After 10 years in Eden Prairie Schools, Friday will be Superintendent Melissa Krull’s last day. Several weeks ago Krull, who recently survived a bruising campaign to integrate her district’s schools by race and socio-economic status, announced she would retire at the end of the current school year. Two weeks ago, the school board announced it had reached an agreement with Krull that made Sept. 30 her last day.
Neither side is able to talk about the terms of the settlement, but the conflict underlying the buyout has been the topic of numerous headlines over the last couple of years. As increasing numbers of immigrants and people of color moved to Eden Prairie, district schools ended up increasingly segregated and an achievement gap opened up.
During a series of contentious community meetings last year, Krull, her staff, a slim but committed majority of board members and community volunteers redrew the district attendance map, changed elementary schools from a K-5 to a K-6 model and made other changes designed to ensure a low number of poor kids at each school.
Contentious is actually an understatement, the kind of journalistic shorthand that often telegraphs that ugly, ugly things are being said. Many of the remarks were in fact racially inflammatory. Residents who did not want the attendance boundaries changed threatened to sue. The flame war is still being waged on the Internet.
If Krull wants a new job, she’ll have no shortage of possibilities. Superintendents are in short supply in Minnesota. And superintendents who can boast they’ve cut their achievement gaps in half in three short years, as Krull states below — those are about as common as, well, integrated urban school districts.
We caught up with Krull during her last week on the job. What follows is a condensed version of that conversation, and test-score graphics that would serve as an enviable tenure-capper for any educator.
MinnPost: Most people think of integration as an inner-city issue. Can you talk about what it looks like from your vantage point?
Melissa Krull: What we know to be true is that all kids do better when schools are integrated, and when we eliminate low-income isolation or racial isolation. So even in suburban school districts what we have to be very conscious of is that the country is changing demographically. In 2040, or maybe earlier, the predominant race and language in this country will not be white or English. We just have a much richer, more diverse classroom.
As we start to think about our little pockets of the world, we start to see the needs that kids have when they walk into our classrooms changing. It just feels to me like the sooner we get our arms around this, the sooner we embrace these changes and the sooner we prepare ourselves, the more able we are to teach these kids now, the more ready we will be when things really continue to change.
MP: Is this true for all kids or just impoverished kids?
MK: I think it’s true for all kids. There’ve been varied studies on exactly who really gains. For sure impoverished kids gain by being in a setting that is not segregated by income or race. And I also believe that all kids gain by being in settings where they are surrounded by kids who really do reflect the world we live in. You leave your classroom or your school with a much better perspective about the world that you’re graduating into when you spend time in schools and classrooms learning from peers who don’t look like you.
The other thing that is true is that teachers who are practicing new strategies and approaches to teaching that help close the achievement gap become so good at teaching that they automatically improve their teaching for every child while implementing specific strategies that may help a child who’s at risk. Everybody gains from that.
MP: That’s an interesting point, if we could pause there for a second. I think the popular perception of gap-closing is of a teacher drilling to the test. Could you give us some examples of strategies?
MK: The one that’s real obvious to me right now is a new literacy model that we just instituted in Eden Prairie this fall. It’s been in the district for a while, but we’ve made it a systemic approach to literacy. Teachers in all of the classrooms have committed to 120 uninterrupted minutes of teaching reading [every day]. The fact that it’s uninterrupted is a factor, and the fact that it’s 120 is a factor.
And then, within that block of time, there’s a period where everybody gets some basic instruction and there’s another period where the teachers move those kids into groups, and they get specialized instruction with other certified adults in the classroom.
So if you’re an [English-language learner], you move into a group and you get instruction with an ELL teacher. If you’re a gifted-talented kid, you move into a group with a GT teacher.
And then, tier three is independent time where they get to carry out or implement the things they got in the first two tiers of instruction.
So if you have other certified adults in the room, and you keep the kids together, they’re not moving across the hall, they’re not chopping their time up, and the intensity [is maintained], teaching is really good for everybody. Everybody gets what they need.
MP: Did you see gains?
MK: Yes. Our MCA scores are really interesting — and are quite positive in reading, I will add. I can tell you what they are by heart. Over the last three years, our black students have made a 21 percent gain. Our non-English speaking kids made 28 percent gains and our low-income students have made 21 percent gains. Our white students have made a 5 percent gain, so that moved them up into the 91st percentile.
So what we have is a model where our achievement gap has been nearly cut in half in the area of reading. Prior to this year, we had some schools using this approach, and other schools using different approaches. This year, they’re using it system-wide.
MP: Are there different challenges in the suburbs in terms of integration and the achievement gap?
MK: For communities that are just becoming more and more diverse, I think there’s just a lot more involved in terms of in really educating ourselves about the changing demographics, and then embracing these changes.
And it’s this rapidly changing pattern. I think that’s why we’ve got to address it, and embrace it as a society rather than just wait until we get diverse, and then try to figure out what to do.
MP: Do we need a metro-wide solution?
MK: Well, of course I’d love to see that, or even a legislative decision would be wonderful. And I know our commissioner is working really hard at this, too, to come up with a solution that really makes school number one for all of us. I’d really like to see them make school number one for all of us, [so] no matter where you work, where you teach, you’re goal number one is to eliminate the gap.
And I would respond to it, of course, if that’s what I was told. But as long as we work in isolation of each other, I think it’s hard to not feel the need to compete or to protect, you know?
MP: I think you had a school that was heavily East African. Did you have success bringing the community into the school?
MK: Yes. The principal there is a remarkable person. She really instituted a terrific model. For example, they established a family service center right in the school designed to help families come in, get their questions answered, and help them really navigate the school, or navigate school life. We’ve now replicated that at all of our schools with our transformation process.
When families — and parents especially — feel welcome in their school, they’re more prone to show up, they’re more prone to come to conferences, they’re more prone to come to “New Family Night” or open house, and then they become more connected to their children’s school experience.
And research will prove that when parents are connected to their child’s school experience, kids do better in school. I think it comes full circle when you can create those venues for parents, especially parents like a Somali family or an East African family. When they feel like their school is a place where they belong, they’ll come back. But you have to work at making that environment feel that way for them.
What I’m learning about these schools that you’re talking about, these “beat the odds” schools, is that there’s great success when the leaders of the school are just really embracing these ideas, and courageously taking on, and making really hard decisions that, in some cases, aren’t even popular.