A letter to North Minneapolis

By Bernadeia Johnson

Dear North Minneapolis families and residents,

When I became superintendent six months ago, I promised to do whatever it takes to make sure that all students enrolled in the Minneapolis Public Schools receive a high quality education. I remain committed to that promise.

I know that the past three months have been extremely difficult. Your confidence in our commitment to North Side families may have been shaken. My recommendations to phase out the current North High School program and to close Cityview Performing Arts School started a heated but necessary dialogue, one that I believe we must continue.

However, I know that the recommendations also opened deep wounds. People ask me on a daily basis, “Why are you giving up on educating North Side students? Why is the district getting into the charter school business? Why not support the current teachers by giving them more time? Why are you are trying to close successful schools in North Minneapolis?”

I respond without hesitation: I will never give up on North Minneapolis students. As a former North Side principal at Hall and a proud granddaughter of a former North Side principal, I know North Side students and families are resilient and deserve our school district’s full attention in creating a better tomorrow.

The core of our work is to ensure that all students have the opportunity to reach their greatest potential, not to close schools or sponsor charter programs. My responsibility is to find proven ways to do that. Successful school districts in other parts of the country — school districts with even more challenges than ours — have implemented some of the same strategies that Minneapolis is putting in place.

They include:

• Focused instruction to ensure rigor, predictability and consistency in what and how teachers teach and how we assess learning.

• Annual and fair teacher evaluations to help teachers improve their craft.

• Effective training that helps transform the principal from building administrator to instructional leader.

These are the key strategies that are working in other urban districts for African American students and students of color. These strategies have the potential to not only improve test scores, but also deeply and positively transform school culture to increase students’ self-esteem and create true learning centers of excellence where students come first.

That is what is at the heart of our work on the North Side. That is why, in addition to the key strategies above, we are actively seeking out public charter schools that have proven track records of working with urban students of color. Educating our children is urgent. We cannot afford to wait while another year of learning slips by. One advantage with new public school models is that they can achieve rapid and dramatic academic gains because of the flexibility in selecting staff; this underscores our need to achieve more flexibility within our own teachers’ contract.

Whether a school is a community, magnet or charter school makes no difference; they are all public schools. What matters is whether or not families have high-quality school options in their neighborhoods.

For too many of our young people, our strategic vision of “Every Child College Ready” is merely a dream. I will continue to push for reforms that put a high quality school in every neighborhood. I will no longer accept the fact that some Minneapolis students receive less education than others. We must do better for all of our students.

I know some of you have doubts about my commitment and about Minneapolis Public Schools’ ability to deliver on our promises. Although you may have some doubts, I am personally asking you to believe in us. I cannot do this important work without your engagement. That is why I am calling on families and residents of North Minneapolis to find ways to get involved.

You can spend time in a classroom, volunteer as a mentor or tutor or join a school or district-level committee or workgroup. When we work together to support learning, we help all of our students achieve in life. To learn more about community engagement opportunities, visit www.mpls.k12.mn.us and search for “community involvement” or contact Volunteer MPS at 612-668-3880.

As a community, we must come together on behalf of our children. It will take all of our efforts to make our schools great. Expect to hear from me soon.

Thank you for your ongoing commitment to the students of North Minneapolis. I invite you to continue to keep me informed about your concerns, your hopes, your wishes for our North Side schools. Thank you for making sure students’ needs get an equal voice in our community. Most importantly, I want to thank you for continuing to dialogue with us. The belief that we can do better and will do better is crucial.

Bernadeia H. Johnson is Superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools.