Not too long ago, Rashad Turner might have been at Edina City Hall, speaking out against police mistreatment of a black man, just like the 150 or so people who showed up at a meeting Tuesday night.
But the former leader of Black Lives Matter St. Paul has a new public profile. He was named this week as director of community engagement for a nonprofit dedicated to closing the achievement gap in schools. And on Tuesday, two weeks before his official start date, one could say Turner already was on the job.
He sat in on a board meeting of Minnesota Comeback, his new Minneapolis-based employer, with Ed Graff, the new superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools. Turner heard Graff, a white man, speak of having grown up in a highly mobile family and of having the experience of being a racial minority in a school. Powerful, Turner said, and a story not unlike that of the students and families both men now serve.
Turner, once the battler, now is out to build partnerships in a quest to ensure Minneapolis is rich with what he says are “high-quality schools doing great work with kids.”
His hiring, announced on Monday, came a short time after Turner left Black Lives Matter over a call by some of its leaders for a moratorium on charter schools, which are publicly funded schools that operate outside school district control. Asked whether his support for charter schools gave truth to suspicions aired earlier this year that Minnesota Comeback could undermine Minneapolis Public Schools by steering its students to charter schools, Turner replied: “That’s a false narrative.”
Minnesota Comeback simply wants to make sure parents have access to a quality school that best meets the needs of their kids, he said, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s a school district school, a charter school or a private school.
In Turner, the group has chosen a leader who has worked at both the school district and college levels but is better known for the controversial ways by which he has protested police brutality and fought to improve police-community relations. Turner has threatened to disrupt the Twin Cities Marathon and wintertime’s Crashed Ice event, and led a Black Lives Matter shutdown of a gate at the State Fair.
Minnesota Comeback says it is thrilled to have him.
“Rashad is a proven and inclusive leader passionate about fostering equitable communities and improving education,” Al Fan, the group’s executive director, said in a news release. “Our community is stronger because of his ability to advance social justice, engage communities and change the status quo.”
In Minnesota Comeback, Turner has the opportunity to glean lessons from foundation leaders like Tad Piper, former CEO and chairman of Piper Jaffray, one of the board’s co-chairs. In an interview Wednesday, Turner expressed admiration for the people in the meeting room on Tuesday.
“I’m 31. I’m still young,” he said. “It’s going to be great to learn from those people.”
In April, Minnesota Comeback joined the field of local nonprofits that aim to close the achievement gap by earmarking $2.7 million in upfront contributions to the cause. More than half a million dollars is to go to the school district’s teacher residency program, which helps education assistants and other district staff become licensed teachers. Other recipients included two high-performing charter schools: Hiawatha Academies and Prodeo Academy.
Turner will lead a community engagement team that will help parents better understand their options and ideally have a strong say in what happens in their schools. How to go about doing that still has to be worked out with the team, he added. But he ran quickly through some thoughts, then smiled and said: “I have a bunch of ideas.”
There could be community forums, he said, or dinners or other school events.
Parents could be mobilized to speak out at the State Capitol or at a school board meeting, he said.
Minnesota Comeback could have people door-knock or conduct surveys, he added.
Turner is attracted, too, to the idea of promoting academic parent-teacher teams, which in St. Paul has meant replacing traditional one-on-one parent-teacher conferences with group meetings. Parents discuss achievement goals and learn activities they can do with their children at home.
He likes parent-teacher teams because they are shown to improve student performance, which he says is essential to any engagement effort.
When told that it took teacher-administrator negotiations to create those teams in St. Paul, Turner suggested that the Minneapolis Public Schools could create a pilot program. He left the impression he was not about to give up easily.
“I’m always up to a challenge,” he said.