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Indispensable man: After 66 years and several careers at MPS, Mitch Trockman has actually retired

If he could travel back, would he do it again? “No question,” says Trockman, whose last post was in the blazing hot seat of liaison between the school board and MPS leadership.

Mitch Trockman: “Minneapolis was just a sensational employer. There wasn’t a day I wasn’t enthusiastic about going back to work. How many people can say that?”
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley

True story about the first time Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) attempted to keep Mitch Trockman from leaving: It was the mid-1960s and the Navy called up reserve member Trockman, then in his second year of teaching.

Elementary school teachers were in terribly short supply and qualified for a deferment from the draft. GIs highly qualified in electronic countermeasures were in even shorter supply, though, and so — over the protests of then-Sen. Hubert Humphrey — the Secretary of the Navy got its man.

During his Vietnam tour, Trockman walked away unhurt from two plane crashes. He’d been back in the relative calm of the classroom for two months when he walked to the newspaper box on the corner and was run down by an out-of-control driver.

He was in the hospital for seven months. When he got out, MPS asked Trockman and another 29-year-old by the name of Richard Green, who would go on to be a beloved superintendent first here and then in New York City, to be principals. In terms of age, this was at least a decade and more like two ahead of the natural order of things back then.

Three stints as interim superintendent

Last month, after 15 distinct careers within the district, including three stints as interim superintendent, and several attempts to retire or take a job outside MPS, Trockman officially resigned. All told he’s spent 66 of his 75 years in the district, the first 13 as a student and the rest as an employee.

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Trockman went to elementary school at Willard, middle school at Lincoln and high school at North back when all three north-side programs not only existed, but were at the front of the pack academically.

Growing up, Trockman particularly admired a next door neighbor who was a teacher and principal in Brooklyn Center in an era when men didn’t go into elementary education. Indeed, after graduating from the University of Minnesota, Trockman attended a job fair where six districts, anxious to hire a man, made him six offers.

Trockman’s neighbor urged him to overlook the fact that MPS paid the least. Minneapolis was a big district — 50,000 students at the time — which meant the most opportunity.

Anti-poverty efforts in full swing

At the time of Trockman’s first promotion, Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty was in full swing and an unprecedented effort to funnel federal dollars into ensuring educational equity had just cleared Congress. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA) created a pot of money intended to help catch poor children up.

(ESEA was the first iteration of the law now known as No Child Left Behind, which in both the U.S. House and Senate, after 14 years of gridlock, may be headed for renewal.)

After a stint helping to figure out how to use the anti-poverty dollars, still known as Title I funds, Trockman took over as principal at Jefferson. The philosophy of the time was to send money out to schools that were working relatively well and give site leaders autonomy to decide how to spend it.

A bright young assistant principal by the name of Carol Johnson — a talent who would go on to lead MPS and numerous other urban districts — joined Trockman. (She is now retired from leading a lauded turnaround of Boston’s schools.)

“At that time, if you ran an effective school no one would bother you,” he recalls. “I’d go a year without seeing anyone from the central office.”

A mix of students at Jefferson

For a short while, Jefferson was a demographic dream. Half the students came from wealthy Kenwood-Isles while the other half lived in the notorious Hollman housing projects, since razed, abutting Highway 55 on the near north side.

Trockman got to school at 5 a.m., to hear Johnson tell it, and left 13 hours later. In between he carried a walkie-talkie that enabled him to eavesdrop on the entire Jefferson community all day long. He was known to leave off-site meetings to monitor cafeteria spats.

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“I was out at the buses every single day and I could spot a new kid,” he recalls. “I was out on the playground and in the lunch room every day. When kids got off the buses you could tell if there’s a problem.”

And he knew kids’ families, says Johnson, who recalls Trockman as relentless in his efforts to get parents into the building and into decision-making. (Somehow he’d wedged an unlikely stint at the district printing office into his tenure, she says, which left him in the enviable position of having relationships with everyone.)

At Jefferson, he had a staff of 100, a thousand students and, on any given day, 40 or 50 parents volunteering as classroom aides. A large number of the students were Vietnamese refugees whose parents were adamant about immersing them in English.

Catches superintenden’s attention

Trockman created an immersion program which, for the first time, drew the wrath of the brass, in the person of then-Superintendent Robert Ferrera. Trockman argued back.

“That was my assignment and the kids were successful,” he recalls barking at the boss. “What was his problem?”

He was certain he was about to be fired.

“The next day he called and said he was coming to Jefferson,” Trockman continues. “I said to my wife, ‘I’m done.’ But he asked me to be associate superintendent. He said, ‘I’m tired of being surrounded by Yes people.’ ”

First retirement attempt

Trockman had that job until 1993, when he first attempted to retire — a sojourn that lasted two days until Ferrera cajoled him into coming back to take temporary charge of facilities. A month after that, Ferrera was fired and Trockman assumed the first of his interim superintendencies.

That was followed by a stint as an investment banker handling bond sales for school distrists. “I was on the 46th floor of the Norwest Tower and I hated it from day one” not least because of the compound effect of the tower swaying and his office lacking a window, Trockman recalls.

Maybe half a dozen jobs (some of them reporting to Superintendent Carol Johnson) later he was back at MPS when the board hired Thandiwe Peebles. Her notorious performance as superintendent ended in an expensive contract buyout, but the problems started before Peebles did, Trockman recalls.

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At one point Star Tribune reporter Steve Brandt asked Trockman if Peebles, who had never been a superintendent, was qualified to lead MPS.

“I said I understood how Richard Green, who was from here, could have his first superintendent experience here,” he recalls. “When the story came out, Peebles threw the paper on the ground and stomped on it several times and never spoke to me again.”

Another decade of assignments followed, but principal of Jefferson remains the post Trockman most loved. It would not be the same today, he’s quick to point out.

Boundaries continually redrawn

When U.S. District Court Judge Earl Larson, who handled integration litigation for well over a decade, ordered Minneapolis to bus students to maintain racial balance, stability was lost, he says. The district had to revisit each school’s makeup every year, which meant redrawing attendance boundaries.

“So some families were forced to change schools every year,” Trockman says. “We had some families living near the airport whose kids attended school near Shingle Creek.”

Today some 20,000 Minneapolis children attend charter or suburban schools. “Parents have a choice and they exercise it,” he notes. “They go where excellence is.”

MPS could win back those families, Trockman says. “Look at the graduates of Southwest High School,” he says. “Their scores compare to Singapore. You can get a world-class education here.”

It won’t happen in a vacuum, though. Trockman’s wife is a pediatrician. When their kids were growing up they had two good salaries and the help of two sets of grandparents, “and we were stretched,” he points out.

Advice to colleagues

What wisdom does he offer the leaders he’s leaving behind?

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“The advice I would give them is stop saying, ‘Give us more money and we’ll fix the problem,’” says Trockman. “You have to have enough money to operate the schools, but we can’t buy our way out of the problem.”

Nor can we expect students and schools to overcome the issues in a vacuum, he adds.

If he could travel back, would he do it again?

“No question,” says Trockman, whose last post was in the blazing hot seat of liaison between the school board and MPS leadership. “Minneapolis was just a sensational employer. There wasn’t a day I wasn’t enthusiastic about going back to work. How many people can say that?”

She’s far from the only skeptic, but Johnson doesn’t believe Trockman — whose avocation is taking compelling photos in far-flung locales — is done with MPS.

“I don’t care what he says about retirement, Mitch Trockman will always be in the middle of opportunities for young people to get the best education they can,” she says. “Even if he’s retiring, he’s not retiring. He’ll never retire.”