students not feeling safe, connected. I’d like to spend our energy in those areas. That’s the issue for me. Removing someone from the environment doesn’t address the climate. 

Perhaps the situation at Southwest necessitated Nutter’s removal without any community engagement or a “listening of concerns.” If so, no one affiliated with Southwest High School seems to know what this is (including Nutter and his wife, apparently). If there is no clear explanation for why Nutter needed to go, leaving Southwest in a precarious position just weeks before the school year starts, then this is the kind of red flag Graff will most likely need to avoid on his way to building trust and confidence with district staff and families.

Like my work? Consider supporting it through a much appreciated donation. And thanks to those of you who already have!

Donate

Minneapolis School Staff Fight for “Indispensable” Employee’s Job

September 13, 2016

Another letter writing campaign has been burning along email chains in the Minneapolis Public Schools. This time, it is on behalf of Multilingual department staffer John Wolfe. His job is on the line, apparently due to the kind of “adult interests” that education reform purveyors famously love to rail against. (Until they can’t, but that’s another story.)

One-time Teach for America superstar, Michelle Rhee

One-time Teach for America superstar, Michelle Rhee

Wolfe has worked for Minneapolis’s Multilingual department for the last six years, as a compliance and data guru. He came on just as the department, which serves English language learners (ELL) and their teachers, was trying to crawl out from under a federal Office of Civil Rights (OCR) Complaint. That complaint found that the Minneapolis schools were not adequately meeting the needs of non-native English speakers by failing to keep track of their progress or offer the proper support services. 

Wolfe reportedly worked closely with Jana Hilleren, who lead the Multilingual department and helped resolve the civil rights complaint. Hilleren, though, has since been pushed out of the district. Those familiar with Wolfe’s work describe it in the kind of saintly terms ascribed to many outliers in the Minneapolis schools (who have often met a similar fate). Here’s a sample:

  • Before John, everything was hit or miss. It was hard to know which students were getting ELL services; it was a free for all, which led to the OCR complaint.
  • John came in 5 or 6 years ago. He was key. Very teacher-leader focused, versus a top down approach. Teachers knew they could rely on him. People felt like they were part of something bigger, and a bigger effort for these kids. He built a compliance system, and did all the data work of monitoring who was getting what services. He was at the heart of rebuilding Minneapolis’s Multilingual Department.
  • Michael Goar started an employee of the month program, and only did it once. It was John.
  • John worked nearly 80 hours per work, living and breathing ELL and MPS.
  • He held “Saturday Sessions,” that paid teachers to learn, grow, and develop materials for district, state, and national ELL students to gain access to success.
  • Brought a 24 hour interpreter service, called the “Language Line,” to the district. According to MPS’s website, “This service is to ensure effective communication between schools and families regardless of a family’s home language. This service provides live interpreters in any language at any time of the day.”
  • Provides iPads, apps, research and “fast responses” to classroom teachers.

Now, in a scene that smacks of unfortunate adult political interests, Wolfe’s status as an employee has been made shaky, as part of a general deconstruction of the Multilingual house that Hilleren built. 

Warning: This is where the adult “concerns” really rear their messy heads. From 2010 on, Wolfe worked alongside HIlleren and teachers to build the Multilingual department into something people rallied around. In 2014, however, change blew in, on the heels of a surprise $5 million funding allocation for district ELL programming. There was a catch, though: Hilleren and her team were reportedly left out of the decision-making and planning for that new money, which was diverted from other departments within MPS at the behest of then-CEO, Michael Goar. 

The $5 million in funds was put under the management of a new employee–former assistant state education commissioner, Elia Bruggeman–and a new Global Education department. By late 2015, Hilleren was gone, and the Multilingual department was placed under the purview of Bruggeman and the Global Ed division. 

