At a meeting with two dozen education advocates last week, Interim Superintendent Michael Goar stepped confidently out of the shadows of Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) regimes past and articulated his vision for the future.
In the process, he described in more straightforward detail than many had yet heard exactly what the centerpiece of the district’s year-old strategic plan— the Community Partnership Schools — is and how it will drive change.
And Goar was remarkably forthright in what he told the group — convened by longtime education innovation guru Ted Kolderie — about the ways in which the bureaucracy, seven months into what has turned into an extended tryout, has resisted.
In addition to continued financial pressure and rising poverty, MPS is confronted by rising state academic standards — one of the factors behind this year’s dismal academic scores — competition from suburban and charter schools and conservative politicians who would like the district to be smaller.
Description has been ambiguous
MPS and its policy-minded watchers have been talking about the Community Partnership Schools for more than two years. But the talk has been ambiguous in the 27 months between former Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson’s unveiling of the concept, which she dubbed SHIFT [PDF], and Monday, the first day at the four schools where the rubber is about to meet the road.
Descriptions have varied depending on the leader doing the talking, the audience and the delicacy, at any given moment, of the contractual or political conversation about the change. Possibly because it’s the only way to get parties reasonably described as warring to agree to big change, the depictions have rendered the schools the equivalent of Hermann Rorschach’s inkblots.
As in: Go ahead and see what you need to see in order to buy in.
Intense scrutiny likely
With a number of past marquee initiatives quietly being retired, scrutiny likely will be intense for the four schools that this week are starting to pilot an autonomy-for-accountability contract with district leaders.
The programs include two elementary schools, Nellie Stone Johnson and Bancroft, the K-8 Folwell Performing Arts Magnet and Ramsey Middle School. All four have strong principals. Of the staff-generated plans for forging a new school model, Nellie Stone Johnson’s is the most audacious.
Where the other partnership schools have chosen to double down on existing strengths, Nellie Stone Johnson’s model is the closest to the high-performing, high-poverty schools that have outpaced it in recent years. Working closely with the Northside Achievement Zone, already intensively engaged with neighborhood families, the school will use assessment data to guide what happens in the classroom.
Four schools to have charter-like flexibility
In theory, anyway, the schools will have charter-like flexibility to hire the staff they want, decide (within limits) the length of the school day and year, and choose all or none of the central office’s services, ranging from curriculum to teacher development.
Attendees at the meeting where Goar spoke had turned up to hear Eric Premack (yes, journalism types, the son of the late lamented Frank Premack) talk about school autonomy in California, which this year is charging headlong into a new accountability system that is designed to allow schools maximum flexibility.
Most of those in attendance are ardent backers of school-level independence. If there was a flaw in their eyes it was that MPS has asked the head of the Office of New Schools — which is easing its way out of chartering schools in the city — to serve as a kind of chief bureaucratic negotiator for the autonomous programs.
Better to have the central office draw up a menu of services, be explicit about their cost and allow the schools to choose, a number of attendees suggested.
A shrunken central office
Easy for them to say. Within weeks of taking the reins from Johnson, who resigned at the end of January, Goar laid off 160 central office staff. If schools are allowed to take their dollars elsewhere, the bureauracy stands to shrink further.
“There are so many superintendents in Minneapolis,” said Goar, describing the central office’s hierarchies. “I underestimated those forces. ‘I don’t like what you just said and I’m not going to do it. What are you going to do about it?’
“And people are hunkered down because they are doing a superintendent search,” he continued. “ ‘Michael, you are not going to be here in a year.’ ”
Similarly, many school leaders were ambivalent when the first proposals for community schools were being solicited. “Even though the leaders wanted autonomy, they didn’t know what to do with it,” Goar said. “They were scared.”
Cultivating a wider range of abilities in school leaders will be critical, Premack added. To fully take advantage of the freedoms principals and other administrators will need to understand operations, know how to manage special ed, deal with nonfunctioning employees and other tasks.
“These are things site leaders are not taught and need to know,” said Premack. “If they don’t know, then they will torture central office staff — who will then say, ‘See, I told you so,’ and torpedo the whole thing.”
Looking to identify more schools
Goar said he hopes to identify a dozen more potential partnership schools with an eye toward granting autonomy to eight or nine over the next two years: “We need to show them innovation, show them what’s possible, either in the charter or noncharter world.”
The proliferation of independent schools is also a cornerstone of the priorities put forward by the MFT during the new contract talks currently underway.
By 2020 Denver, which is one of the districts where the independent school model has had an impact, will have more autonomous schools than traditional ones.
When the idea of granting a roster of schools flexibility was proposed by Johnson in May 2013, some six weeks before she poached Goar away from Generation Next, part of the idea was to allow district leaders to name a new model for the district’s lowest-performing schools. Teachers could put forth their own ideas and MPS leaders could require a failing school to adopt strategies used by a high-performing program.
The shift, as Johnson dubbed it, would require concessions from the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT). Public expectations were that the badly divided school board would not back her at the negotiating table.
After a new contract was announced nearly 18 months ago, both sides described the partnership schools differently. Goar and Johnson said MPS leaders retained the ultimate authority to decide whether a school would adopt a new model, while MFT leaders said teachers would get to vote.
The ensuing months did not bring clarity. MinnPost had two teacher contract experts, one local and one national, analyze the agreement. Both said the side memorandum governing the schools basically committed the union and administration to continuing to talk. Both suggested it might be intentionally vague.
Nor did Goar provide many specifics as he met with various community organizations about the proposals. Asked which schools had applied and what their proposals looked like, other district leaders deflected.
Meanwhile, the district, which under Johnson had asked the Harvest Network of schools to open several high-performing programs on Minneapolis’ north side, quietly moved out of the business of authorizing charter schools.
What MPS insiders have said over and over is that it is crucial to Goar that the first schools be successful. If they are, it stands to reason that the fine print would pose less of a threat.
“We are a very intolerant organization when people go outside the norm,” Goar said last week. “We are in a pivotal year now. Unless we are able to make some significant headway in MPS we are going to regress.”