Making a tough job a little easier has big impact for kids

Sure, being mayor can be tough, but I’m the first to admit that I don’t have the toughest or the most important job in Minneapolis.  The toughest job, and the most important by far, is the superintendent of schools.

Now that very tough job — which is being done very well right now by Bernadeia Johnson — just got a little bit easier. That’s because the Superintendent just made an important hire that will have a big impact on our kids and their future.

That hire is Michael Goar, who will be the district’s new CEO. Michael is a Washburn High grad who worked his way up into important jobs with the Minneapolis, Memphis and Boston school districts, then last year came back to Minneapolis to lead Generation Next, an innovative partnership in Minneapolis and Saint Paul that is dedicated to closing the achievement gap. Michael is a great Minneapolis success story and it’s great to have him back where he started, in the Minneapolis Public Schools.

Why will Michael’s becoming our schools’ CEO have a big impact on our kids? Because his helping to run the day-to-day operations of the district frees up Superintendent Johnson to lead the strategic, visionary shift that she has proposed to improve the educational experience of all students and to end the shameful achievement gap in Minneapolis Public Schools.

As she said in an important speech last month, “It’s time to get off the dime, to stop protecting the status quo, to stop being satisfied with poor performance, to stop blaming others and get focused” on answering the key question: “Why aren’t all children learning?”

I couldn’t agree more, which is why I’m especially excited about a critically important aspect of that shift: her proposal to create Partnership Zones, which I wrote about a few weeks ago. Simply put, Partnership Zones are designed to make sure that our children — especially those who suffer most from the achievement gap in our schools — are spending more time in school with the highest-quality teachers.

For Partnership Zones to move from proposal to practice will take everyone’s help, so I encourage you to stay involved: take a quick, three-question survey and contact your School Board members to let them know that you care about Partnership Zones.

Please join me in welcoming Michael Goar back home to the Minneapolis Public Schools, and join me in supporting Superintendent Johnson’s vision for partnership to end the achievement gap and make sure all our children learn and succeed.

Focusing on healthy food, not hype

Before anyone gets too excited about the wild, false rumor that I want to ban soda pop in Minneapolis, don’t worry: I’m not.  I am continuing to work on ways to get healthy-eating options available to people, especially those in parts of town that are healthy-food deserts.

Those of you who have followed my work know that I’ve been very involved in getting better nutrition options into low-income neighborhoods through our comprehensive Homegrown Minneapolis initiative, which I helped start several years ago. This work is critically important in closing the race and income gaps in public health in Minneapolis.

Last week, I was asked to join a wide range of big-city mayors in signing a letter to Congress that reflected many of these values, and supported expanding federal funding for effective programs that improve access to healthy food, particularly for low-income people.  My team and I debated whether I should sign the letter, however, because it included a clause that said we should “test and evaluate” limiting the ability of federal nutrition aid to subsidize pop.

We worried that this clause would divert attention from the main, important point—that much-needed federal food aid should encourage the purchase and consumption of healthy food — and onto the minor, overhyped debate about pop. Eventually I signed the letter, because encouraging healthy options is so important to the people of my city.

Now some media are instead focusing on the minor point, not the main point, and their misplaced focus is distracting from the important issue of how we help people get access to the food that they need to feed themselves and their families healthily.

So, to the reporters who are asking and to anyone else who is concerned about whether I will spend any time debating pop, the answer is no. To everyone who wants to know whether I will keep fighting to get more healthy-food options to the neighborhoods and people that need them, the answer is yes.

Ending the crisis of the achievement gap

On paper, the Mayor of Minneapolis has no authority over the city’s schools.

In reality, Minneapolis cannot be everything we need it to be unless every one of us, including me, does everything we can to dramatically improve the performance of every student in every school in every part of our district.

Over the past 12 years, I’ve been in all of our schools, some many times, and I can say that there are teachers and students soaring in every part of town. But still, despite this success, there is a completely unacceptable achievement gap in Minneapolis schools that falls starkly along racial and economic lines.

We have to treat this crisis like the crisis that it is, and we have to take more aggressive action to solve it.

The good news is that Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson and the Minneapolis School Board have outlined a promising strategy – The Partnership Zone. This new approach to our most challenged schools proposes creating Partnership Zones, with new responsibilities for teachers and students. The strategy deserves our support, and at the end of this email I will tell you how you can do your part to help.

  • The first step in the Partnership Zone proposal is to give our students more high-quality instructional time. Minnesota suffers from one of the lowest numbers of instructional days of any state in the nation, and the Superintendent’s proposal aims to reverse that. We cannot begin to end the achievement gap unless our students spend significantly more time actually learning.
  • This new shift proposes that the students who are facing the most challenges will be taught by our most capable teachers. Because the district and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, working cooperatively, have developed a robust teacher-evaluation tool that is more comprehensive than the State’s, we now know much more about measuring quality teaching. The Partnership Zone proposes to use this data to make sure that those students with the greatest needs are taught by highly effective teachers.

This new thinking also carves out new areas of opportunity.

  • It creates more autonomy for schools.
  • It also creates more preparation and partnership time for teachers, and boosts career ladders for them.

This is a promising start, but we need to encourage the Superintendent, the Board and teachers to be bold. This wise outline needs to be enhanced with management and contract details that ensure that schools that face the greatest challenges have more flexibility and funding, in order to move beyond what we already know isn’t closing the achievement gap.

As the details for the partnership schools are outlined and negotiated, I encourage the administration and the teachers to give the community options that may require all of us to give more.  No doubt very tough choices will need to be made, but if an extremely innovative idea is put on the table to close the achievement gap it could attract some of the funding that is now going into other education action alternatives.  Be bold, challenge all of us with a new approach and in return ask all of us to give more time and money to make it work.

I especially want to encourage the Board and Superintendent to do far more to diversify the ranks of our teachers. There is a shocking lack of teachers of color in the Minneapolis Public Schools, where the majority of students are students of color. The status quo simply will not close this gap fast enough. Our increasingly diverse students cannot wait another generation to start seeing more people in the front of the classroom who reflect our city.

The success of our next generation, and our entire city, depends on every person in Minneapolis becoming more engaged in improving our schools. Here are a few things you can do:

A final point: This discussion about how we improve outcomes in Minneapolis schools takes place while the national education debate is increasingly polarized. Highly charged labels and attacks are being thrown around that negatively characterize those who work every single day with our kids, as well as those who want better outcomes for all of our students. That is a great recipe for getting nothing done.

If we are going to make progress, we have to leave the overly charged terms of the national debate at our city limits and make our discussion a respectful, Minneapolis discussion about Minneapolis solutions to Minneapolis challenges. I hope that all of us can find a way to get outside of our comfort zone, hear what others who may not agree with us are saying, think about new ways of doing things, and see new ways of looking at what is being done now.

Now is the time for us find a way to move our whole city with a single-minded focus: This city that leads the country on so many positive levels also leads in the achievement gap, and that absolutely must end. Nothing in Minneapolis is more important right now than ensuring that every single young person has the chance to soar.

This is a great city that has tackled huge issues in the past by working together. Let’s do that again for our kids.