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Q&A with Minneapolis’ next superintendent, Ed Graff: On rebuilding trust, social-emotional learning and equity

Ed Graff: “This is really life-changing work that we’re talking about doing. This is something that has a huge impact in a community, in a culture. To be able to affect that change, the potential is extremely exciting.”

Ed Graff, right, speaking with members of the Minneapolis Public Schools Board on May 17.
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs

Before Ed Graff moves to Minnesota to serve as superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools, he has work to finish up in the Anchorage School District, where he’s currently serving as superintendent. Taking pause from his normal workday, on Wednesday afternoon he fielded a handful of questions from MinnPost so readers can get a better sense of who he is as a leader and what’s in store for the district once he assumes his new post in early July.

MinnPost: At what point did you realize you wanted to pursue a career in education?

Ed Graff: Both my parents were educators; [they] definitely had different views on education in terms of their careers and experiences. I think that as I grew up, seeing the connection that I had to the school and education, my whole world revolved around that. It was almost like a natural progression for me.

MP: Why were you interested in the MPS job, despite all of the drama surrounding the search process?

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EG: First, I have some family in Minnesota, so I’m familiar with Minnesota, the culture, the community here. And then, as I looked at the opportunities there, I saw a definite alignment of my skill sets and what those needs were in Minneapolis. When I traveled there recently, I was able to visit several schools, interact with students, community members, educators, and I just learned there are a lot of great things that are happening, wonderful opportunites. There’s also a great deal of urgency, a desire to make a difference in the district. So that, to me, was very appealing.

MP: When and where did you spend time living on Native American reservations?

EG: I spent my time on the Cheyenne River reservation in preschool. And then I was also a kindergarten student in Red Scaffold, South Dakota. I also lived on the Pine Ridge reservation in Allen, South Dakota, where I was a student there, a fifth- and sixth-grade student. My parents were both teachers. In Anchorage, I lived in rural Alaska, growing up. I started my educational career out in Hooper Bay, with the Head Start program there. I also lived on St. Lawrence Island. My family lived in different parts of Alaska, so I visited them from time to time, but I spent my educational career in the city of Anchorage.

MP: How has your time spent on the reservations influenced your work as an educator?

EG: It changed me as a person. I commented recently to people about how living in Anchorage, it’s such a very diverse community and the years of experience I had growing up — where I went from one state to another, from a very rural town in Minnesota to South Dakota on the reservation to a rural village in Alaska — I had all these rich experiences with culture and diversity and just being able to learn about the different practices and customs. I did all of that over the course of my school career. Here in Anchorage, students are getting that in one location and I feel that’s the same type of experience and opportunity you can get at the Minneapolis Public School system. It’s really shaped me as a person, as to who I am and how I interact with people and how I view the opportunities for education.

MP: Given the fact that Minneapolis also has a significant Native American population that’s vastly underserved, what specific  strategies might you bring to help this student group succeed?

EG: I think it first starts with establishing that foundational work of looking at the individual student experience and making sure that we’re addressing their needs. That’s really important — creating that culture and climate [in which] every individual student has a voice. We need to be understanding and listening to their experiences. And through that process we’re able to gain greater insight as to how we can support what their needs are. That’s the first thing we will begin working on — developing that culture and climate of understanding everyone.  

MP: How do you define social-emotional learning and why is it such a huge priority for you?

EG: Social-emotional learning is the foundation of what we need to do in our schools, in our society. When you look at the most impactful, meaningful work that can affect change in our society, its public education and social-emotional learning. The ability for students to recognize and have an awareness of their emotions and manage those emotions, both for themselves, as well as the social awareness and management, are the types of skills that our students absolutely need. [These are] the types of skills that many of us adults need to work and function in a global society and be successful — those problem-solving skills, the relationship-building, strong communication skills. That’s all part of what it means to be a productive member of a community and successful in whatever career field or work path that someone operates in. When you encounter adults and students who can successfully demonstrate those social-emotional learning skills, who put them to practice and demonstrate them consistently, you see just how many opportunities open up for them.

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MP: Having implemented this in Anchorage, what can you say about implementing social-emotional practices here?

EG: All of these things that I’m talking about, that I’ve heard as being the change that people want, will take time. There’s no doubt that this will take time. This is not an overnight process. That’s where I think I’m most intrigued by the opportunity here. This is really life-changing work that we’re talking about doing. This is something that has a huge impact in a community, in a culture. To be able to affect that change, the potential is extremely exciting.

MP: Racial disparities in discipline have long been a point of contention in Minneapolis. What’s your approach to addressing equity in discipline?

EG: Certainly we have to look at all facets of the data and information. From my experience at the school level and at the classroom level, I want to really understand the ABCs of it, of the behavior and the consequence, and really try to get to: What prompted this situation? How did this situation come about? What was the behavior that was demonstrated? And how do we address it? How do we make sure that what we’re doing is actually supporting the needs of the students? We certainly want to maintain a safe learning environment for the student, the teachers, the school as a whole. Safety has to be a priority. So we want to start with that and then work on understanding how things came about, what we’ve done to address those things, and how we can minimize things from happening. And also make sure in the process that we’re not compromising the educational access for all of our students. Also, talking about what type of professional learning support might need to be in place for teachers and how we align our resources to address those needs. I would expect that there will be a great deal of conversation about community resources as well because we know, too often, the behaviors that happen in school are not just exclusive to the school setting. There are behaviors that are exhibited outside of the school and we want to have as much support for those students as possible, whether they’re in school or out in our community.

MP: What items will dominate your ‘to-do’ list when you start in July?

EG: Obviously, the chance to get out and talk with members of the community; working with the board directly — hearing from them what their perspective is on the current state of things, having a more detailed discussion on that, getting to know them personally and professionally — will be important as well. Also, working with the staff, understand the perspective of the existing staff who will be working directly with me, kind of an assessment, getting them to share their strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats that they see with regards to their current position and what’s coming. Also, the referendum is huge — making sure that we have a good understanding of what the benefit will be and how we begin communicating that to the public. And following up with any questions there might be regarding it. So a lot of transitional work is expected over the next couple of months.

MP: Where do you see your goals aligning with the priorities expressed by the board?

EG: We’re definitely aligned in the fact that there’s a sense of urgency around this culture and climate that we want to establish. I feel that through the conversations I’ve had with students, community members, and board members, there’s been a great deal of agreement that we want to capture this energy, this urgency, and really make a difference for our students. So the more we can flesh that out and find those commonalities of what that looks like in terms of the actual strategies to address that, the greater opportunity for us to be successful.

MP: As a state, overall, our students perform well. But we have some of the most glaring achievement gaps when it comes to serving various subsets of our student population. How would you approach building trust with our underserved communities? And how will you champion for a more equitable education on their behalf?

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EG: Again, it’s about developing those relationships and conversations. A lot of practices that happen happen because people have good intentions, but perhaps we have not taken a broader look, or the opportunity to maybe hear a different perspective on things. I think that’s what’s going to take place and certainly I will expect that I’ll hear things that I had assumed and I will hear things that I will be receiving as new information to me. The opportunity that we have here is keeping a very open mind to what those voices of the students and community members and staff members sound like.

MP: What’s the best way for community members to connect with you to share their concerns and suggestions?

EG: I’ll be working with board members and key members of the staff to figure out what the best venue is for having some of these conversations. There were representatives on the interview selection committee. They will be able to hopefully give me some insights into how those conversations can best happen. But I’m very interested in getting those dialogues going.

MP: Is there anything else you’d like community members to know?

EG: I’m excited to be the next superintendent of the Minneapolis Public Schools system, and look forward to guiding the district and the community to greater success.