MPS superintendent answers community accusations

By Charles Hallman
Staff Writer

Johnson contends she’s trying to provide better academic options

Despite her most recent recommendations being put on hold for the time being, Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson contends that her overall goal that all children succeed has not been detoured.

The Minneapolis School Board last week voted 5-2 to delay voting whether or not to close Cityview School. Johnson earlier proposed closing the K-8 school, which opened in 1999, after the Minnesota Department of Education identified it as among the five percent of chronically underperforming schools statewide.

In its place, Johnson calls for a new K-5 science charter school.

“I chose the model that I thought would lead us to getting the best academic gains for students,” Johnson told the MSR during a phone interview November 23.

Since assuming her present position earlier this year, Johnson has proposed two controversial recommendations, both much criticized by community residents and others. She proposed in October to close North in three years because of declining enrollment and poor academic results. The board instead later voted to allow a ninth-grade class next fall, if supporters can successfully recruit 125 students, and to bring in a design team to work with community members to redesign and create a “new” North High.

Furthermore, Johnson said last week that she doesn’t understand the name-calling, which she admitted has bothered her. “I never thought I would see the day that a district would try to do better or getting better results for kids academically, that I would be called an Uncle Tom for doing it,” bemoaned Johnson.

A resident recently told her that the current belief around the community is that she doesn’t support Blacks and other students of color, which mainly makes up Minneapolis Public Schools’ student body. The belief simply isn’t true, she reaffirms. “Being a female and a person of color trying to make change for students of color, that kicked me back a little bit,” Johnson pointed out.

Nonetheless, she fully understands that emotions have run high in supporting both Cityview and North. “If people would take a moment to see that I am trying to provide better academic options,” then the sobering reality also would be seen that both schools have been underperforming for years, said the superintendent. “I keep going back to our kids doing well academically.

I can agree with people that I could do [community] engagement differently, but ultimately I think that a decision has to be made, and I know we can agree that we want better results for our kids.”

The achievement gap between the district’s Black and White students “hasn’t changed in over a decade,” notes Johnson. However, she believes that there are some who complained about the issue but are afraid to do something about it.

“I keep putting results out there about how well kids are doing, and I keep getting the pushback that I am an Uncle Tom, or that I don’t care about kids.

What is it that an urban superintendent really needs to do? What would really untie his or her hands to make change happen in a system that would make a difference in student achievement?”

The two controversial decisions have overshadowed other decisions, including ensuring that each school has strong leadership and better analysis on instruction: “What’s taught and how it’s taught in the classroom, and how it is assessed” are changes that she has made, Johnson added.

The North and Cityview issues “are the story of the day or the moment, yet the deep analysis [on] what leads the superintendent to this” isn’t being similarly reported, she said.

She agrees that perhaps she could have worked more closely with community folk, but “the turnaround school work came down from the feds and the state that we had to make [quick] decisions,” said Johnson. “But it wasn’t just Minneapolis but also St. Paul and Brooklyn Center who had to change their principals right away. Things had to move fast.”

She concluded that perhaps “the timing is not the best” regarding Cityview and North High but strongly contends that her “actions are well intended for improving academic gains for students,” said Johnson. “I keep asking myself: Will these actions lead to better academic results and gains for students?”

The superintendent quickly answered her self-question with yes.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.