For years Teto Wilson, owner of Wilson’s Image Barbers and Stylists in Minneapolis’ near north side, has been exercising his professional listening skills while he cuts hair. It’s an attribute he thinks will serve him well as he embarks on his latest venture: serving as a community representative on the Minneapolis Public Schools’ superintendent selection committee.
At his shop, which is about 10 blocks west of the district’s administrative building, he serves many clients who attend or have attended district schools. All too often, he says, he sees the realities of the achievement gap in Minneapolis play out into adulthood. Those who aren’t inspired in school fall behind academically and are faced with limited options in terms of where they live, the quality of the foods they eat, and more.
Convinced that a quality education is one of the greatest predictors of future success, he started attending school board meetings this past winter. And when the board rejected its top candidate, Sergio Paez, at the Jan. 12 meeting and prepared to appoint Interim Superintendent Michael Goar to the post, Wilson participated in the protests that shut down the meeting.
“I felt like the board needed to give the community a voice,” he said, noting he has a lot of respect for the Minneapolis NAACP and its advocacy for a more equitable education system.
When the board announced its plans to restart the search, with the addition of a new community engagement component, he decided to apply to serve on the superintendent selection committee.
“I decided to go from being a protester to actually doing something about it,” he said. “Me being an African-American male and raising daughters … what I’m hoping to bring is that perspective.”
Wilson, along with three board members, the board’s student representative, a community engagement facilitator, and five other community members — one of whom is a student — will play an important role in helping vet candidates.
They will help the district’s search firm, DHR International, review candidates for the superintendent position and recommend up to three finalists to the board in May.
The newly hired community engagement facilitator, Radious Guess with EPU Consultants, recommended a slate of community volunteers to serve on the selection committee for board approval at the April 5 meeting.
Presented with an initial roster of finalists that didn’t include anyone from southwest Minneapolis, the board asked Guess to address this gap in representation during a 30-minute recess. After one trade-out, the board finalized a list of names.
In response to community feedback that came across loud and clear during the failed superintendent search process, the board has been placing a high priority on bringing all community voices and perspectives to the table this time around. This effort is reflected in the makeup of the selection committee, which is diverse in terms of geography, race, gender, age and profession.
More than 150 community members applied to serve on the selection committee.
Board member Nelson Inz, chair of the selection committee, says he’s pleased with how things panned out.
“I think it’s a really great committee that’s going to be able to bring the experiences of our students to this search process,” he said. “We have an incredible population of students that is extremely diverse.”
Over the weekend, the district posted excerpts from each community member’s application online. Beyond that, the district has asked all community committee members to decline interviews with the press at this time, as the group is still working out an orientation date that will take place in a week or two.
In addition to Inz, the committee will include board members Siad Ali and Kim Ellison. The board’s second student representative, Shaadia Munye, a junior at Patrick Henry High, will also serve on the committee.
Six new faces
That leaves six newbies, along with the community engagement facilitator, in need of community introductions.
Collin Robinson, a sophomore at Southwest High School, says he’s already been hearing a lot from teachers at his school who are interested in the superintendent search process. But he’s hoping to attract more input from his peers in the weeks ahead.
“I think it’s unfortunate that a large majority of students don’t even know the role the superintendent plays, or who the previous superintendent was,” he told MinnPost. “I think with this exposure — me getting onto the selection committee — that will change. I took this step to apply because I think it’s important for students to be heard.”
Experiencing the education system as an Australian-African-American male, Robinson says a number of prior community engagements have prepared him to take on this new role with confidence. A north Minneapolis resident, he’s a member of the Minneapolis NAACP education committee, the Twin Cities Coalition for Justice for Jamar, Educate Ya Self, and Dare 2 Be Real.
He’s intentional in the causes he supports, as well as the language he uses to talk about education reform. That includes choosing to participate in a dialogue about the opportunity gap, rather than the achievement gap.
“The problem is that black students in north Minneapolis are set up to fail along with the Native Americans in our schools, the Brown, Coastal, and Pacific Islanders in our schools. This is a problem we need a superintendent to address,” he wrote in his application.
Right now, he’s brainstorming ways to encourage more students to voice their opinions about what qualities are needed in the district’s next leader and what issues should be brought to their attention before they sign up for the job. That could end up being a survey or a hashtag on Twitter, he says, noting it can be challenging for busy high school students to attend community meetings and navigate the politics that dominate many of these public spaces.
