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Post-election MPS-board chatter misses several points

Minneapolis’ board will contain three members with personal experience in schools that have made huge strides with disadvantaged students.

If there’s an upside to the reformers-vs.-trade unionists narrative that dominated this year’s campaigns, it’s that a broad swath of the community sounds thoroughly tired of it.
CC/Flickr/mike w40

On Friday afternoon, after three days of hand-counting of ballots, Josh Reimnitz was named the winner of the hotly contested Minneapolis School Board election in District 4. The race, the most expensive and among the most divisive in the district’s history, was treated by many as a referendum of sorts in which education reformers were pitted against the teachers union.

Josh Reimnitz
Josh Reimnitz

Indeed, the ballot-counters barely had time to flex their fingers before the flames of a long list of conspiracy theories — most of them traceable to Reimnitz’s tenure as a Teach for America (TFA) teacher — were fanned here and nationally. The chatter is not likely to die down anytime soon and, in the opinion of Your Humble Blogger, has obscured a handful of interesting points.

First, the composition of the new board: Four years ago Minneapolitans voted to reconfigure the board by adding two seats, making six of the nine geographically specific and the other three at-large. Smart folks were lined up on both sides of the issue — and still are.

Among opponents’ fears was that the board, long one of the most integrated elected bodies in the state, would suffer in terms of diversity. This fear was compounded in 2010 when a teachers-union endorsement helped a white woman relatively new to the city to win over an African-American with deep roots in the education community.

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For the first time in a couple of generations the board elected that year had a white majority and no native-born African-American — a sore spot with a population with which Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) had been working hard to regain trust.

It did, however, have diversity to spare: a Chinese-American, a representative of the LGBT community, an African-born African-American and a Puerto Rican transplant who shared expertise in teaching, organizing, marketing, finance and budgeting. When personal obligations forced Lydia Lee to resign last year, a black woman, Kim Ellison, was chosen to replace her.

Experience with disadvantaged students

The board about to be seated will retain that mix and gain an African-American. Perhaps more interesting, it will contain three members with personal experience in schools that have made huge strides with disadvantaged students.

Alberto Monserrate was chair of the board of Hiawatha Leadership Academy, a high-poverty, odds-beating Minneapolis charter. Reimnitz’s gap-closing success as a teacher has been documented, ironically, by scrutiny of the high-poverty Atlanta school where he taught, which became caught up in a cheating scandal.

Tracine Asberry
Tracine Asberry

And then there’s Tracine Asberry. In addition to being the newest African-American director, Asberry is an adjunct professor at several local teacher-training colleges and a passionate advocate of student engagement. She taught for 10 years at the shuttered W. Harry Davis Academy in north Minneapolis at a time when the term achievement gap was rarely uttered.

There, she took it upon herself to tackle the lip-service-only issue of family engagement, one reason her students’ scores dramatically outpaced their peers’. Smaller class sizes are just one of the items on her pro-teacher, pro-reform wish list. The second point this post seeks to make is that she is arguably several kinds of diversity in one woman.

A classroom veteran

A member of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers for a decade and a classroom veteran who has strong relationships with many of those in the trenches, Asberry might be the district’s best hope for coaxing a cynical, exhausted teacher corps into believing that under all of the heated rhetoric lies something most want desperately: a toolkit for reaching every kid.

“She has gained their trust and their respect and will be in a position to suggest the board is really taking teacher perspectives into account,” said Daniel Sellers, executive director of the reform advocacy organization MinnCAN and until recently head of Teach for America-Twin Cities. “Her understanding of multiculturalism is peerless, in my opinion.”

A quote from Sellers is a tidy place to pivot to a third point of this post: It’s true, TFA corps members and veterans increasingly are seeking — and attaining — education leadership posts outside of the charter-school sector. Reimnitz’s election rightly will be depicted as proof of this, although whether one views it as a conspiracy or a mission being accomplished likely will continue to depend on one’s vantage.

TFA President Matt Kramer sits on the board of MinnCAN’s national parent organization, 50CAN, which made an independent expenditure benefiting Reimnitz’s campaign. (Kramer disclaimer: He is also the son of MinnPost editor and CEO Joel Kramer and the brother and husband of other Kramers prominent in the education community. None of them were consulted or informed about this post, but they are unavoidable for a Twin Cities education writer.)

Several years ago I heard Matt Kramer talk about TFA to a mostly nonplussed audience at a local teacher’s college — the only time I’ve heard him talk TFA, actually. My notes are long gone, but my recollection is he essentially diagrammed the conspiracy for those in attendance.

TFA’s mission, he said, was to equip the best and the brightest to go into the most disadvantaged classrooms for two years. After this time, some would stay in teaching while others would move on. All would take with them the galvanizing experience of having done the supposedly impossible. Education everywhere would thus benefit when alums went on to law school, politics, educational leadership or other ventures.

Some of those alums are working in MPS administration, current corps members are working in district schools and some vets, like Sellers and Reimnitz, are indeed trying to influence things on a broader scale.

‘A fire in the belly about what is possible’

“That is TFA,” Sellers said Friday. “TFA is not a teacher-training program. It’s a leadership training program. … More than anything, it provides people with a fire in the belly about what is possible.”

“Josh’s experience with TFA is critical, but also a relatively small part of who he is,” Sellers added. Much more central is the new board member’s experience with Students Today Leaders Forever, a youth leadership nonprofit Reimnitz got involved with in college and which he moved to the Twin Cities to work for, currently as one of three co-executive directors.

“His experience with Students Today obviously is the seminal experience in how he’s going to live his life,” said Sellers. “He’s taken over a several-million-dollar-a-year organization. That’s a clear sign of what he’s made of.”

Tired of the narrative

Fourthly and lastly, if there’s an upside to the reformers-vs.-trade unionists narrative that dominated this year’s campaigns, it’s that a broad swath of the community sounds thoroughly tired of it. Reimnitz’s MFT-endorsed opponent, Patty Wycoff, was justly insulted to be depicted as someone who did not bring ideas of her own to the table and spent as much time fielding questions about the union’s independent expenditure on her behalf as Reimnitz did 50CAN’s.

The MFT’s well-oiled campaign apparatus — which, like its Education Minnesota brethren, gets partial credit for turning out the vote that overturned both proposed constitutional amendments — has gotten much more ink than its painstaking work on reform initiatives such as a new teacher evaluation system and MPS’ first site-governed school.

Good thing, then, that this year saw an unprecedented uptick in the number of organizations screening board candidates, hosting forums and debates and urging their members to get involved, and the number of education advocates thinking hard about the roles and structures of school boards and the ways their members are selected.