DULUTH – John Magas stood in a hotel looking at the city’s skyline and the Great Lake, a familiar presence to a man raised on the shores of Superior some 200 miles away.
“Duluth feels like a larger, somewhat more diverse, version of my hometown,” said the Shelter Bay, Mich., native who was selected Wednesday as the new superintendent of Duluth public schools, pending contract negotiations.
“I had not the easiest upbringing myself, and I think that education, for me — I was lucky because it turned out being kind of the great equalizer,” Magas said over the phone Thursday morning. “And I think that because education helped me to get to the point that I’ve been able to get to, I feel that it’s my responsibility to help create better systems that support every kid to get to their greatest potential.”
The 50-year-old, who is married with two sons and a stepson, is slated to take over the Duluth school district’s top administrative post on July 1. He comes to Minnesota from Green Bay, where he’s worked as an associate superintendent for four years in a district with more than 20,000 students.
But Magas’ love of teaching started when he was in his 20s and he hopped on a bus to Mexico, where he helped adults learn English for two years. “That really made it clear to me that this was what I wanted to do with my life,” he said.
From there, he moved to Washington state, where he taught workplace literacy classes in a beef slaughter plant and spent seven years as a teacher and assistant principal at a high school on the Yakama Indian Reservation. Then he headed to Wisconsin, serving as a middle school principal and director of secondary education for two other districts before coming to Green Bay.
That was where Magas was preparing to return Thursday morning, less than 24 hours after a whirlwind day of interviewing with the board and fielding questions from Duluth parents, teachers and other community members. He’s looking forward to coming back, but for now his attention is on his current district, where teachers are planning to instruct thousands of students remotely in the midst of an unprecedented public health crisis.
“But I’m so excited and honored to be entrusted with this great and important responsibility,” Magas said.
The Star Tribune discussed Magas’ experiences, hopes and goals for his future role. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What are three skills that you think you will bring to this job?
A: My knowledge of curriculum and instruction, and how to improve systems to meet the needs of all kids. My ability to create strategic plans that are simple yet very effective for closing opportunity gaps. My deep interest and passion for really addressing culturally and linguistically responsive needs for students and families, as well as a pretty significant understanding of behavioral and mental health needs.
What are you most proud of accomplishing during your tenure in Green Bay?
A: Working with a great team to produce a more deeply focused strategic plan and create changes that took us, as a district, from meeting few standards to deeply meeting standards. We closed a lot of achievement gaps and also put into place systems at particularly the elementary level that are resulting in much greater achievement for students in math and reading.
What was your biggest challenge during your tenure in Green Bay?
A: Working with a particular middle school that had some real challenges and had some deep changes. Hiring a fantastic turnaround principal who is now changing the culture and trajectory of that school.
What do you see as the most pressing issue facing Duluth public schools?
A: It’s important for me to really listen and assess what I’m hearing and seeing and learning. Of course, they want to work on closing achievement gaps. And they also are thinking about what are their needs related to finance and boundaries, as well as how they can create a more focused strategic plan that’s going to lead the district into the future by closing opportunity gaps for students.
In a survey sent out earlier this year, hundreds of community members said they think financial management is their biggest concern for Duluth schools over the next five years. How do you plan to approach taking over the district’s budget?
A: I think it would be very important for me to have a period of time to invest deeply and learn as much as possible by listening to both internal and external stakeholders about the finances, as well as the way in which we can think about strategic allocation of resources that are both responsible and targeted toward greatest student need. ... It’s a really complex issue, and to assume that you step into it and immediately have the right solution would be naive.
Duluth also has a longstanding achievement gap with students of color and those receiving free/reduced lunches posting lower test scores and graduation rates, on average, than other students in the district. Do you have an approach to try and address these disparities?
A: In Green Bay, we’ve been spending a lot of time going more deeply into our data and going more deeply into that root-cause analysis — trying to diagnose and being a lot more precise in determining what is the root cause to a particular problem. A lot of times, in education and other industries, we end up really trying to come up with a quick and effective solution, and sometimes those solutions are just treating the symptoms of the problem. Or they can miss addressing it altogether, if we’re not careful.
Have you thought about what approach you would take when handling boundary changes or what factors you would take into consideration as the district moves toward making shifts?
A: I know that addressing boundary changes can be a very difficult and delicate area to lead. What I’m hearing from the board, and what I’m hearing from the community, is that they are looking for and will appreciate the opportunity for a great number of stakeholders to take part in that conversation. That has been attempted through other means, but there still seems to be a sense of a need for even more input and greater transparency to the process.
... We’re doing similar work in Green Bay right now. Like in Duluth, it isn’t occurring without concern and controversy to an extent. Any time there’s a boundary change, you’re not likely to make everybody happy. But you can also look at how can you take in all those perspectives and make the best choice, even though it might be a hard choice, in the interest of serving all of our students.
Katie Galioto • 612-673-4478