Bernadeia Johnson's pivotal year

  • Article by: STEVE BRANDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 26, 2012 - 8:56 PM

Minneapolis schools chief has been patient in efforts to improve teaching and learning, believing that changes take hold better if there's buy-in from the troops.

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Minneapolis Schools Supt. Bernadeia Johnson, smiled while listening to Minneapolis city council member Don Samuels speak during a back to school event at the new Minneapolis School headquarters Saturday, August 18, 2012, in Minneapolis, MN.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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If she were a dictator, Bernadeia Johnson would already have made big changes in Minneapolis' public schools.

But the superintendent believes that changes take hold better if there's buy-in from the troops.

"Culture will eat strategy for lunch," Johnson said.

If she's right, the changes that hit schools as classes resume Monday will be more likely to work because she has taken time to get teachers and principals on board.

Johnson is finishing her second year in charge of the state's third-largest district, and she is expected to be offered a new contract after a performance evaluation Tuesday.

But in reality, the 52-year-old has headed the district's academics since 2006 when she was hired back from Memphis schools to be chief academic officer and later became deputy superintendent.

The academic payoff so far, at least as measured by state reading and math tests, has been incremental rather than the widespread gains seen in some large urban districts such as Charlotte-Mecklenburg or Boston.

Patience, Johnson says. She thinks that once the changes hitting classrooms this year are fully adopted over several years, the impact she's seeking on test results still will take three to five years.

At the classroom level, changes are coming in what and how teachers teach. At the school level, evaluations of teachers and principals will be more systematic.

Johnson invited teachers to help plan those changes so they will be better embraced.

Those are only part of a passel of changes to hit the district this fall, including:

•Most high schoolers will take metro instead of yellow buses.

•Their lunches will offer healthier options (six entrees and a salad bar).

•The first self-governed school in the state will open with close to 100 students as a French immersion program in north Minneapolis. Teachers, rather than district administrators, will run the show.

•North High School will welcome an entering class of slightly more than 100 freshmen who will be greeted with a new arts and communications academy devised with help from an outside consultant.

•Southwest Minneapolis will have a middle school opening with more than 200 sixth-graders in what was once Ramsey Junior High School.

•The fine arts magnet that occupied Ramsey has moved to the Folwell building with 900 kindergarten through eighth-grade students. Folwell closed as a middle school two years ago.

A new focus on teaching

But the big question looming over the district is whether Johnson's push for "focused instruction" and teacher evaluations can help all students improve while narrowing the achievement gap at the same time.

The district trained more than one-third of its teachers over the summer in focused instruction, a technique used by some big urban districts but in a more scripted format than Minneapolis will use.

The technique tries to ensure that all students in a grade get taught curriculum that covers the concepts on state tests, and standardizes methods of assessing whether students are mastering those concepts. Lesson plans are offered to teachers, but they're not mandatory.

The district trained about 1,300 teachers, mostly those in the transitional years of kindergarten, third, sixth and ninth grade. Remaining teachers will be trained over two more summers.

Some skeptics accuse the district of trying to replace the art in teaching with standardization. The district's stated intent is to make sure that students, particularly younger learners, get taught in a sequential way that builds their skills and ensures that the 10 percent of students who switch schools frequently don't miss important lessons.

"It was never intended to be a script," Chief Academic Officer Emily Puetz said. She predicted that new teachers or those struggling with a particular unit will find the changes most helpful.

Meanwhile, all teachers will see changes in how they are evaluated.

They are scheduled to be rated after principals or others observe them presenting a lesson to students in their classrooms, using standard criteria, with meetings with the evaluator ahead and after the observations. Student survey feedback will also be factored in. About 900 teachers voluntarily participated in such observations last school year.

The teacher review system is expected to see some additional changes, such as factoring in including student test results in 2013-14, when the state's teacher evaluation mandate kicks in.

The district is also revamping the system of evaluating principals that Johnson devised several years ago to resemble teacher reviews.

Will people have patience?

The launch of so many changes that take so much time to prove out raises the question of whether the community, the school board and Johnson herself will be patient enough to stay the course for a reward that may not arrive until almost the end of the decade.

Asked point-blank whether she plans to be at the helm -- school board and public willing -- when she expects her changes to pay off years from now, Johnson said the work is deeply personal, but she isn't into making predictions.

But one former boss, retired school board member Chris Stewart, argues that long-term stability is key.

"Minneapolis has been criticized very often for not giving things time to work and for jumping on every faddish thing coming down the line before seeing what works," Stewart said.

"You pay attention to what kind of progress is she making over time. There isn't like a time limit. The thing is, are you making progress on an ongoing basis?"

Steve Brandt • 612-673-4438

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