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Continued: The education of Bernadeia Johnson

  • Article by: COREY MITCHELL , Star Tribune
  • Last update: December 5, 2011 - 1:59 PM

Johnson has overseen change in the district that hasn't happened for more than a decade. Enrollment is up for the first time since 2000; students are taking, and passing, more advanced courses, and the district has made small strides in closing the achievement gap between white students and those of color.


Yet Johnson has had to lower her ambitions for closing that gap, as well as dealing with other setbacks, some of her own making. She said she would close North High School, one of the state's worst performing schools, and then changed her mind. After a management study said she was spread too thin, Johnson hired a second in command and had to change his title when the state informed her he wasn't licensed for the job.


"She's learned some hard lessons," said state Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, and director of the Minnesota Minority Education Partnership. "She's had a few things blow up in her face."


Yet each time, she has kept the support of a broad array of contrasting constituencies. As her bosses prepare to conduct her initial job evaluation this month, the first-time superintendent has already learned lessons that her predecessors didn't: go slow and build bridges.


The average urban school superintendent lasts 3 1/2 years in the job, but turnover in Minneapolis has been even more frequent; Johnson is the district's fifth superintendent in the past eight years.


No decision has been as controversial as her move to award the retroactive raises. The payouts led not only to threats against her, but also the threat of the school board losing confidence in her, partly because they didn't know they approved the payouts.


Johnson told the board she regretted the timing but not the decision. Her supporters rallied behind her, and the board abandoned plans to keep a tighter rein on her.


The network of civic, nonprofit and business leaders who support her understand that the revolving door in the superintendent's office has stalled progress, something that Minneapolis can no longer endure, observers say.


"She's done her homework," former school board Chris Stewart said. "She realizes it takes longer than that to turn a district around."


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