Tracine Asberry is sitting in the southwest coffeeshop from which she runs much of her campaign for the Minneapolis School Board when four little girls burst through the back door. Dressed nearly identically in pink and green, a glittery silver handbag dangling from one suntanned forearm, they are clearly on a mission, a momentous one.
“Look at you guys,” Asberry exclaims, stopping them in their tracks. She swivels toward them and turns on an electric grin.
Within seconds she has the whole story. They are neighbors, from two households across the street in Minneapolis’ Kingfield neighborhood, where Asberry lives, too. Never mind that at 10:30 in the morning the temperature is already in the 90s, they have come in search of hot chocolate.
As they file back out a few minutes later, Asberry returns to a point she’s making about great teachers, which started as a point about student engagement, which was illustrated, as if on cue, by the blond quartet’s instant infatuation with the animated lady who likes hot drinks in hot weather, too.
“They recognize that you have to know the kids to teach them,” she said, getting back to effective teachers. “And you know what? Sometimes it helps if you like them.”
A few weeks ago, Asberry had three opponents in the race to represent Southwest Minneapolis, home to the board’s most vocal constituents, for the newly created District 6 seat. In the wake of a city DFL convention that ended without an endorsement, the other three dropped out.
Asberry grew up in Detroit, the youngest of eight kids born to an illiterate Henry Ford Motor Plant line worker and a mother who went back to school to get her GED when Asberry was 4 and who eventually became a social worker.
Her parents drilled into her their belief that education was a path out of poverty. And in 1998, when Asberry began teaching at the Harry W. Davis Academy in north Minneapolis, she made it her business to try a variety of tactics for engaging her pupils’ families. And her students posted accelerated results.
In fact, during the 10 years she spent teaching middle-school language arts there, Asberry focused intently on engagement, making it the topic of the dissertation she wrote while earning a doctor of education degree in critical pedagogy from the University of St. Thomas.
If this doesn’t sound like a big deal, know that in the era that preceded Harry Davis’s shuttering, parental involvement in north-side schools got mostly lip service in many parts of Minneapolis Public Schools. Worse, often the mentions it did merit involved sad clucking and head-shaking, as in “How much can schools be expected to do with parents who won’t engage?”
Ed.D conferred, Asberry left MPS to become a Bush Foundation leadership fellow. Since then, she has been teaching prospective teachers at Metropolitan State University and other institutions and serving as program administrator for the African American Academy for Accelerated Learning.
In her spare time, she is raising three children. The youngest is 16 months old. The other two are students at MPS’ Clara Barton Open School and Washburn High School.
Before the arrival of the cocoa squad, Asberry was engaged in an animated discussion on finding the points of curiosity that keep students engaged, “from the roota to the toota.”
“Some people have a very specific definition of who a learner is and what learning looks like,” she said. “If we are very strict in our beliefs of what a learner is, then it’s going to be harder to engage because that’s going to be a hindrance.”
Nor can teachers master this tightrope act in a system that’s so proscriptive they either are scared to or not allowed to deviate from the plan, as handed down from on high.
Which is where the motivation to serve on the board comes in. “We need to be looking at the policies to see whether those policies are strong enough to honor those kids and teachers,” she said. “We need a structure that supports, not a structure that restricts.”
Teachers need a diversity of methods for reaching kids, whether they are special-ed students, English language learners or need a particular concept demonstrated in an unconventional manner.
“We have students who enter from homes where they have had travel and inquiry and many adults in their lives allowing them to soar,” she said. “We have kids from situations where they have far less, are homeless or otherwise disadvantaged. I believe in a public education that takes kids where they are and crafts ways for them to thrive.”
Asberry has now received the DFL endorsement. And barring the unlikely — a write-in campaign involving a surprise heavy-hitter? — the seat is hers come November. She’s continuing to campaign anyway, on the theory that communities and schools need one another.
“You’re not done with just a vote,” she said. “We need to think beyond ourselves. There’s always other perspectives, always other people to bring to the table.”