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

“Do you set the goal and aspire for it, prove to yourself you can do it?” MPS’ superintendent asks. “What if we could? Imagine what it shows that we can do it?”

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.

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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?’ ”

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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.

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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.

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“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?