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Vision, efforts of Costain and Johnson were key to MPS receiving $13 million in corporate grants

“It’s a strong statement of confidence in their leadership,” said current school board Chair Jill Davis.

Bernadeia Johnson
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Bernadeia Johnson

Earlier this week, four Twin Cities corporations announced grants to Minneapolis Public Schools totaling $13 million. The funds will be distributed over the course of three years by philanthropic foundations directed by Target, Cargill, Medtronic and General Mills.

The grants illustrate the companies’ commitment to the community, but they also say something about two women who, over the last four years, have nurtured a strong vision for an ambitious, wholesale remake of the district.

Broadly sketched, the money will underwrite a number of strategic reform efforts Bernadeia Johnson has been shepherding into reality first as MPS’ chief academic officer and now as superintendent. The overarching vision for those reforms was birthed by former Minneapolis School Board Chair Pam Costain, who is now president and CEO of AchieveMpls, a nonprofit that works to engage the private sector in MPS.

“Bernadeia understands what she needs to do both internally and externally to move the needle, in terms of administration, in terms of leadership within the school, in terms of an accountable, disciplined approach and a focused strategy,” said Mark Murphy, executive director of the Cargill Foundation. “Bernadeia was with us all the way. She met with us privately on a number of occasions. It was her leadership, her involvement at the table.”

Pam Costain
Pam Costain

As head of AchieveMpls, Costain “brought the small-p politics, the mechanism that was necessary over the last 12 months to help this collaborative piece come together,” Murphy added. 

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“It’s a strong statement of confidence in their leadership,” said current board Chair Jill Davis.

At the time Costain and Johnson took their leadership posts with the district, MPS was, to coin a phrase, a hot mess. African-American students were fleeing the city in staggering numbers and the budget was shrinking almost as quickly as enrollment. Administrators and community members were divided how to confront the crisis — indeed, among certain groups, calling the crisis a crisis was tantamount to blasphemy.

Seemingly more concerned about their future work force than some policymakers, Twin Cities corporations gave to schools back then. But they also grumbled that MPS resisted their involvement and seemed indifferent to their needs. Indeed, one of Costain’s first hard-won campaigns involved steering an often-balky staff to adopt a series of reform recommendations formulated by McKinsey & Co. in conjunction with local business leaders.

I remember the meeting at which the board voted, after hours of what seemed like administrative filibuster, to adopt McKinsey’s plan. The plan itself was a thick, detailed document. The staff-prepared item the board members eventually approved was wafer-thin and remarkably light on specifics.

At the end of the meeting, I asked Costain, who I suspected had been hustled, to explain. The board had laid out a clear vision, she said. It would be staff’s job to flesh it out. As she said this, she gestured across the room at Johnson, who was collating her PowerPoint.

Few said so for public consumption, but many of the moguls and kingmakers who had forked out a cool $1 million for McKinsey’s consultancies felt rebuffed, to put it mildly.

In the intervening years, many of the big changes contemplated in the report have come to pass. But capital-C change has come to MPS in fits and starts, and there are still fiefdoms that resist it. And a leadership consultant Johnson brought in over the winter to help her reorganize the district’s ineffective administrative structure urged her to be more assertive in demanding that all of MPS get behind her vision.

The $13 million in grants announced this week will make implementation of that vision easier. The funds will go to support efforts to target early literacy, instruction in science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM — to AchieveMpls’ high school, college and career centers and to a program that helps low-income minority youth prepare for college, AVID.

Nearly $3 million of the grants, provided by Cargill, Medtronic and General Mills, will help create a comprehensive approach to recruiting, training and supporting high-performing principals and leaders for MPS. The companies have been working with MPS to identify ways to leverage their unique business expertise and strong commitment to education to support the school district’s strategic plan, which identifies leadership and human capital as its highest priority.

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All three corporations have long provided so-called programmatic support to various public education initiatives — in the decade before the new grants were announced Cargill donated $18 million to MPS — but the leadership-development effort is envisioned as something different. The businesses know something about growing leaders.

“Really, the last three years has been a conversation with Bernadeia [about] what really, really matters,” said Murphy. “The human capital component, the principal leadership piece, was glaring at us.”

It’s the kind of extra-budgetary initiative that’s crucial to the eventual success of the district’s reform efforts, said Davis: “There’s not a lot of funding for that kind of thing in the state budget.”

The early literacy effort is Target’s baby. It will convene a consortium of experts from Groves Academy, the University of Minnesota and MPS to figure out how to “scale up” tactics that are showing success.

Indeed, between the funding cliff districts are about to head over as federal stimulus dollars dry up, the state budget crunch and the prescriptive carrot-and-stick approach to school funding currently in vogue among policymakers, there isn’t a lot of money for struggling districts to direct toward their greatest priorities.

The grants are not intended to replace state or federal funding, but to pay for one-time initiatives that should bear fruit long into the future, said Costain.

“The needs are so great there are 100 things we could do,” she added, explaining that when she took over AchieveMpls members of the funding community told her they were interested in making their involvement more systematic. “So what would really make the biggest impact?”

Part of the answer is to tap the business community’s expertise, Costain said.

“I, personally, am just so grateful,” said Davis. “For the money, but also the statement of confidence that investing in Minneapolis is investing in our future.”