Student impressions may have tipped the scale
The Minneapolis Public Schools Board last week voted to hire Ed Graff as the new superintendent. He and Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius were both finalists for the job to succeed Bernadeia Johnson as the district’s top leader.
If MPS is indeed willing to finally serve all its students, including Blacks and other students of color, students need to be involved in the process as well, said Graff. He is a native Minnesotan whose educational experience primarily has been in Alaska, including the last three years as superintendent in Anchorage.
“I presented who I am, presented what I believe in and the great potential that I see…in the Minneapolis public school system, and what is in the city of Minneapolis,” said Graff in an MSR phone interview May 25. “I don’t think I could have done anything differently” during the interview process with board members, staff, community and students, he added.
Apparently Graff greatly impressed the students he met, which may had clinched the position for him, according to Minneapolis NAACP Education Chair Leslie Redmond. She told the MSR that some students told her Graff “brings a good aura to the school environment. It was great to see that his interviews” included MPS students, she pointed out.
“I was actually surprised that they [the school board] decided to go with Mr. Graff,” admitted Redmond, given the fact that Cassellius is from the city and had worked in the district. “It seemed like the odds were in her favor.”
“Everybody should give Ed Graff their 100 percent support, because he must be successful for the children of Minneapolis to be successful, especially our students of color,” urged Cassellius, who remains the state’s education commissioner. The day after board members informed her that she didn’t get the MPS job, she told the MSR, “I thought it was a very thorough process. I think I had an opportunity to share with the board my qualifications and experience.”
Cassellius, however, objected to a report last week in a May 25 Minneapolis Star Tribune article that some board members had concerns that she didn’t have experience as an urban district superintendent. According to the Star Tribune story, Black students make up only six percent of Graff’s Anchorage district, and officials there did not renew his superintendent contract. The Anchorage district isn’t nearly as large as Minneapolis, where Blacks comprise the district’s largest ethnic student population, nearly 40 percent.
Cassellius held district leadership roles in Memphis and MPS as well as serving as East Metro Integration District superintendent before she was appointed to her present position in 2010 by Gov. Mark Dayton. “I [was] a Minneapolis student, parent, and I worked in Minneapolis, and now I’m a commissioner,” Cassellius noted.
We contacted the MPS for comment and further explanation as to why Graff’s contract in Anchorage was not renewed, but we received no response by press time.
A subsequent Star Tribune article also said that when Graff assumes his duties later this year, he will be the first White district leader since 1994 — Johnson, interim superintendent Michael Goar and Cassellius are all people of color — and “faces a tough assignment,” especially in satisfying some community members who had hoped that Cassellius would be hired instead.
“I said from the beginning that I would be happy with whoever was selected,” Redmond noted. “This process was so much better than the previous process,” in which Sergio Paez was announced as the board’s selection last year but withdrew his candidacy after allegations of abuse at a school in his district. Then the board offered the job to Goar, who took himself out of contention after protesters voiced their opposition at a board meeting.
“They aren’t speaking on the community’s behalf but speaking on their political agenda,” said Redmond of some who aren’t completely happy with Graff’s hiring. Apparently he connected with the young people, the key constituents Graff should primarily focus on serving.
“It’s really about the students, making sure that they are given the opportunity to share their voice and be a part of the development of what Minneapolis Public Schools is going to look like,” stated Graff as he briefly shared his “1-2-3” initial approach once he assumes his duties at Davis Center.
Students “are really the leaders” of the district, Graff said. “We need to acknowledge the work that they are doing and support the work they are doing.”
This, said Graff, was consistently expressed by the students and community members he met during his interviews and site visits. Furthermore, he pointed out that dissenting voices deserve to be heard as well. “We may not agree, but we should respectfully understand the person’s perspective and use that to advance our own knowledge on what’s happening and what’s going on.”
The incoming MPS superintendent admitted that restoring trust and confidence is essential in improving the academic performance of all students, but especially Blacks and other students of color. “I feel that is important, and I welcome those opportunities to have those discussions and listen to people,” said Graff.
“I heard from people that they want something for their students, for their community. It’s my job to help make that happen through getting involved, engaging relationships from the community members, students, parents, staff — pull everyone together. That is going to take time.”
“I will do everything in my means as commissioner to ensure that he is successful,” pledged Cassellius of Graff. “If Minneapolis and St. Paul don’t show growth to improve [our] students of color, the entire state won’t improve.”
“We now have a superintendent,” concluded Redmond. “I’m excited about the hope for Minneapolis Public Schools. I urge all of us to get behind the new superintendent. It is really about the students.”
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