Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) opened its 2016-17 school year Monday, August 29 under its “MPS Strong” theme. This theme was oft-repeated in first-year Superintendent Ed Graff’s “State of the Schools” address last week at Orchestra Hall.
Graff told attendees in the packed auditorium that every MPS student, regardless of ethnicity, grade level, or socio-economic situation, can be strong. “This is an important and exciting time, whether you are a student or staff.
“I want you to help write the next chapter in the MPS story,” he said. He strongly suggested that staff and teachers seek to “know who our students are,” as it offers “the best chance we can support them. That goes beyond the classroom.”
Graff shared student success stories, such as that of a teenaged Latina mother who graduated from high school and a Black male grade-school student who was once a constant troublemaker in the classroom but now is a focused student with improved grades. He also told the story of a female refugee high schooler who came to this country with limited English but didn’t give up and grew more confident in her new surroundings.
“The MPS story is finding ways to help students do better,” stated Graff, adding that this applies to district staff as well. Edward Davis, a former school classroom assistant, and his infant daughter sat in the auditorium’s third row when Graff proudly cited him as one of 21 graduates of the district’s program to support staff members who enrolled in college and earned their teaching credentials.
“Two-thirds are people of color,” noted the superintendent, who stressed the need and importance for MPS to have more teachers in the classroom that reflect the student population. Davis began Monday in his first year as an elementary science teacher.
Graff reaffirmed his support for the district’s Acceleration 2020 strategic plan introduced by former superintendent Bernadeia Johnson. The plan’s overall mission is “to ensure that all students learn [and that the staff] support their growth into knowledgeable, skilled and confident citizens.”
The plan “has strong goals we all support,” Graff said. “We will focus on students, invest in staff, and engage in the community. It will take all of us to be brilliant. We have to work together to understand them and have them guide the work.”
Graff’s first address, which unexpectedly included his participation with the district choir, mixed with students and staff for a Prince medley tribute that featured “1999,” “Controversy” and “Purple Rain” — the late musical icon was an MPS graduate. It was a hit, as was his speech, several people told the MSR afterwards.
“I love seeing that choir sing Prince songs, [which] was very touching,” said Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges. “I think [Graff] did a great job laying out the great stories of Minneapolis Public Schools.”
Hodges pledged support of the district in her brief remarks before Graff spoke. “Their [MPS’s] fortunes and the City’s fortunes are inextricably entwined to one another.”
Archie Givens told the MSR that he felt “good vibrations” from the new superintendent while listening to him. “I am so impressed with his commitment and sincerity to education and the community. Anything I can do, I will be on board to help. I’m happy to see new leadership in place.”
“I think it is a great start” on his first focus on students as he begins his first year on the job, said Mario Green, the dean of students at FAIR School Downtown.
Both Minneapolis School Board Members Jenny Arneson and Kim Ellison were impressed as well: “I think the [MPS] staff is ready” for the new school year, noted Ellison. “I think you can judge by the reaction that it was positive and well received,” added Arneson on the address.
“I think he was a little nervous” before he spoke, observed Shaadia Munye, who introduced Graff. Munye, who Monday began her junior year at Henry High School, has been the student representative and non-voting member on the school board since February. “I think he is looking forward to the school year more than I am,” she added.
Graff told the MSR after his address, “We have a story to tell and a message to tell. It starts with our students and making sure that we know who our students are and getting that story out there.” He also assessed his first on-stage performance as a choir member: “Anytime I can celebrate…it’s great.”
Asked if he has settled into his new job yet since being hired in May and arriving earlier this summer, Graff said, “I’m still working on it. I’m proud to be the superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools.”
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Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.