MPS superintendent bids farewell to all-consuming job

She leaves proud of many achievements  as ‘a fierce advocate for children’ 

Bernadeia Johnson
Bernadeia Johnson

Among the “frustrating challenges” she often faced during her nearly five years as Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) superintendent was the unfair “characterization” she received from some in the Black community, says Bernadeia Johnson, who announced her resignation last month. Her last day is January 31.

“I understood the anger and frustration, but when people called me ‘Jim Crow,’ [said] that I treat Black kids like cotton — that hurt me to my core,” said Johnson in a recent MSR interview, one of her first since her December 16 announcement that surprised both her supporters and her detractors.

Speaking from her Davis Center office, she told us, “It wasn’t enough that [her critics in the community] did it, but then they started emailing other people [asking] where were the White liberals and why aren’t they going after the superintendent? They had a few people who join in.

“But I think what it ultimately did was really hurt my feelings. It hurt me. You know [when they say] that sticks and stones will break your bones but words will never hurt you? That’s a lie. Words hurt.

“I felt like there weren’t people in the Black community who got up and said, ‘I’m angry too, and frustrated, and she should be getting better results with students, but you shouldn’t be name-calling.’  I heard people said [things] privately to people, but there was not this [public] outpouring of support.”

During her time as superintendent, district enrollment and student test scores fluctuated. Teachers, principals and staff, and others often criticized her leadership style.

“I feel that the way I lead and do this job is unprecedented,” she said of this criticism. “I like to participate — some people think I’m too hands-on. I’ve been told I micro-manage. When I first got this job, I didn’t have the staffing in place, and people felt I was spread too thin.

“The work is all-consuming. I had to lead the way I felt comfortable doing it. But I also felt the way I lead could be challenging.”

Johnson remembers the backlash she received several years ago when she announced her decision to close North High School due to dwindling attendance. “I came to a good compromise [to keep the school open], but it always was frustrating to me that the people who were mostly advocating for keeping North High open were people who never thought of sending their kids there. I’m talking about politicians, community leaders, community members, students going to DeLaSalle, [Robbinsdale] Cooper, wherever.”

Johnson introduced a six-year strategic plan at the start of this school year and announced a suspension moratorium for all pre-K through first-grade students last September. She later set up a leadership team to review all suspensions of Blacks and other students of color in light of the U.S. Civil Rights Department report that found discipline disparities among such students as compared to White students.

Although she opened the new Black Male Achievement Office last summer, some felt Johnson’s start-up budget was too low, that community members should have been more involved in the planning, or that other students of color would be neglected as a result.

“The work is challenging, and if you don’t have the support, it makes it even more challenging,” especially for the head of an urban school district as large as Minneapolis, said Johnson. “It also was important for me to get out and connect with people so that they could get to know me as Bernadeia the person.

“I know adults, union heads and politicians, but I [also] know children. I do take pride that I knew kids and children across the district. I tried to put aside the politics and support the work that I think and believe is important to begin a game changer for the students in Minneapolis.”

Johnson says she is proud of the many changes she instituted, including negotiating four teacher contracts, “focused instruction” across grade levels, and new teacher-principal evaluations.

“I also increased early childhood access and opportunity. We had five when I got here, and we probably have 25 early childhood programs now.

“What I want people to talk about in years ahead is that she [Johnson] laid a real foundation for academic changes and outcomes from this district. She did that by focusing on key areas and paying attention to the students who were least served in the system — our Black boys.” She pointed out last year’s establishing of the Black Male Achievement office as a prime example.

At her May 2013 speech at the downtown main library, Johnson introduced her SHIFT initiative that called for new staffing rules and creating partnerships schools. “It was something that never had been done by a superintendent in this state. It was a way of me setting out a vision… People are still talking about it.”

At last week’s Minneapolis School Board meeting, Johnson announced the five new partnership schools: Fowell, Nellie Stone Johnson, Heritage, Ramsey and Bancroft.

“I’m also supportive of four charter schools that serve our kids well,” said Johnson, adding how proud she is of her visibility around the district: “I’ve been in every school. I probably wasn’t in every classroom, but I’ve been close to it.”

The superintendent also took her leadership position as a Black female very seriously: “I’ve mentored a student of color every year. It’s important [for me] to mentor a young woman of color.”

As her days as MPS leader wind down, Johnson will help in the search for her successor. Her advice: “If you want to change outcomes, get the right person you believe can do the work. And support that person. The work is too hard to not have people who are focused on doing that.”

She also advises the community “to articulate what they want in the next superintendent. That they don’t sit back silently and let others do it for them. I believe that representation on the selection is important.

“I want parents to take responsibility. I want to see greater parent participation and responsibility for what’s happening in the schools. Send students to school every day, on time, well behaved and ready to learn. Hold us accountable, but hold yourself accountable, too.”

Johnson says she hasn’t decided what’s next for her. “I have talked to a couple of people about some things that I could do, but I haven’t pursued any specific things. I’m going to take some time to just unwind. I am not looking for another superintendent job. I’m looking to take a break and rest.”

Finally, Johnson says, “I want people to know that I have always been a fierce advocate for the children of this community…[and that I] systemically tried to address the needs of the underserved students in this community. I also want people to know that if they want the next superintendent to be successful in leading this district to better outcomes for students, they have to [come together] on this vision with different sections of the people.

“It has been a pleasure to serve this community,” concluded Johnson. “I believe I’ve served it with integrity and with courage. I haven’t gone anywhere, and I hope to still be in community in some way, influencing or talking about what’s needed and helping people understand how they can better access the system. I don’t know what that looks like.

“I appreciate and respect the people who stayed with us, who love Minneapolis, and who have tried to stay and make their school community the best not only for their children but also for the children they serve.”

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