The final paragraphs of a Feb. 17 Star Tribune story on the search for a new school superintendent in Minneapolis (“Minneapolis schools begin search for new leader”) clearly illustrate why success as a superintendent in an urban school district is so elusive.
Jennifer Hahs, a south Minneapolis parent, tells the Star Tribune: “I want a superintendent to create a culture of high expectations for students, parents and teachers.”
Sondra Samuels, of the Northside Achievement Zone, is quoted saying: “I need a superintendent that people are going to hate because they are not politically correct.”
In other words, they want a miracle worker.
The reality is that urban superintendents serve an average of three years before politics, exhaustion or a better job offer cause them to leave. When Bernadeia Johnson resigned from the Minneapolis Public Schools in January, it was considered remarkable that she had lasted four years.
Three or four years is not enough time for a leader to gain understanding of a complex community, formulate a strategy, gain approval from the community and the board, and implement changes. We end up with a leadership merry-go-round and ever-changing strategies that are never fully implemented.
This is why it is important to watch closely what is going on in St. Paul. While many urban districts seek to hire white knights to ride in from the outside and bring change overnight, St. Paul is taking a far different approach.
Valeria Silva is now in her sixth year as superintendent. She has spent her entire career at St. Paul Public Schools, beginning as a classroom assistant and serving many years as a teacher and a principal. She spent the first two years in office formulating a strategy to address the inequities in the district while maintaining the successful programs.
Her “Strong Schools, Strong Communities” strategy was intended to take the lessons learned in St. Paul’s “pockets of excellence” and bring them to all St. Paul schools in order to elevate the achievement of students of color and narrow the achievement gap.
It took two years to sell the strategy and realign the schools as planned. And it has not been pretty.
Change is hard. Moving sixth-graders to the middle schools was a jarring change. Changing magnet schools into neighborhood schools and moving nearly 17,000 students to new schools was a jarring change. Mainstreaming special education students was a jarring change.
In the midst of all of this change, MCA tests for the district’s children of color remained stagnant or dropped slightly — except where they didn’t. At Murray Middle School, seventh-grade scores went up in both reading and math, and eighth-grade scores went up in reading. At Hazel Park Preparatory Academy, math scores went up. At Open World Learning, reading scores went up.
At the same time, the district’s graduation rates went up well past the state average at most high schools and for many student groups.
While this work was being done, St. Paul’s teachers union formed the “Caucus for Change,” which is designed to replace the incumbents on the school board and to alter the district’s strategy.
Herein lies the dilemma of the urban superintendent:
What has succeeded for decades for white, middle-class students does not translate into success for children of color and children of low-income families.
The changes needed to serve the children at the bottom of the achievement gap are not yet clear, are controversial and are viewed as a threat to the students who do succeed.
The politics around change often lead to the end of a superintendent’s job.
The end of the superintendent’s job marks the end of a strategy before it has been in place long enough to succeed.
St. Paul has an opportunity to take its strategy to the point where we can see if it actually works. Data show that the current strategy has not harmed the district’s success with high-achieving students. While troubling, the 1-percentage-point drop in MCA scores is one data point at a time of significant change and could be an anomaly. And the increase in graduation rates is a bright spot worthy of celebration.
St. Paul has a superintendent who is setting high expectations for students, parents and teachers. That same superintendent has made some constituents dislike her enough to want to take control of the school board.
Our community supported a new strategy for our schools because it was needed. Now, we need to have the courage to follow through and give the strategy a chance to succeed.
Scott Burns is a member of the board of the St. Paul Public Schools Foundation, the founder of a 200-person software company in downtown St. Paul and the father of a second-grader at Expo Elementary School in St. Paul.