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Bernadeia Johnson reflects on her MPS legacy, her family, and her future

Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson: "To me it just felt like it was the right time to make the decision."

The first thing you need to know about the exit interview Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson granted MinnPost is that Johnson, who announced her resignation before the holidays, today looks like a million bucks. There’s color in her cheeks and her eyes are bright, in a marked contrast to recent months.

Being superintendent of a major urban school district wears on anyone, making turnover notoriously high. The last year in Minneapolis has been particularly brutal, however. In recent weeks, the strain showed on Johnson’s face.

In the days after her decision, Johnson was too emotional to talk about it. She is still emotional, yet anxious to talk about her legacy — its highs and lows — as she sees it.

An edited and annotated transcript of her remarks follows.

Years ago when Johnson was a district leader in Memphis, working under her mentor, former MPS Superintendent Carol Johnson, she moved her grandparents with her. Away one night on a business trip, she had a horrible feeling that compelled her to fly home ahead of schedule.

She found that her grandparents, one of them a former MPS principal, were fine. But a few hours later Johnson got a call saying that her mother had had a heart attack. Johnson had always been close to her grandparents; she has known since that moment that she would be their caretaker for the rest of their lives.

There were many reasons for Johnson’s resignation. But when she cites family among them, she wants you to know she means it.

My grandfather turned 107 on Sunday and my grandmother turned 99 a week ago. They are amazing individuals. To look at them on the outside, they look amazingly well.

But I feel like I should be starting to manage their health care, manage some of the things that they need help with. As I said at the board meeting, they have been behaving naughty. We moved them from their home to an assisted living place — and they moved back! My grandmother had eye surgery that I thought was unnecessary. So they are doing things that if I was around and present I would be forceful around. How they think about their finances, their living situation.

Tough decision, but also easy

Making this decision was tough for me, but it was also easy. I did not want to be in a position where it’s stressful on the job and it’s stressful at home. I just needed some freedom.

So I feel good about making that decision, but I feel bad because I feel like my work is not finished. I think every leader believes that, but I also think you have to recognize when it’s time to go.

We’re all replaceable. I know that I’m charming and people like me and believe in me. But ultimately we all have to take stock of our lives and make an assessment: What’s best for me at this time?

Among the unpleasant chapters in the last year was a heart-stoppingly expensive, profane and bitter school board election that would determine the nine individuals who serve as the superintendent’s bosses. Those bosses frequently disagree with one another about what the superintendent should be doing.

This was the first time that I felt like the board election was becoming a referendum on the superintendency. In previous elections people have been like, Yeah, I support the superintendent, I believe in the direction we’re going.

I tried not to get involved. I know [new board member Don Samuels] was a strong supporter of mine. But I got a sense from this election overall — I don’t want to attribute it to any one individual — they were questioning my leadership.

And I’m thinking, it’s a shift in board leadership and I’m having these family issues. ... To me it just felt like it was the right time to make the decision.

During the same span of time, things got personal. After the details of a shady $375,000 no-bid contract granted to a district critic were revealed, Johnson came under intense pressure —particularly within the African-American community — to disclose what political pressure had been brought to bear.

'That's not me'

This place is hard on its leaders. Very hard. In a leadership role, you expect to be challenged, you expect to have to lead courageously — especially in urban districts. I expect that, I believe in it, and I didn’t back away from it.

I’ve been called everything, an Uncle Tom. But when those Twitter campaigns started calling me the new Jim Crow? That I treated black kids like Cotton? Hell, I am from Alabama.

When it first started happening I was like, That’s not me. I can’t accept that characterization. I just felt like it was so damn hurtful. There’s a way to have disagreements without being uncivil and disrespectful.

I understand the frustration from the community. I understand the anger. I just didn’t understand the name-calling. I call it adult bullying and I’ve called it out. I had a board member who was retweeting it. I told her, I feel like I am being bullied by my employer.

That hurt me. It really did something to my psyche. I couldn’t ignore it. It still rests with me to this day.

You have to have a thick skin. What you learn in the classroom around this job is not the reality. Politics are ever-present. There’s an adult agenda that is so strong that it overshadows — I mean, everybody is for equity, everybody is for kids, but when it comes down to it, everybody is really for themselves. That’s probably wrong to say, but I do believe that.

