New Minneapolis superintendent and her ‘shadow’ get firsthand look at city schools’ demanding challenges

Laysha Ward and Bernadeia Johnson
MinnPost photo by Bill Kelley
Target executive Laysha Ward, left, and Bernadeia Johnson, Minneapolis’ new school superintendent, confer Tuesday during a kindergarten classroom visit.

The visitors went all but unnoticed by the kids in Elisa DeLuca’s kindergarten classroom. Arrayed in a circle on a bright rug, they were working on recognizing and sounding out sight words DeLuca displayed on a large screen at the front of her room at Nellie Stone Johnson Elementary.

They barely glanced away as Bernadeia Johnson and Laysha Ward made their way to the far edge of the circle and squeezed in, criss-cross-applesauce, on the floor. The visitors, incoming superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools and president of Community Relations at Target and head of its charitable foundation, respectively, called out the letters with the kids.

“L-O-O-K, look,” all but one chanted.

DeLuca paused. “I heard somebody say book,” she said, careful not to single out the pupil whose error she’d flagged. “How do we know it’s not book?”

“‘Cause it would be a ‘b’ and not an ‘l,’ ” several kids replied.

School stats illustrate big challenges
Located just north of Broadway on Minneapolis’ impoverished north side, Nellie Stone Johnson (PDF) is the kind of school elected officials and education policymakers wring their hands over. Ninety-five percent of its 700 students qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches; 99 percent are racial minorities. One-third of them are learning English.

Because student test scores lagged, last year the school failed to meet federal targets for making “adequate yearly progress” in academic achievement. And yet this year, at least in the three kindergarten classes Ward visited, there are plenty of students meeting or exceeding the school’s goals for reading.

Principal Mike Bonine has used federal stimulus dollars to bring class sizes way down, and Johnson has instituted a rigorous teacher coaching program in this and several similarly situated schools.

In the hall after the reading exercise, Johnson turned to Ward, who was shadowing the superintendent for the day as part of Principal for a Day, an annual event organized by AchieveMpls.

“Here’s what I saw that I liked,” Johnson said. “When one student had trouble coming up with answers, she [the teacher] asked if she needed help.

“Also, she caught the dropped ‘b,’ ” Johnson continued. “I wondered if she would, and she stopped and said, ‘Wait.’ “

The first-ever “superintendent for a day,” Ward nodded and took notes. Technically, Johnson is still the school district’s chief academic officer. At the end of the academic year, she will take over for outgoing Superintendent Bill Green, but she is the architect of many of the reforms she will formally oversee.

George W. Bush’s controversial No Child Left Behind education reform law requires a “fresh start” for schools that fail to bring test scores up several years in a row. Consequently, three years ago, it fell to Johnson to engineer Nellie Stone Johnson’s wholesale overhaul.

Among other things, Johnson explained to Ward, she took flak for replacing an African-American woman principal with a white man. But she was confident Bonine was the right leader for this school, and everything the two saw Tuesday only confirmed her opinion.

They wouldn’t have to take standardized tests for another three years, but right now lots of the school’s kindergarteners were reading as well or better than their teachers hoped. One-third were reading in Spanish.

Later, in Bonine’s office, Ward peppered him and Bennice Young, principal of the nearby Elizabeth Hall Elementary, with questions about a district initiative to make sure north side families had access to social supports that would help their kids do well in school. Because so many neighborhood families struggle with foreclosure, job loss, homelessness, mental illness or hunger, the principals told her they had reached out to involve their counterparts — and traditional rivals — at area charter schools.

“Oftentimes we trade students anyhow,” Young explained. “It only makes sense that we think these are all of our children.”

Target active in city’s education efforts
As head of Target’s community involvement efforts, Ward spends a lot of time listening to educators throughout the country. The corporation gives 5 percent of profits to charity, and K-12 education is one of its major priorities. Target employees volunteer at Nellie Stone Johnson on company time, and Target is experimenting with in-school food banks and a host of other initiatives that could work well with the schools’ community service efforts.

(The company recently made over the media room — you know, the space they used to call the library — at Bethune, on Minneapolis’ south side. Both Johnson and Ward attended the unveiling Monday.)

Later, after an energetic discussion of cutting-edge leadership models, Ward and Johnson headed to district headquarters. There, Ward sat in on the kind of meeting previous generations of district brass would never have opened to an outsider.

As a part of Minnesota’s unsuccessful effort to secure a federal Race to the Top grant earlier this year, state officials identified 34 “chronically underperforming” schools. Seven are in Minneapolis. Whether Minnesota tries again for the grant remains to be seen, but new state and federal rules require the district to adopt one of four models for dealing with each school within the next couple of weeks so that changes can be implemented by fall.

Johnson and her senior team invite Ward to join them. Over sandwiches from Jimmy John’s, they review the options: They can change a school’s principal, instructional time and time for professional development; order a “turnaround” in which the principal and at least half of the staff are shuffled; restart a school as a charter or independently managed; or close it outright.

The discussions involve sensitive personnel matters, Ward agrees not to talk about the details (and a reporter following the two agreed to sit out the second half of the meeting).

Afterward, Ward says the tenor of the conversation was the most unusual thing she witnessed all day.

“The healthy debate probably surprised me the most,” she said. “Partners across sectors are sometimes afraid to be authentic. If you don’t have all the answers figured out, it’s sometimes hard to have that honest debate.”

The administrators in Johnson’s office were quick to challenge her, Ward said, resulting in a far-ranging conversation. “It’s clear that Bernadeia is opening up a culture that is open to healthy debate,” Ward said. “The incoming superintendent was in the room, but people didn’t hold back. They were focused on the end goal.”

Ward impressed with what she saw
Ward said she saw similar focus at Nellie Stone Johnson, particularly on the part of Principal Bonine and his colleague from Hall Elemenatary, Young. “Leadership makes a difference,” she said. “Where you have strong leadership, the results speak for themselves.”

And the big unspoken question: Would Ward’s experience translate into continued involvement in Minneapolis schools? As she closed the notebook she’d been using to record impressions and prepared to head back to her own office, Ward reeled off a long list of possibilities.

The bottom line: “We believe that all kids deserve a quality education regardless of race or class, that every child deserves to graduate high school ready for a job or college, that every child deserves to reach his or her potential,” said Ward. “Every single child. Not half, or a quarter, but every single child.”

Beth Hawkins writes about schools, criminal justice and other topics.

You can also learn about all our free newsletter options.

No comments yet

Leave a Reply