Some see ‘bold leadership’ in her proposals prior to union negotiations
By Charles Hallman
Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) Superintendent Dr. Bernadeia Johnson is asking the community to support her new district priorities that “will be a significant, real and challenging shift for our schools and students.”
A key component of this shift that Johnson impassionedly unveiled May 13 at Hennepin Country Central Library in downtown Minneapolis is establishing “an innovative partnership zone.”
“Schools will own critical decisions, like hiring the people that best match the needs of students,” explained Johnson, who noted that separate contracts will be arranged with the teachers at these schools, which the district will identify during the 2013-14 school year and begin implementing in 2014-15.
Other key components include:
• Recruiting and hiring more Black teachers and other teachers of color: “Our youth must see themselves reflected in the adults who are working with them on a daily basis,” Johnson said. “We need more quality teachers and staff members who look like the students they serve.”
• Extending the school day, and partnering with local businesses and community groups “for extended and wrap-around services… We want our schools to become community hubs that are open to learners of all ages and whose lives call for educational opportunities beyond the school day…” stated Johnson.
Northside Achievement Zone head Sondra Samuels and Harvest Prep School President Eric Mahmoud were among the estimated 250 persons who attended the May 13 invitation-only meeting. Both spoke approvingly of Johnson’s plans after the presentation.
Asked how different the superintendent’s plans are from previous ones, Samuels said, “We never heard it put out boldly for the whole community to hear. This is the district position going into negotiations [with the teachers union].”
Samuels especially liked the partnership zone proposal. “This is the type of bold leadership we have been looking for from the district. We as a community can now come out and support these things that we know will make a difference in moving forward.”
Added Mahmoud, “It demonstrates [Johnson’s] bold leadership… The ability to give the principals the opportunity to hire their own teachers, this whole idea of a partnership zone, longer school days and longer school year is much needed. She is very serious about this work.”
In an interview with the MSR last week, Johnson further explained perhaps her most ambitious plan since becoming MPS superintendent in July 2010.
“Most of our diversity is in the EA [educational assistant] ranks and not in the teaching ranks,” admitted Johnson on improving staff diversity in the schools. “We are talking about working with the union in identifying people who work in our schools and also live in our community and send their kids to our schools to help them figure out a pathway to [teacher] licensure.” She added that the district diversity plan also includes MPS officials attending job fairs and recruiting at colleges out of state.
“The point I was trying to make on [May 13] is we can do a better job on bringing in diverse people,” she continued, “but we have to retain them. I [also] believe one of the things we have to do earlier is working with high school students to let them know that teaching is a good and noble profession to go into.”
When asked if she’d had any preliminary talks with Minneapolis teachers union officials about her plan, she replied, “I haven’t talked recently with [them] about this, but this has been part of our strategy over the years. Most of the union agrees with recruitment — it is not a union issue but a district issue. But most of them are still concerned about the seniority system.”
It is this system, she stressed, that has been problematic with hiring and keeping new Black teachers and other teachers of color. “If we hire a bunch of new teachers and we have to downsize, I don’t want to lose those teachers of color when that happens.”
The MPS superintendent also wants to involved more community members in district plans and decisions. “Schools can’t do everything,” Johnson said. “I think one thing we have to start doing a better job [in] is not waiting until there is a problem [before] going to the community, but having these frank, straight conversations with the whole community about what our needs are and what they need to do. And when they come to help, we don’t push them off.”
Recently meeting with Hennepin County officials, Johnson said she advised them that MPS, the County, and other local organizations must get rid “of our own little territory. How do we work together and remove barriers? Sometimes we think there [are] some things we cannot do…”
Finally, “We haven’t involved the community previously” in past contract negotiations, said Johnson. “I want [the public] to know that probably for the first time, they don’t have to try and figure out what I am thinking about in negotiations. I want to be really clear and transparent on what I believe will change the outcomes for students, and I want them to support what I am saying works.
“I just want to make sure that people understand we are trying to change things on behalf of their children.”
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.