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Picking a superintendent in Minneapolis: Challenges awaiting Bernadeia Johnson

Bernadeia Johnson goes before the Minneapolis school board tonight for a public job interview to become superintendent. That may be the easy part.

Minneapolis Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson, right, speaks during a press conference last week. Education Commissioner Alice Seagren is at left.
MinnPost photo by Craig Lassig
Minneapolis Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson, right, speaks during a press conference last week. Education Commissioner Alice Seagren is at left.

When Bill Green was appointed superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools four years ago, the announcement was made over the din of catcalls from an angry group in the back of a meeting room at district headquarters. Angry about what they perceived as years of turmoil and indifference to the needs of poor and minority children, the parents and community activists had little faith that new leadership would make a difference.

Fast-forward four years, and some of the same faces were to be seen at the American Indian Center where some 50 people turned out earlier this week to hear Green’s likely successor, Bernadeia Johnson, describe her vision. This time, however, they were simply the loyal opposition.

When the man with the loudest of the voices from the past, a tall, imposing African-American activist by the name of Al Flowers, raised his hand it was to ask, calmly, whether district brass were tracking the spending of a particular pot of federal funding. Smiling and nodding, Johnson took several steps toward Flowers, and explained to the crowd that he was right to keep the district on its toes regarding the so-called supplemental educational services money, and why.

Johnson was similarly responsive when questioned by Native American leaders unhappy that Anishinabe Academy had been moved into another program’s building and by a community member who wanted to talk about her handling of a racial controversy at a popular Southwest Minneapolis elementary school.

“I don’t have all the answers, and I never will,” Johnson admitted.

A meeting on the city’s north side the night before drew about 100 community members, said board member Pam Costain, who described the tone as similarly constructive.

Two weeks ago, school board members surprised virtually everyone by announcing that they had chosen Johnson, currently MPS’ deputy superintendent and the architect of a two-year-old reform effort, as the lone candidate for superintendent. They hoped to forego an expensive, time-consuming national search and to focus instead on continuing with the often-painful restructuring already underway.

“The big thing here is exponential return,” board chair Tom Madden told MinnPost at the time. “We’ve got somebody who knows us, who knows our challenges, who has helped us to figure out our road map for dealing with those challenges.”

High turnover, low scores
School board members will conduct a public job interview with Johnson, 50, at district headquarters tonight at 6 p.m. They are expected to formally appoint her at their next regularly scheduled meeting, Feb. 9.

Many of the reforms engineered by Johnson are in response to community demands for racial equity and an end to the widening of the achievement gap. Over the last decade, high teacher turnover and abysmal student performance at many of the city’s poorest schools have driven one-fifth of Minneapolis students — and fully half the children on the predominantly black north side — to charters, private schools and other districts. The declining enrollment and several successive years of budget deficits has necessitated school closings and a wholesale redrawing of attendance boundaries as MPS seeks to focus its resources.

“I am able to make tough decisions,” Johnson told the audience at the American Indian Center. “Sometimes they are unpopular.”

Minneapolis Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson greets North Minneapolis residents during a meeting earlier this week.
MinnPost photo by Steve Date
Minneapolis Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson, left, greets North Minneapolis residents during a meeting earlier this week.

The presence of Flowers and the other critics at the meeting is only one sign that racial equity and the achievement gap will continue to be top challenges for Johnson. In December, an organization called African American Mobilization for Education (AAME) complained in a statement published in Insight News that MPS had “betrayed” a 15-month-old covenant between the district and the African American community.

Hailed as precedent-setting by Education Week and others, the agreement committed both the district and the African American community to making specific changes. AAME complained that Johnson and other district leaders have sought to retain control by co-opting the process.

Native American leaders at the community forum this week also complained that despite a similar agreement, MPS makes many sensitive decisions unilaterally. “Doing things from the top down doesn’t work anywhere,” said one man who identified himself only as Graham.

Johnson enjoys the support of the Coalition of Black Churches and the African American Leadership Summit, both community institutions long critical of MPS. But perhaps more important in terms of her credibility, she began her career with MPS as the successful principal of a failing north side school.

Today’s ‘civil rights issue’
Johnson was an assistant principal in St. Paul when her mentor, former superintendent Carol Johnson, recruited her to take over Elizabeth Hall International Elementary — where Bernadeia Johnson’s own grandmother, now 93, was once principal. At the time, 19 of the school’s 25 teachers were so new they were still on probation; 13 were in their first year. Johnson was eventually able to prepare the school to qualify for the rigorous international baccalaureate certification.

Johnson assured those in attendance at the community meeting that she understands that the reforms that are underway have yet to translate to better test scores and tranquil schools. In addition to creating and publishing a work plan for her first 100 days as superintendent, she promised to help create a process for evaluating her own performance.

“I believe the achievement gap is today’s civil rights issue,” she said.

She also pledged to reduce the number of strategic initiatives vying for teachers’ time and attention, noting that a recent inventory found dozens that are no longer relevant. MPS and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers are paring back the list in the hope of freeing teachers to focus on classroom instruction.

“We’ve had five superintendents in the last 10 years and each one that comes in has different initiatives and different priorities,” said Johnson. “What we have now is kind of like leftovers.”

Beth Hawkins writes about education and other topics.