Wilson, barber and father of four — including two daughters currently attending South High School — writes that it’s crucial that the next superintendent “understand the overall well-being of students and be keenly aware of the socio-economic constructs of our underserved and underrepresented area codes of the city.”
In his application, he cited racial disparities in suspension rates in the district, along with the achievement gap, as two major areas of concern that the new district leader will need to recognize and tackle.
Elaborating on the types of changes that need to take place, he wrote, “The teacher that loves his/her career path needs to be in front of students and not the teachers that treat their jobs like a missionary mission ‘in the hood.’ ”
While Wilson says his participation in the superintendent search is certainly one of the greatest civic responsibilities he’s taken on, it’s not the only high-profile event he’s been associated with as of late.
Upon leaving the Elks Lodge in north Minneapolis in the early morning hours of Nov. 15, 2015, he witnessed the shooting of Jamar Clark from a distance. He doesn’t fully credit the incident for his current involvement on the selection committee. But he says it did reinforce his desire to get involved.
“The whole Jamar Clark shooting, it highlighted some things I was already aware of — how black males are perceived in society,” he told MinnPost.
Joseph Rice is the executive director of Nawayee Center School, a contracted MPS alternative school, and a board member of the Metropolitan Federation of Alternative Schools. A Choctaw Native American male, he also serves as chairperson for the Phillips Indian Educators and as a board member of the Minneapolis Urban Indian Directors. With the latter group, he also had the opportunity to participate in a superintendent search process.
Asked to share his thoughts on the achievement gap in his application, he wrote, “The achievement gap is not well understood and the current set of measures is insufficient to accurately determine how successful our public schools are.”
Asked to address his ability to listen to diverse opinions and take part in the dialogue, he wrote, “I much prefer that kind of open, sharing communication and believe it is the only truly effective way to work with people in any endeavor.”
Asked to write out his motives for serving on the selection committee, he wrote, “I have recently become a father and want nothing more than for my daughter to attend the Minneapolis Public Schools. However, I want to make sure I contribute my part as a community member at making our schools the best they can be.”
As a Latino, he says he’s comfortable participating in conversations within diverse group settings. All students should have equitable access to resources and be given the opportunity to achieve their highest potential, he wrote.
Rebecca Miller, a teacher in the district, has lived and/or worked in Minneapolis for more than 20 years. Both of her children attended district schools, so she’s invested in ensuring students are getting a quality education as a parent as well.
In her application, she lists a number of volunteer roles she holds within the local education sector. Over the years, she has sat on selection committees for principals at various schools, and for youth education leaders at her church.
Currently, she’s a member of two MPS instructional leadership teams — one focused on early childhood special education and the other on speech/language clinician work. She’s also an active union member with the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, where she sits on the executive board and wears a number of other hats.
Asked to reflect on the achievement gap, she wrote that it’s a complex issue that will need to be addressed collaboratively.
“High quality early childhood education is one of the most effective ways to address the opportunity gap, and strong public schools with wrap around services, such as health services, mental health and other community supports (e.g food bank) is another,” she wrote.
Rhonda Larkin is the principal at Stadium View, a district school that serves students detained at the Hennepin County Juvenile Detention Center or the Hennepin County Adult Detention Center. In her application, she wrote that she “has a vested interest in who becomes the next superintendent” and believes she will bring “a special skill to the committee, which will enhance the selection process.”
The community engagement facilitator, Guess, could not be reached for comment. According to a brief biography posted on the district’s website, she has more than 25 years of professional experience working with communities of color, school districts, a state department of education and national parent advocacy organizations in Minnesota, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Colorado.
Seeking broader community input
Guess recently finalized a list of dates for community members to weigh in during the superintendent search process.
The first community listening session will take place Thursday, April 21, at Bryant Square Park from 6 to 7:30 p.m. For a full list of all six sessions, visit the registration form here. Child care, interpreters and refreshments will be provided for those who attend.
Members of the selection committee are invited to attend these community engagement sessions as well, to gather feedback directly. But Guess is responsible for facilitating each session and conveying the information collected to the selection committee.
According to the current timeline, the selection committee will receive and review applications from April 27 through April 29. The community engagement component of the selection process will wrap up by June 17, and the board will finalize the next superintendent’s contract at the June 28 board meeting.