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Big changes in Twin Cities education leadership

Its extended superintendent search may have garnered the most attention, but Minneapolis Public Schools isn’t the only education institution in the area with a new face at the top. 

Its extended superintendent search may have garnered the most attention, but Minneapolis Public Schools isn’t the only education entity that’s ushering in new leadership. A number of other key education foundations, nonprofits and organizations are undergoing a similar period of transition.

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With the exception of MPS’ new superintendent, Ed Graff, a Minnesota native who’s worked in Anchorage his entire professional career, most of the newly appointed have already established themselves in the local education sector. As they spend time upfront getting acclimated to their new roles, no one’s voicing plans to deviate much from the vision their predecessors established.

That could change in a couple of months or so, as new leaders settle in and school board elections amp up. But for now, here’s an updated education sector directory:


Pam Costain
Pam Costain

One of the Minneapolis district’s key nonprofit partners, AchieveMpls supports students by helping ensure they are college- and career-ready by the time they graduate. Through various programs, students are given access to graduation coaches, paid internships, and other resources.

Pam Costain, president and CEO, announced her plans to retire from her post in January, bringing her decade of service in the district to a close — six years with AchieveMpls and four years, prior, as an MPS board member.

While she plans to stay involved as a strong advocate for kids and public education, she says her commitments will be much more intermittent moving forward.

“I have a lot of strong opinions, so I’m not going away,” she said.

Danielle Grant
Danielle Grant

When her successor, Danielle Grant, was announced last Friday, Costain said she was thrilled with the board’s unanimous decision.

Selected from a pool of 40 candidates, Grant has 20 years of experience working in Minneapolis, on the behalf of youth, to draw upon. As she transitions out of her role as the executive director of Educational and Cultural Services and Indian Education at MPS, Grant says she won’t necessarily be leaving those efforts behind, especially when it comes to targeting students who have traditionally not been well served.  

“This is an opportunity to … have a bigger impact without leaving behind the students of Minneapolis and the work we’re doing,” she said, noting she’s aiming for a start date of July 11.

Minneapolis Public Schools

Graff is back in Minneapolis this week to start getting better acquainted with district staff, board members, and community members. All loose ends are now tied up, following the unanimous vote Monday afternoon by the state Board of School Administrators to approve the district’s application for a provisional superintendent license on his behalf.

This summer he’ll be taking three graduate classes and will be working
closely with the Anoka-Hennepin Superintendent David Law, his designated mentor, as he works toward completing the administrative licensure program at the University of Minnesota. He’ll be heading back to Anchorage to wrap up a few work-related responsibilities before his July 1 start date.

Graff beat out the state’s education commissioner, Brenda Cassellius, for the position. In the beginning, it seemed unlikely an outsider would clinch the position, but he won over the support of the board, as well as many community members, by highlighting his commitment to social-emotional learning — a holistic focus on education that prioritizes things like mental health and relationship building in addition to academics — and familiarity with addressing issues of poverty and cultural dissonance in a large, diverse, urban district.

Interim Superintendent Michael Goar
Minneapolis Public Schools
Michael Goar

The district’s chief of schools, Michael Thomas, is currently serving as the interim superintendent, since former interim superintendent, Michael Goar, began his post with Big Brothers Big Sisters of the Greater Twin Cities last week.

After unexpectedly withdrawing his candidacy from the rebooted MPS superintendent search, Goar landed in a role that will allow him to continue serving youth in a far less politicized environment.

For Goar, the opportunity to support adult mentorships for some of our most vulnerable youth strikes a personal chord. Having spent a portion of his childhood in an orphanage, he fondly recalls memories of an American soldier who would often stop by to visit and offer words of encouragement. He credits the mentors in his life with helping him succeed as a student at Washburn High, a college student, and a professional.

Once he gets settled in, he has his sights set on expanding the program’s reach to well beyond 3,000 students. Part of that will entail forging new partnerships with schools in the greater metro area.

