The Minneapolis school board on Monday interviewed Sonia Stewart, the first of two superintendent finalists, kicking off a packed week set to end with the naming of the next leader of the state's fourth-largest school district.
Stewart, currently the deputy superintendent of the Hamilton County school district in Chattanooga, Tenn., met with the public for several hours before the board interview and detailed her experiences and priorities.
The other candidate, Lisa Sayles-Adams, will meet with the public and interview with the board on Wednesday. Sayles-Adams is the superintendent of the Eastern Carver County school district.
The school board will meet on Friday to choose the final candidate, and a start date will be determined after the contract is negotiated and approved.
Here's what to know about Stewart's background and track record as a school leader:
Experience: Stewart spent 13 years working in schools in Nashville where she served as high school principal, high school administrator, math teacher and basketball coach, and then as executive officer of organizational development for the district.
In 2020, she joined the Hamilton County school district as a community superintendent, overseeing the district's struggling schools. About two years later, she became deputy superintendent of the district, which serves 44,000 students across nearly 80 schools that span metro, suburban and rural areas. The district is in the first phase of redesigning the district to close and consolidate schools.
Stewart, 49, was also a finalist for superintendent of the Green Bay, Wis., school district in early 2020.
"Turning around" struggling schools: In 2018, Stewart published a book chronicling her years as a principal of Nashville's Pearl-Cohn High School, a high-poverty school serving primarily Black students. In the book, she writes of the challenges — violence and economic disparities chief among them — in the school and surrounding community, and she details how she improved the school culture.
Gini Pupo-Walker, a former school board member for Metro Nashville Public Schools, said Stewart did "really, really transformative work" during her time as principal of Pearl-Cohn. She said Stewart brought in new staff, offered more advanced courses and boosted enrollment. During Stewart's time there, the school earned some of the highest ratings for showing the largest rates of growth in test scores, Pupo-Walker said.
As a community superintendent in Chattanooga, Stewart oversaw struggling schools including several named by the Tennessee Department of Education as the most consistently low-performing.
"She's very knowledgeable in the work of turning around schools and growing student success — that's where she really shines," said Tiffanie Robinson, a school board member for Hamilton County schools.
Under Stewart's leadership, the district recently earned the highest score possible for academic growth year over year, though the district's students scored below state "growth expectations" in math.
Colleagues' reviews: Hamilton County school board member Joe Smith called Stewart a "talented and creative visionary," but said he sensed she never truly felt at home in Chattanooga, which he described as very conservative.
Robinson said Stewart has not shied away from her commitment to diversity and inclusion and works to keep the focus on students.
"We'll be sad if we lose her but Minneapolis will be very lucky," Robinson said.
Jeanette Omarkhail, the president of the Hamilton County Education Association — the union representing the district's teachers — said Stewart has been a collaborative and responsive partner with the union.
"She is visible and she is accessible," Omarkhail said. "Even if she is facing some challenges, she handles it in a way that allows for collaboration. She's not a 'my way or the highway' leader."
Why MPS? Students, parents, community and board members on Monday repeatedly asked Stewart, "Why Minneapolis Public Schools?" and "Why now?"
Stewart said she knows the district's challenges — declining enrollment, a looming fiscal crisis, a district transformation plan that could include closing and consolidating schools, a recent data breach — but if the community is willing to take on those challenges together, she's ready to lead.
And she's motivated by the mission to "provide a high quality, anti-racist, culturally responsive education for every Minneapolis student," which she repeatedly referenced in her interview.
"That mission statement and strategic plan is unlike anything I've ever seen," she said. "That aspiration isn't everywhere. It's why I'm here."
Her entry plan: Stewart said she would spend her first months meeting with students, parents, administrators and community partners.
"The first step is really listening to stakeholders and the second piece is taking action," she said.
She also plans to analyze the budget, review curricula and the district's academic standards and conduct a "root cause analysis" to find out what is contributing to longstanding achievement gaps between white students and students of color.
More about Sonia Stewart: Stewart grew up in Albuquerque, N.M., and attended a predominately white elementary school, where she said she wasn't allowed to take the standardized test as a student of color. She began her interview with a story about the teachers who built barriers and those who created opportunities for her.
"It takes one person sometimes in the lives of a child to change trajectories," she said. "This seat I'm in now — I have an enormous responsibility to change kids' trajectories."
Stewart and her husband of 28 years, Rayna, have four adult children. She enjoys reading, hiking, sports and traveling.
A recording of Stewart's interview with the board is available online at mps.eduvision.tv.
Staff writer Liz Navratil contributed to this story.