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As school begins, Bernadeia Johnson aims for culture of ‘yes’

Bernadeia Johnson
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Bernadeia Johnson

Bernadeia Johnson is waxing enthusiastic about the first day of school. It marks the start of her sophomore year on the job and she has a theme for what she wants the academic year that begins this morning to be about.

“We have to create a culture of yes,” she said. “I’m asking people to figure out, how do you get to yes?”

The superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools, that hidebound monolith that for so long has seemed capable only of shedding students, actually thinks she can create “a culture of yes”?

Yes, yes she does. And if she sometimes seems like the lone Energizer Bunny driving the process, well, she’s up for that.

At some point during the last year — her first in the top job — she had an epiphany: In Minneapolis, people only see the superintendent and senior staff when big change is in the offing.

And in an era of shrinking enrollments, hemorrhaging budgets, racial and socioeconomic inequities and a yawning achievement gap, that has meant that if MPS’ top teacher is in the room, bad news is on the agenda.

New view of inclusion
Johnson spent much of her first year as superintendent trying to change the longstanding, and sadly deserved, perception that the district’s idea of inclusion has been to make sweeping decisions and then, under the guise of soliciting community input — hold pro forma listening sessions.

As she looks back on that first year, Johnson said in an interview last week, it’s clear she scored her biggest victories simply popping in on schools and hosting community gatherings, creating opportunities to be places where people could voice their opinions.

She held three successful “Soup with the Supe” evenings, in which she and her senior staff literally served soup to MPS families and community members. She learned, she said, to talk for just five minutes or so about her vision before handing over the microphone or podium.

The soup supper held at North Commons Park, located in a sector of the city just beginning to work its way out of a dozen years of terrible MPS relations, was packed. “People were standing against the walls,” she said. “It was so energizing to see the community come out. It was really parents saying, ‘I want to talk to you.’ ”

What earful did she get? “They want strong academic programming,” she said. “They want kids’ academic needs to be met.

“They are interested in the entire district, but they are also interested in their schools,” she added. “They are interested in equitable programming.”

To hear Johnson tell, she gave as good as she got, citing the example of her reply to one parent’s list of complaints. “What if I gave you a different proposition?” she said to the man. “What if you said, ‘This is my community school, what if I got involved in its success?’ ”

Seven soup nights this year
This year, Johnson plans to serve soup — “wild rice, chicken-noodle, you name it” — seven times.

Teachers had their say during “Homeroom with Superintendent Johnson,” a series of Thursday visits the superintendent paid to district schools. She would visit classrooms, observe and then attend a staff meeting.

As a workplace, MPS historically has suffered from paranoia at virtually every level, to put it mildly. At one of the first homerooms, the teachers presented Johnson with a shoebox full of anonymous written questions. After Johnson answered a few, staff stepped up to engage her directly and the box went by the wayside.  

She made sure to mention gaps in instructional practice she had seen — “I have a wondering about this,” is how she tried to phrase it — but mostly she listened to opinions and answered questions. If an inquiry was too detailed, she put it on a rolling list online to which she posted answers as she got them. 

At another, she was asked about a memo she had recently handed down. “It’s really interesting hearing you talk to me about what was in the memo,” a teacher told her afterward.

Johnson was surprised to realize her in-person explanation was so much less threatening. “It made me more sensitive to how we communicate things,” she said.

So, is Johnson’s zealous talk of the “culture of yes” meaningful, or does it suggest that the supe spent her summer vacation in the self-help section of the bookstore?

Internal climate evaluated
Late last winter, at the suggestion of confidante Valeria Silva, herself superintendent of schools in St. Paul, Johnson engaged a consultant to evaluate MPS’ internal climate. Former Illinois state Education Superintendent Robert Schiller warned Johnson that the members of her team were not all on board with her vision.

“There is a sense that the district is comprised of 72 silos (the schools) and the multiple silos at central office,” he wrote. The report contained a number of specific recommendations about reorganizing and about reassigning some of Johnson’s work so that she would not be spread so thin.

But it also hinted that her vision was threatened by an entrenched culture — and not one of yes.

Before she was superintendent, Johnson was MPS’ chief academic officer. In that post, she was responsible for helping to create and implement the strategic plan for reform that she is now tasked with overseeing as it enters the crucial, if less sexy, years in which staff, teachers and students are expected to make big gains.

Year one of Johnson’s superintendence was devoted to communicating the nuts and bolts underpinning this vision. Year two, as she describes it, is more about letting the MPS community know that it is absolutely achievable.

Families choosing MPS
To her, the moment seems opportune. After years of shrinking enrollments, MPS is bursting at the seams.

Census data suggests that far from closing schools, the district may need to open new ones. There’s a newfound sense that families want to keep their kids in MPS, provided they believe their needs will be met.

“This time last year we added four kindergarten classes,” Johnson recalled. “This year, we did it last spring.

“We have an opportunity to attract and retain families early,” she said. “We do that by showing we are responsive to families’ needs.”

To that end, MPS senior staff has been conducting community meetings where people are invited to talk about the way they would like the district to grow. People have shown up at the meetings with ideas and energy.

This time last year, when Johnson articulated her goal to have every kindergartner reading at a basic level by winter break she got some push-back. The teachers weren’t sure it was attainable. In the end, 60 percent of kids met the goal.

