Minneapolis Public Schools has a new leader: Friday marked the first day of Rochelle Cox's year as interim superintendent of the state's third-largest school district.
Cox, formerly an associate superintendent in Minneapolis, will serve in the role for one year as district leaders search for a permanent superintendent. Former Superintendent Ed Graff left instead of renewing his contract; the last day of his six-year tenure was Thursday. The school board in May appointed Cox to take over the temporary position.
In a video introduction sent out to Minneapolis families, Cox said she values integrity and humility in leadership and remains committed to the district she's worked in for 25 years. She came to MPS in 1997 when she joined the early childhood special education department, and she served as the district's executive director of special education and health services.
"This is the place where the work really needs to be done," Cox said in the video.
And there's no shortage of work ahead, she said. The district of about 28,000 students remains divided in the wake of a teachers strike, and steep enrollment declines are further stressing the budget.
Cox said her main goals for the year are rebuilding trust and mending relationships across the school community, implementing the strategic plan set by the school board and creating conditions for the permanent superintendent to succeed.
That work, she said, requires strong communication as well as visibility and accessibility of district leadership.
"I want people to know me personally because that's how trust begins," Cox said at an introductory meeting with local media. "I want people to feel very comfortable communicating with myself and our staff."
Cox, who is married and has grown daughters, describes herself as a "distributive leader" who reaches out to stakeholders when making decisions.
She credits that style for some of her accomplishments as a leader in special education, which School Board Chair Kim Ellison said include a three-fold reduction in the over-identification of African American students as emotionally and behaviorally disabled. Cox also oversaw a 17% increase in graduation rates for special education students and a 5% reduction in suspensions for students receiving special education services, Ellison said.
"We knew we needed a trusted and proven leader who could provide stability and keep the focus on student learning while we work with the community to find the next permanent superintendent," Ellison said. "[Cox] knows the ins and outs of this complicated system and can seamlessly move into this critical position."
In her new role, Cox said she wants to be in the community to listen to families and students, even if that means stopping in the aisles of a Minneapolis grocery store to chat.
"We need to be where our families and our students are," said Cox, who lives on a small horse farm outside of the city. "I need to be shopping at Cub down the street so people can say, 'Don't you work for MPS?' and I can say, 'Yeah, yeah I do. Nice to meet you.' "
On a recent visit to Pillsbury Elementary School, Cox told a classroom of third graders that she was feeling a mix of nervousness and excitement about leading the district. One student asked her if a hug would help ease her worries. When she said "absolutely," the class gathered around her and wrapped her in an embrace.
"That is the moment I'm going to remember," she said in her video message to families. "I realized it was my time to step up."