Johnson faltered, in her own version of the story, struggling with the line between compromise and betraying her vision.

I also have learned that you have to be very clear about the board’s role in the superintendent’s role. And as the superintendent you have to stand firm.

This is a policy governance board. We as a leadership team invited the board to go into management more than they needed to. In some cases they didn’t want to and in some cases we allowed it to happen and I didn’t correct it.

Soup with the Supe

I also learned that you have to do the things that are important to you. When I started I used to do Soup with the Supe [an evening of dinner and conversation that rotated through the city’s schools]. I loved it. A couple of board members didn’t like it. They said, That’s not community engagement.

That made me mad. I said hell, why am I up there in front of hundreds of people? If my board is not valuing this aspect of my work, why am I out there trying to do five [dinners] a year?

Then I would go out in the community, and there would be parents and community members and they would say, We miss that, I really liked when you did that. I feel like I should’ve done what I felt was important, and stuck to it regardless of what kinds of feedback I may have gotten from others.

And here there are other superintendents copying it. [Former district CEO] Rick Mills goes down to Manatee County School District, he’s down there doing Soup with the Supe.

This is a board of organizers. It’s not that they’re not professionals. The makeup of this board, in some ways it was refreshing in terms of really trying to connect to the people.

I don't want to say this in a way that makes it sound like I don't think we should engage the community. That’s not what I’m saying. What I’m saying is it becomes more of a trip back-and-forth between which constituent group is the loudest.

Early on, Johnson had an outsider scrutinize the district’s culture. The report he tendered suggested that she was spread too thin, that she needed a strong No. 2 — who was more organized than she — and that many of the leaders under her did not support the strategic plan the board asked her to implement.

It’s ironic, then, that there are plenty of insiders of differing philosophies who believe Johnson is leaving behind a crackerjack senior leadership team, including Michael Goar, another Carol Johnson protégé, as interim superintendent.

I started in 2010. Before that I was chief academic officer under another superintendent, Bill Green. I thought it was important to really assess the leadership under me as well as doing an assessment of some of the departments I had the most concern with.

That took some time. And doing that really made some people upset. A lot of people who work for me, Dr. Green had hired. I remember talking to [a department head] about some work I wanted her to look into.

And she didn’t want to do it. Just said, I don’t believe that this is the right way to do it. And I said, This is what I want you to do. And she said, Well, I’m going to talk to Dr. Green about this because Green hired me. 

Stuff people don’t know — that kind of resistance. And how stuck people were.

I was spiraling — I'm going to tell you the truth. I was running around trying to be everything for everybody. And without expertise in some of these areas.

I remember saying, I can’t do this work if the people who work for me are not going to do what I say. It took some work to remove people who were resistant to change, and try to get people in the academic areas that I thought were important.

It’s interesting, in the interviews many of the people talked about the SHIFT speech [the May 2013 speech in which Johnson rolled out a number of changes that would rattle the teachers union]. It was a great speech, and there were people who came to the interviews and said hearing you online making that speech is what cinched it for them to come here.

'It's sort of addicting'

The thing about this work, it’s sort of addicting. You never can predict your day. Whether it’s making a decision about the snow or kids walking out or whatever. Because I can’t control the 35,000 students or the almost 7,000 employees. There are things that are happening every day, so we hope and we pray that we hired the best people with the best judgment to make the right decisions for kids.

During Johnson’s tenure a widely lauded teacher evaluation system was created. Part of its success was the teacher input that went into crafting it. Another part was a slow implementation, in which teachers had time to reflect on evaluation data before consequences were attached.

I am very proud of our teacher evaluation. I was very involved in that, not just conceptualizing but attending all the meetings, getting feedback and being involved with the union. And that was the first true collaboration.

It was part of my response to LIFO [the acronym for last-in, first-out, the order in which teacher layoffs are conducted]. If you have last in first out then you are not looking at quality, you’re just looking at a seniority number.

If we truly evaluated the effectiveness of our teaching staff we would have a way of reducing or dismissing teachers who were ineffective, retaining teachers who are effective and who have the right mindset and want the skills to do the work.

She was less successful in communicating other big changes to teachers, such as a system for determining whether students have the knowledge spelled out in state standards she called Focused Instruction. Johnson was not effective at communicating the progress the approach had driven in other urban districts. Teachers felt they were being handed a boxed curriculum and many simply ignored it.

The one that I didn’t communicate the best was Focused Instruction. We did some research on districts that were positioned like Minneapolis. We tried to figure out what were they doing to try to see more accelerated growth.

That led us to a group of districts that used what they called managed instruction. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Minneapolis it’s that you don’t use the word managed. It took me forever to think of what to call it.

People felt like that was attacking the profession and their core competency around teaching. People thought it was a more didactic approach to teaching than I thought. Principals I don’t think were good messengers of this.

Charter schools

Few occurrences over the last decade in MPS have been as controversial as the creation of the Office of New Schools, which was tasked with helping educators and others who wanted to start schools. Some of the schools in its portfolio are standouts. Others failed abysmally. In the end, Johnson is proud of the work.

I was very interested in working with high-quality charter schools. I started out initially with a close-and-replace strategy. That was, close a low-performing school and after we close it bring in a high-performing charter.

I was looking across the country for high-performing charters, and that didn’t work with the community. There was a lot of backlash. So I shifted the strategy.

I thought, Why am I going all the way across the country when I have Harvest Prep already serving the community’s kids just two miles from here?

So we created [a new Harvest school] Mastery. And then we shifted, because of all the community pressure, to local replication.

And now I’ve shifted to something more collaborative. Hiawatha Leadership Academies is the best example of that. We have a collaborative agreement with them to look at different things. We are instituting a similar assessment, called the STEP [which accomplishes in reading much of what Focused Instruction strove for]. They’re having success with it, their teachers are doing it, their school population is similar to ours.

We had teachers at Jefferson and Anderson go to Hiawatha to observe how they implement this program. Now they are working with Green Central. We have an agreement with them to do more of that.

Mentoring

One of Johnson’s last tasks will be to help renegotiate the district’s agreement with AchieveMPLS. Among other things, in recent years the nonprofit partner has placed thousands of MPS students in good jobs through its STEP-UP programs. Johnson hired one every year.

I mentored a female student of color every year. Last year I pushed my STEP-UP folks to give me a student with disabilities.

I went to an adaptive soccer game with [board member Carla Bates]. I get there and there’s this girl guarding the net and she is just flying across the floor. I mean flying.

And I look and I thought, Gosh, she’s on her knees, her knees must be really strong. And then I realized, I’m sitting right next to her legs. Her legs are standing next to me. She’s an amputee, and three of her fingers are missing off of one hand.

I thought, that girl has grit. And I went after her. The STEP-UP people were like, she missed the deadline. And I was like, I am the superintendent, right? If you can’t do it I’ll just hire her outright.

I called her. She never called me back. I called the principal [at her school] and I said she should not shirk this process. I wanted her to know what it felt like to apply. I called the mom. I called at different times of the night and day. I became obsessed with it, really.

I called the mom and I said, I'm not a stalker, I'm not harassing you. I just feel like this would be a great opportunity for your daughter and a great opportunity for me. It’s a safe setting. There are a lot of strong women in my office.

She's so special. She's got such a big heart. I found myself doing things I didn't do with the others. Like she got her first check. She was so excited so we took a picture and I tweeted it. I think her check was $150. Then her brother wanted a pair of tennis shoes. And her sister wanted a pair of sandals. She wanted to take them out to dinner to Red Lobster.

And I said, That’s expensive. Think about your money. You want to set aside a percentage of your money for school next year so when other kids are going to the movies or you are in choir and you need something special, you have resources.

She didn't come to work a couple of days. I told her, "You know when you don't come to work you have to call your boss and tell them." Those kinds of things. She responded well.

That’s one thing I’m going to regret. This is the first time I thought about keeping the same person for more than one year.

What next?

On Feb. 1 Michael Goar starts as interim superintendent. Aside from a winter vacation, what’s next for Johnson?

I have no plans to leave. There are like 30 superintendent’s positions open across the country — they open like every three years. At this point I’m not looking for another superintendency.

I’m not on the shortlist or long list that I know of. I have not been interviewing. I have not talked to a search firm.

I don’t know what I’m going to do, besides taking some time for myself and my family. At this point I am just going to be open to whatever possibilities are there.

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