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
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