“Schools cannot do the work of narrowing the … opportunity or achievement gap by themselves,” he said. “I’ve seen it in Minneapolis, Memphis and Boston. I think the community has a role to play in supporting great schools in our system and our students.”

The Minneapolis Foundation

After leading one of the nation’s most well-established community foundations for the past decade, Sandra Vargas will be retiring at the end of the month.

“I hate the word retirement, so let me say this is kind of a reinvention,” she said, noting her mother is about to turn 93 and she was ready to have a bit more flexibility in her schedule to spend time with family. “I will stay in the community and I will be working on projects that feed my soul.”

R.T. Rybak
MinnPost file photo by Terry Gydesen
R.T. Rybak

The upcoming vacancy was announced in October and former Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak was named the new president and CEO in May.

“For 100 years, the foundation has been getting people to do great things for our city,” he said. “I love being part of that and really want to help create an even more [active] culture of philanthropy in Minneapolis. We’re the most generous city in America, but we still have real needs.”

He’ll certainly be tapping into his extensive network to help grow the foundation’s footprint, he says. And while education initiatives will still be one of his go-to items, he’s also looking forward to bolstering support for related things like more equitable housing, employment pipelines, environmental conditions and access to the arts through the foundation.

For now, he says his main priority is to ensure the July 1 handoff with his predecessor goes smoothly, so none of the existing initiatives face interruptions. “I’ve had a lot of admiration for her work,” he said.

Generation Next

While Rybak will be refocusing his commitments in order to fulfill his new responsibilities with the Minneapolis Foundation, he won’t be cutting ties with Generation Next, the public-private coalition working to close the achievement gaps for children of color.

He began serving as the organization’s executive director in 2013, and will continue to stay involved as an active member of its executive committee. Listing out a number of initiatives geared toward increasing graduation rates, literacy and early childhood education, Rybak says he intends to stay “extremely involved in this work, for as long as it takes.”

The search process for his successor is already under way, he says, noting his last major event as executive director will take place at the end of the month. From there, only one other organization is guaranteed to get his undivided attention: the Northside Achievement Zone.

“Those will be my most important outside boards,” he said. “I’m up to my eyeballs in this issue [education] now, and I’m going to stay there.”

Minneapolis Federation of Teachers

The teachers union representing MPS teachers and support staff held elections in May. All five officer position were on the ballot, along with all 10 executive board seats and a number of other liaison positions.

Lynn Nordgren

Its longtime president, Lynn Nordgren, will be replaced by the candidate she endorsed: Michelle Wiese, a math specialist at the Emerson Spanish Immersion Learning Center. A Latina activist, she’s been teaching in the district for 18 years and was serving on the union’s executive board when she decided to run for president.

According to a campaign piece she wrote for the MFT newsletter, her primary focus will be on educating members of their contractual rights, organizing members so they’re able to advocate for those rights, and “ensuring all teachers, RSPs [special education teachers], and students have safe working and learning conditions.” She also listed increasing teacher diversity as a top priority.

Legislative watchdog says good-bye

In the wake of many leadership changes that hold promise of fresh ideas and partnerships and a renewed energy, one of the advocacy staples at the Capitol, Parents United for Public Schools, will be disbanding at the end of the month, after 14 years of service.

Laura Kelly Lovdahl
Laura Kelly Lovdahl

The group recently held its final legislative wrap-up meeting, where they translate political jargon into easily digestible summaries for teachers, parents and community members. Given the cumbersome nature of tracking education policy and budget work — which gets lumped into huge omnibus bills and sorted out at odd hours as session draws to a close — the watchdog reports produced by dedicated Parents United staff will be greatly missed.

In a newsletter, the group’s executive director, Laura Kelly Lovdahl, said they had reached a point where it was no longer financially viable to continue operating.

“In recent years, we’ve experienced financial changes and challenges. Our goal was to maintain our independence as an organization in order to be a valued resource to all parents. As we grew and more was asked of us, we struggled to increase and diversify our donor base to support this work in a financially sustainable way,” she wrote.