Fast forward to the spring of 2016. In a shakeup, the Multilingual department staff was whittled down from fifteen to just a handful of district-level employees, leaving it in skeletal shape. Wolfe was one of the employees left without a clear position for this school year, although he reportedly has been given a part-time district job. The word swirling through district headquarters is that anyone from the Hilleren era is in danger of being swept out, while the Multilingual department itself is on the brink of being starved. There is no money for textbooks, apparently, or for staff to attend the annual state ELL conference.

The extra $5 million diverted to ELL programming in 2014 has been spent on a variety of staffing and programming whose value cannot easily be assessed by the untrained eye (district sources say there is no per-pupil cost analysis of where that money has gone). A lingering concern, apparently, is where the new Global Ed division is headed. Is there a plan? A focus? A structure in place, that will help explain the staffing and leadership changes? If so, no one seems able to articulate it.

Back to John Wolfe. Those who know him well sing his praises, while acknowledging his role as a maverick who can be tough to manage, but delivers on behalf of students and teachers. As politics threaten to upend the ELL department Wolfe helped create, his career in the district hangs in limbo. The staff who have come to value his support, however, are not letting him go quietly.

From a recent letter sent to Superintendent Ed Graff by a longtime Minneapolis teacher:

 John is the single-most responsive individual that I have ever connected with in an administrative position. He listens to us and supports us. 

John has given his heart and soul to this district.  He is passionate about helping EL teachers and students alike.  He works harder than anyone I know and may be the smartest man I have ever met.   Simply letting John walk from this district would be a travesty.  You will receive many more letters like mine from so many of the excellent EL teachers in our district saying the same things.  I would not write a letter like this for just anyone.  Please listen to all of our personal testimony. John means so much to this district and especially to the teachers of our Multilingual Department.

John Wolfe is irreplaceable.  His loss to the EL students and teachers in this district would be immense.  I am writing to ask you to retain John Wolfe in the district and renew his contract within the Multilingual Department.

So far, supporters say, there has been scant response from a district stuck in–but perhaps trying to crawl out of–damage control mode.

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated!

[Exq_ppd_form]

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.

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.

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated!

[Exq_ppd_form]

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.

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated!

[Exq_ppd_form]

Minneapolis Superintendent Search: A Direction Home?

May 24, 2016

There is one central question hanging over today’s expected announcement of Minneapolis’s next superintendent:

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the reformiest of all?

Is it former Minneapolis administrator, Brenda Cassellius, who helped guide the district through its romance with McKinsey & Company consultants, back in the mid-2000’s? Cassellius is also cut from the same professional cloth–sewn by former superintendent Carol Johnson–as recent MPS administrators, Bernadeia Johnson and Michael Goar. 

This fact alone has scared off some potential supporters, who worry that Cassellius, as superintendent, will push Minneapolis further down the flash in the pan path of the market-based reform movement, where no shiny stone–or successful MPS department–has been left unturned. (Read my series on McKinsey’s influence on the Minneapolis schools for more info about this, starting here.)

Oddly, rumors are surfacing that the local reform glitterati (read the McKinsey series for names) are lining up behind Cassellius’s soft-spoken competitor, Anchorage superintendent, Ed Graff. Graff, if selected, is poised to either be a miraculous uniter, unknowingly aligning divided camps, or–some might hope–a blob of putty in the hands of Minnesota Comeback-like forces, who want to take apart and rebuild the Minneapolis schools in their own, highly proficient image. 

Cartoon by Stephanie McMillan

There can be no denying that Graff interviewed well. He was calm, cool, personable and actually had something of a vision for education. His focus has been on social-emotional learning, which sounds as refreshing as a warm day in Alaska. He smartly would not nod along to board member’s questions about student-based funding and autonomous schools, and instead offered grounded answers that implied he is not likely to be any plutocrat’s puppet. 

Cassellius has earned her marks, too. There must be a reason certain reformers–the kind who would like to convince us that alternative licensure is the burning issue of the day–do not want her in as head of the Minneapolis schools. Is she too savvy? Too familiar with their soulless data maps? Maybe she is the Carol Johnson protegé Minneapolis has been waiting for–the one who, like Graff, is not likely to fall for reform-minded shenanigans imposed on the district by outside political influences and agendas, propped up by hedge fund excesses.