“I’m sorry, I was shocked,” she said. “I had met with all the kindergarten teachers and spent time talking about what this goal meant.”

This year, she’d like them — and every other district staffer — to start from yes. “Do you set the goal and aspire for it, prove to yourself you can do it?” she asks. “What if we could? Imagine what it shows that we can do it?”

Wouldn’t it be nice to find out?

Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Pam Costain on 08/29/2011 - 09:46 am.

    I served on the Minneapolis School Board when we selected Bernadeia Johnson to be superintendent. I could not be more proud of that decision and her subsequent leadership of the district. She is smart, courageous and tenacious in her determination to raise academic achievement in Minneapolis. Turning the district’s culture of “no”, “blame someone else” and “it’s not my problem” to a culture of “YES” is essential if all kids are to succeed. I applaud the superintendent’s tenaciousness and skill. We all win if MPS is successful in increasing academic achievement for all kids, but especially those who are far behind.

  2. Submitted by Bob Quarrels on 08/29/2011 - 11:10 am.

    By promoting the superintendent from within, we’re hopefully sticking to a vision for a while, so there will be less reorganizing, less restructuring and fewer slogans. Instead of spending money on big-screen TVs to show the lunch menu and the principal’s picture, resources can go to books and teachers. We also need to figure out how to reach those kids falling behind without holding back the kids from whom (and for whom) we expect more.

  3. Submitted by Dennis Schapiro on 08/29/2011 - 12:09 pm.

    Would this article have been different if it began with the fact that enrollment is increasing?

    The district is still not likely to quickly embrace dreamy or idiosyncratic plans from outside, but it’s not necessarily a tale of “shrinking enrollments, hemorrhaging budgets, racial and socioeconomic inequities and a yawning achievement gap.”

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 08/29/2011 - 01:10 pm.

    Based on 30 years in a public school classroom (in another state), I’m both skeptical and hopeful, and in a few years, I will be demanding.

    The skepticism comes from those classroom years, during which a superintendent never visited my classroom, and a principal visited once a year, for a single class – a visit upon which an entire year’s worth of instruction was supposed to be evaluated. You’ll pardon me if I label that process as an insult, with a strong overtone of the laughable. Rare, indeed, is a superintendent of any urban school district, or a suburban one of any size, who actually has any idea what goes on in the district’s classrooms, or why. My district saw a succession of superintendents, some promoted from within, some the result of what was said to be a “nationwide search.” In more instances than not, methods, practices and attitudes thought necessary for success according to superintendent ‘A’ were deemed to be anathema by superintendent ‘B,’ and irrelevant by superintendent ‘C,’ whose “vision” focused on other matters.

    School district superintendents, like corporate CEOs, have their own agendas, which may or may not mesh successfully with the employees and patrons with whom they’re working. Also like most corporate CEOs, superintendents (and principals) with whom I worked were happy to accept credit for any success, and inclined to shrug off failure as the result of employees not dedicated enough to the task, or at the very least, to an administrative “vision.”

    And yet…

    Children and their parents still come to school hopeful – that this school will be better than the previous one, that this year will be better than last year, that this teacher will be nice, that this subject will prove unexpectedly interesting. Every year, every semester, every class, starts with hope, and for that reason, if for no other, Johnson deserves some support from thoughtful people in the community. The hard part is combining that hope with the necessary thoughtfulness and hard work – on the part of student, family, faculty and staff – to make the year a success in both personal and academic terms.

    Having spent a professional career in public schools, I know how difficult the job can be, and how unrealistic some expectations. Nonetheless, when my granddaughter, one of the 5 smartest and cutest 2-year-olds on the planet at the moment, starts kindergarten in 3 Septembers, I will hope for no less than perfection from her school’s teachers, staff and administrative personnel, and her parents will hope for the same thing. Perfection not being a common human attribute, we’ll probably be occasionally disappointed, but no school or school district can afford to disappoint parents and children frequently without suffering negative consequences. Every parent, emotionally invested in their child, will have similar hopes and expectations. It’s up to their child, and their child’s teachers, to fulfill those expectations.

    Every successful teacher starts with the attitude that Ms. Johnson articulates. You have to believe, and convince your students to believe, that they can do the work. Ms. Johnson’s actual involvement in that process will likely be tangential, at most.

  5. Submitted by craig furguson on 08/29/2011 - 01:14 pm.

    “Census data suggests that far from closing schools, the district may need to open new ones.” Does the census also suggest that Minneapolis parents will choose Minneapolis Public Schools?

  6. Submitted by David Peterson on 08/30/2011 - 09:47 am.

    As a close friend to many young teachers in MPS, I wish I could say I see this attitude being reflected in the “silos” throughout the district. Instead of thinking positive, I would consider it a move to find a way to allocate resources to those who need it most.

    For example, I have heard of a district wide mandate that all Kindergarten classrooms enroll 30 students. My friend who teaches kindy can attest that it is true in his/her classroom.

    While this positive “yes we can” marketing is certainly good from the central offices perspective, I would love to hear of an effort to class sizes down and more help in the classroom.

    Another on-going concern of mine is the lack of quality math scores across the MPS system. This affects even the high achieving schools. I hope this becomes a target, in addition to continuing to improve reading.

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