Late one night years ago, I left a Minneapolis Public Schools Board meeting via a side door I had never used. It opened onto another door, which opened onto a staircase that descended through what seemed like a column of negative space at the center of the tacked-together structures that were a building in name only.
The structures were at different heights — the board room was on the top in back — and as I traveled down through the dark I actually began to fear I might not get out. When I did, I found myself standing outside, next to a gas pump in some kind of operations staging area.
Other reporters brag about having access to highly placed sources or moles on the staffs of the tight-lipped. Me, I calculate the moment of my official arrival on the education beat as the day I felt confident I could find my way home.
‘807’ is emptying out
807 — the only name the compound on 807 Broadway NE ever really had, and a pejorative one at that — is emptying out. Construction of a new HQ a few miles to the west on Minneapolis’ near north side got done two months early, and district staff members have spent recent weeks boxing things, tagging salvageable furniture and, I suspect anyway, telling war stories about the place.
There was no front door and, so far as I ever figured out, a single (miniature) women’s toilet on the first floor, located in the hall between the superintendent’s office and the associate superintendent’s office.
The entire department charged with turning around the city’s highest priority schools operated, clown-car-like, out of a room resembling a trapezoidal closet. Like every other room in the place, it sloped and — bonus! — was muggy year-round.
If visitors were lucky, the office they were looking for might be mentioned on one of the many small plastic plates stuck haphazardly to the walls. If not, they might wander for some time, looking at the miniature colonial-style black metal flags jutting out over various doors.
I did a spit-take not long ago when the management consultant whose report I was reading described Minneapolis Public Schools as a series of silos. Did he mean that literally or metaphorically?
And so, to finally pivot this post to its point — a first look at the district’s brand-new headquarters — I want to talk about sunshine, both literal and metaphorical. The Davis Center overflows with the stuff, possibly even enough to change the culture more effectively than a silo’s worth of consultant’s reports.
Anyone with even a passing interest in the welfare of the city’s children (or their referenda dollars) can step off West Broadway, through glass doors and find themselves a few paces from the capacious assembly room where the board will meet. There are floor-to-ceiling windows at every turn.
MinnPost photo by Beth Hawkins
This, I submit, is a big deal. A decade ago, district administrators had a history of being more interested in the construction and maintenance of those silos than they did in the angry parents and advocates who threw frequent protests at board meetings. As a consequence, the city’s impoverished, minority families voted in big numbers with their feet for charter and suburban schools.
Ready to hear
MPS’ recent leaders have worked hard to convince folks that the district wants to hear people’s dreams for their children. For a few years after the effort to actually listen began, board meetings were sparsely attended; the loyal opposition didn’t make the trek through the Habitrail to the meetings, but it was out there watching and waiting via cable TV.
The Davis Center is set up to welcome the community in. Its rectangular south wing, the one with the assembly room, is connected by an airy hall to a north wing that opens onto a parking lot. Most visitors will actually arrive at the north wing’s back door, where the first thing they will see is the student placement center.
Minneapolis Public Schools
I wrote a story this time last year about the thoroughly depressing experience of sitting in the “welcome center” that this office is replacing. A nice new sunny lobby won’t fix all that ails in the school assignment department, but this one actually looks like a space where something deserving of respect happens.
The genius of the two wings is that each is framed by those oversized windows, which open onto large expanses where the worker bees do their thing. The bigwigs’ private offices are set, for the most part, in the in-between spaces. Everybody shares in the light.
You don’t want to discuss whether the fourth-grade social studies curriculum meets state standards in this open arena? The building is peppered with “huddle spaces” furnished with chairs and tables. A carpeted lunchroom on the first floor has vending machines, but will also from time to time boast offerings from newly installed chef Bertrand Weber.
No surprise, then, that several staff committees helped to design the Davis Center. Their vision was then turned over to UrbanWorks Architecture. Developer Mortenson completed the project early and on budget under the direction of MPS Chief Administrative Officer Mark Bollinger.
The total cost of the project was about $41.7 million, of which some $36 million was construction costs. Like many public agencies, MPS has goals for minority contractors. For the center’s construction the district adopted a more ambitious goal, which Mortenson exceeded, according to Bollinger.
MinnPost photo by Beth Hawkins
The building was designed to meet LEED silver standards — a fancy way of saying it’s pretty darn green — but is likely to qualify as gold. The best parking spots are reserved for low-emissions vehicles.
Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson took home 13 boxes of knick-knacks when she packed up her old office. A modest number of treasures made it to her new corner office, which looks out over a Pizza Hut, a KFC and North High School’s storied football field. (The killer view of the downtown skyline is reserved for the adult basic education center on the fifth floor.)
Furniture came along
Taxpayers: Johnson’s furniture, like that of most of the building’s new occupants, followed her from 807. It looks better with the sun shining on it.
Want to see for yourself? MPS is hosting an open house Saturday, Aug. 18, from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. at 1250 W. Broadway Ave. Donated school supplies will be available, as will information about “Attend to Achieve,” a drive to get 95 percent of the district’s students attending school 95 percent of the time.
If you go, be forewarned: The sunshine might get the better of you, too. You might have to quit the grousing and lurking that characterized the 807 era and roll up your sleeves.