Now that I think about it, either one of these candidates sounds pretty good. And it’s Bob Dylan’s birthday, too. 

Although the masters make the rules
For the wise men and the fools
I got nothing, Ma, to live up to

–Bob Dylan, “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” 1965

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated!

[Exq_ppd_form]

Minneapolis Staff and Families Protest Dirty School at Superintendent Reception

May 17, 2016

What’s more important? Clean schools or a new superintendent? At the Minneapolis Public Schools’s May 16 reception for the district’s superintendent finalists, Ed Graff and Brenda Cassellius, these two questions vied for the public’s attention.

At the district’s gleaming, ergonomically correct Davis Center headquarters, the candidates stood at the front of the school board meeting room, wielding easy campaign smiles and chatting up their past successes and future challenges. Meanwhile, at the back of the room, a crew of students, staff, and families from Minneapolis’s Andersen United Community School stood, hoisting signs and managing squirrely kids throughout the two hour session. 

The capable and affable superintendent candidates–the last two standing in a search that has gone on for eighteen topsy-turvy months–tell one story of the Minneapolis Public Schools. The Andersen school signs tell another.

The candidates signify hope for a new beginning–except for those too cynical to believe that one new leader will be able to tackle the dysfunction that currently occupies the Minneapolis Public Schools. Cassellius seems like a catch, with her current, high-profile position as commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Education and her past experience as a teacher and administrator in Minneapolis. 

But many people have exchanged quiet, surprised whispers since getting introduced to Graff, who has an extensive background in the Anchorage, Alaska schools. “I think I like him better,” a friend told me. He speaks naturally about the importance of social-emotional learning. He remembered people’s names when they were peppering him with questions about cultural responsiveness, staff turnover and other sore spots. His vocabulary seems refreshingly devoid of data-driven dark clouds.

The headlines for the next week or so, until one of them is chosen as superintendent, will be about them. Who is better? Who is worse? Which one will best protect the Minneapolis schools from the shaky overreach of Minnesota Comeback? (There probably won’t be a headline about that, but there should be.)

So, what will it take for someone, anyone, to address the Detroit-style failure going on at Andersen school? The families and staff who showed up to draw attention to Andersen shared this background information:

Issues around cleanliness, safety, and equity have been ongoing for many years. There is documentation dating back to 2004 showing the efforts of staff to make improvements in order to provide adequate learning and working conditions for Andersen families and staff.

The school is infested with cockroaches and mice. Sidewalks are not properly cleared of ice and snow in winter. Dust clogs the air inside the school. Bathrooms are not being adequately cleaned, sanitized, or stocked with soap. 

No one is doing anything about it, the parents and staff said. They brought a stapled-together document, four pages long, outlining the recent history of complaints and demands for action that have, apparently, fallen on deaf district ears.

They’ve petitioned, emailed and called interim superintendent Michael Goar. No real response. They once got promises for a resolution from former district CFO, Robert Doty, only to be told that those promises left the district when Doty did, in 2015. (Apparently, the big school, which hosts a multitude of programs throughout the day, once had a large number of building engineers, but today has just a handful.)

At yesterday’s candidate reception, Andersen staff said district associate superintendent, Paul Marietta, recently told them that they could not use any school resources–such as a Robocall or flyers–to “inform families about a meeting concerning the cleanliness and sanitation of their children’s learning environment.”

Andersen’s demographics also tell a story about the Minneapolis Public Schools:

  • 1,101 students attend Andersen. 97 percent, or 1, 064, of them are poor, according to federal measures 
  • 11 percent are homeless or highly mobile
  • 72 percent do not speak English as a first language

Is this why their cleanliness needs have been ignored for years? When asked, both Graff and Cassellius said they would not tolerate such conditions as superintendent. Any school in the district has to be good enough for my own child, said Graff. Cassellius emphatically said clean schools are a basic right.

At this point, I suspect action–in the form of a steady stream of mops, brooms and soap–is the only thing that will convince Andersen staff and families that their school is more than just a low point on someone’s data map.

Instead of planning and preparing for our students’ success, many of us are spending much of our time sweeping, mopping, vacuuming, and sanitizing our own rooms as well as sending emails, making phone calls and having agonizing conversations about the same issues, day after day.

–Andersen teacher testimony, shared at a 2015 school board meeting

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated.

[Exq_ppd_form]

Brenda Cassellius: Most Likely to be Minneapolis’s Next Superintendent?

May 14, 2016

Brenda Cassellius. Photo: MPR

Minnesota education commissioner, Brenda Cassellius, and former Anchorage, Alaska superintendent, Ed Graff, are the two finalists for Minneapolis’s school superintendent position, according a May 13 press release. 

Cassellius’s name on the list is no surprise, since she has publicly shared her interest in the job. In November, 2015, while the previous superintendent search was in full swing, Cassellius told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that she wanted the job, but “not yet.” Her hesitancy may have had to do with interim superintendent Michael Goar’s assumed rise to the district’s top position–an expectation that was dashed after months of page-turning headlines and twists in the road.

Now, Goar is leaving the Minneapolis schools, and Cassellius would seem to be an ideal superintendent-in-waiting, given her extensive background in the city’s school district, as a teacher, administrator and parent. Cassellius has certainly made her own mark in education leadership, but, like Goar and his predecessor, Bernadeia Johnson, she has clear ties to former Minneapolis superintendent, Carol Johnson.

Cassellius, also like Goar and Bernadeia Johnson, followed Carol Johnson from Minneapolis to the Memphis schools and back again. This may be comforting to some, who admire Johnson’s leadership legacy, but troubling to others, who may have been hoping for more of a “fresh start” for Minneapolis. (Casselllius did hold her own in a recent University of Minnesota forum on why we still haven’t “closed the achievement gap,” which is kind of like asking why that war in 1984 never ended.)

Graff, a Minnesota native, became superintendent of the Anchorage schools in 2013, and saw his three-year contract cut short in October, 2015. The reasons for this are not immediately clear, but an article in the Alaska Dispatch News hints at a situation that might sound familiar to Minneapolis residents, or residents of any urban school district facing perpetual “urgent” challenges:

Anchorage School Board President Kameron Perez-Verdia said…that the Board has “very aggressive goals” and in order to achieve those goals, as well as face financial and political challenges, it must find a new leader. 

Ed Graff

Graff (like many city superintendents) sits on the board of the reformfriendly Council of the Great City Schools and was most recently a candidate for superintendent of the St. Michael-Albertville school district in suburban Minneapolis. Part of the reason he wasn’t fully considered for that position, according to a May 10 news report, is that he does not currently have a superintendent’s license:

…there was somewhat of bombshell shared by board chair Doug Birk at the beginning of the meeting — it was learned this same day that candidate Graff lacked superintendent licensure in Alaska and would need lengthy procedural approval from the state of Minnesota in order to get his license.

Graff, with no superintendent’s license and no known connection to Carol Johnson, may be  a long shot for the Minneapolis job, especially given the drama that has accompanied the district’s drawn out search process. (Goar also did not have a superintendent’s license.)

Missing from the list of finalists is Michael Thomas, Minneapolis’s current Chief of Schools. Thomas was a known candidate for the district’s top spot, and a 2015 contender for superintendent of the Robbinsdale Area Schools.

The community is invited to meet Cassellius and Graff this Monday, May 16, at the district’s Davis Center headquarters. The school board will then interview the two candidates at a public meeting on Tuesday, May 17.

No grant, no guru, no outside funding source. My work is entirely funded by my very kind and generous readers. Thank you to those who have already donated!

[Exq_ppd_form]