MPS tries new ‘bottom-up’ approach to change

By Charles Hallman
Staff Writer

MPS Superintendent Bernadia Johnson, left, and Director of Family and Community Engagement Scott Redd serving soup at North Commons -Photo by Charles Hallman

The Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) recently released a study concluding that the district leadership structure needs major changes. Of the changes recommended, one of the most significant for parents of MPS students may be a greater emphasis on change developed from the community level up rather from MPS headquarters down.

MPS Superintendent Bernadia Johnson, who is nearing the end of her first full year, explained the origin of the study during an April 12 interview with the MSR. “I asked [former Illinois education superintendent Robert Schiller] to come in and evaluate the district and its overall organizational structure, the number of staff, and [compare] us with like-sized districts, particularly high performing districts [around the country].”

Schiller concluded, among other things, that “There has not been a sense of teamwork, cooperation, openness or engagement” between the district office and schools. According to Johnson, the report also was critical of “how the district is top-down in its decision making, and we need to involve the people who experienced the problem in the solution.”

“It’s not change for change sake,” said Johnson. “It’s intentional change to address how we do our work, how effective are we at doing it, and how to we change the culture in the organization to support our schools. My desire is to create a sense of urgency, ownership and shared responsibility for the success and well-being of students across the district.”

“The report is going to be a real useful tool for our superintendent, but also [for] our board to really look at where our priorities should be,” Minneapolis School Board President Jill Davis told the MSR at Johnson’s scheduled “Soup with the Supt” event April 21 at North Commons Park.

These “soup” events, at which Johnson and other school officials serve soup to parents and other community members while responding to their questions and concerns, may reflect a new grassroots approach to district outreach as well as Johnson’s personal style.

Johnson’s third “Soup with the Supt” last week at North Commons was packed; her two previous such meetings were in Southeast and Southwest Minneapolis. She personally greeted each of the 100-plus persons. Then she and other MPS staffers served a choice of three soups while chatting with folk at each table.

“This is an opportunity for me to serve you, because you provide support to the district every single day,” she told the audience as she stood among them and took an hour worth’s of questions addressing a number of topics. “I am also doing this in schools, trying to connect with staff in a meaningful way,” Johnson said.

In the current battle over school funding, “We have a huge target on our backs in the state legislature,” explained Johnson, adding that district resources “are now at risk. We are going to defend the resources we have.”

On the achievement gap, Johnson said she dedicated her first year as superintendent to personally tracking over 3,000 kindergarten students, ensuring that they are reading at grade level or better: “Kindergarten students can read, and they are,” she proclaimed.

Asked how Johnson’s proposed administrative changes will help close the achievement gap between Black and White MPS students, Davis said, “Our organizational infrastructure needs to have a service mindset that we are supporting our schools [and] our students. We need to be going at a bottom-up approach rather than a top-down approach.”

Victoria Christian, the mother of a kindergarten child, and several others attending “Soup with the Supt” were asked to assess Johnson’s performance after 10 months on the job. “I think she’s made a lot of positive changes. I see a lot of things that will improve [the district] going forward.”

Christian also commented on two of Johnson’s oft-criticized administrative decisions made early in her tenure: the North High and Cityview Elementary controversies. “As a parent who lives on the North Side and eventually will have kids that go to North, I was happy that they made the change with it and decided not to close it completely.

“I was actually happy that they decided to close Cityview,” she continued. “As a parent [there], I’m not satisfied or happy at all.” Christian would also like to see more MPS teachers of color: “As a person of color myself, and as a Muslim, I would hope that kids see more people that look like them so that they can feel comfortable and can grow.”

“I think she’s been pretty good so far,” said Cennille Moore, who has a daughter in second grade.

Priscilla Harris, the mother of a 12th grader, a seventh grader, and a preschooler, expressed concerns over bullying. “I have children that have special needs. I don’t know if [Johnson] is aware of it, but I don’t think enough is being done about it.”

A newly relocated mother from Michigan then praised Johnson, saying she has seen “a great improvement” in her child since enrolling him at a Minneapolis school. Johnson pledged that instruction will be done “with better quality, consistency and high expectations.”

DeAnna Williamson told Johnson and the audience that she had heard many negative things about North and once moved to the suburbs so her kids could attend school there. “I did not want my children at North,” she admitted.

Now back living in the city, her attitude has changed: “North is an amazing school — my children adore it,” announced Williamson, whose three children now attend the school.
Another mother urged parents to frequently visit the schools their children attend. Johnson responded by instructing her staff that they can’t be afraid of parents: “The schools belong to the community.”

Johnson afterwards said she was ecstatic with the turnout. “When you have to put more tables up and more chairs, and it’s standing room only, it was a good turnout. It was really great tonight.”

“People are really looking for those opportunities to connect with [Johnson],” Davis said. “This was the largest turnout we’ve had. I hope she continues to do them.”

“I enjoyed it, and I got a chance to be heard,” noted Harris, who said she was satisfied with Johnson’s response to her question about bullying.

Christian said that although Johnson’s tenure early on was tough, she likes the superintendent’s overall demeanor and approach, “She has a good outlook, and she’s positive.”

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to