Minneapolis schools Superintendent Ed Graff perched on a stool at Lake Nokomis Community School Keewaydin’s campus, holding Dr. Seuss’ “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” high for a sea of elementary students.
Graff, a former elementary school teacher, was at home spouting off Seussian rhymes.
“So be sure when you step, step with care and great tact,” he read, “and remember that Life’s a Great Balancing Act.”
It was a notable moment for Principal La Shawn Ray, who had never had a superintendent take time in a busy day to read to his students.
For the past nine months, Graff has been making time for school visits while juggling the large to-do list that dominates Minneapolis Public Schools: the hefty achievement gap, multimillion dollar budget deficits and pressures from the many people with stakes in kids’ success.
Calmly, quietly, the district’s new fixer-upper goes about making changes like a lab scientist gathering research on the state’s third-largest district.
“That’s part of the obligation I feel I have as a good steward of resources and of being responsible for 36,000 students,” said Graff, 48. “I want to get it right, and so I want to be thoughtful and deliberate about how we make decisions.”
He has called Minneapolis schools strong and highlights district positives, like North High School’s 2016 state football championship. But he also knows his clock is ticking for change, and people want results.
“When you’re moving a large organization, you don’t always see that huge shift,” Graff said in a recent interview. “It takes time. There’s a great deal of urgency, too.”
Two recent events illustrate the “before and after” that Graff wants to mark his term.
Soon after he arrived in July, a power outage struck the district’s central office. Graff realized the need to take ownership and communicate the bigger picture when employees were unsure if they should keep working.
Months later, on the day Ramsey County Attorney John Choi said he would charge the officer in the Philando Castile shooting, staff was ready. Minutes after the announcement, they sent out directions to principals and department heads to help steer conversations and reactions at schools.
That’s the cultural shift he’s looking for, Graff said in a recent interview. He wants everyone to be on the same page about actions to help kids.
“Your work is much bigger than just your department, and that’s what we’re trying to create,” he said.
So far, he has hired a chief operations officer, a chief of staff and a communications director. He’s called for a new pre-K through fifth-grade literacy curriculum to be in schools by the fall. He wants to end the recent pattern of multimillion-dollar budget shortfalls as he plans to plug the latest $28 million hole, and plans to roll out public conversations about budgeting over the next year.
All the while, the school board is gauging his progress. Parents are pressing for specific school issues. Many in the larger community are concerned about money and student achievement.
“He’s never seen riled,” said Kenneth Eban, managing director of the Minnesota chapter of Students for Education Reform. “He’s very sure” of what he believes in.
Some parents like Michael Wedl say they’re pleased that Graff has taken time to understand issues, like the overcrowding at Washburn High.
Others are more cautious. Steve Richter is on South High School’s site council and lobbying for fixes to the athletic field. He won’t rate Graff based on whether the district funds the project, but he’s “slightly guarded” about whether Graff will be able to come through with the fixes.
To balance next year’s budget, Graff has proposed a 10 percent shave from the district’s central office and 2.5 percent from schools, with a dip into reserve funds.
While he gets some points for being transparent, the prospect of school cuts worries some like Shaun Laden, president of the education support professionals chapter of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers.
Ann Berget, a former school board member who publicly opposed the November property tax referendum, said Graff should have revealed the budget gap earlier, noting the district’s repeated shortfalls.
“None of this sounds to me like the district has really turned over a new leaf,” she said.
No overnight fixes
At home, at night, Graff works late, poring over e-mails and text messages, said his wife, Michelle Prince. He has little downtime and work is always on his mind.
“He’d like it to be changed overnight,” said Prince, herself a former elementary school principal. “That’s not going to happen.”
As superintendent, Graff is reserved, talking more about the district’s stellar teachers than about his weekend plans. In a word, wonky.
At home, he’s witty, Prince said. He loves walks with his family. He’s fond of music and plays a game with Prince: Give him a word, and he’ll try to name a song and lyrics that include it.
His walls come down in a few of his superintendent moments. At his August State of the Schools address at Orchestra Hall, he belted the first few words of “Let’s Go Crazy” in a tribute to music legend Prince, a Minneapolis schools alum.
Graff was born in Bemidji, Minn., but crisscrossed the country in family moves while growing up — including time at American Indian reservations in South Dakota and Eskimo villages in Alaska, said his brother David Graff of Champlin. Of the seven children raised by educator parents, only Graff pursued an education career.
Family values likely propelled Graff, his brother said. “We’re a family that helps each other, and he really took to that and extended it to a career where he could make a difference in people’s lives.”
He became a teacher and landed in Anchorage, Alaska, where he worked his way up to superintendent. He and Prince met at a comedy club in the 1990s. She said he was a natural teacher and principal, the kind parents wanted their child to have.
“He just has this innate ability to understand individuals and that, as a superintendent, transcends all levels,” she said.
Some board members, parents and community members support Graff’s direction and promises he’s kept, saying it’s too early to grade his success.
“We’ve had some pretty good progress, and he said he was going to take a year — he was very clear on that,” said Minneapolis school board Chair Rebecca Gagnon.
But with the average urban school superintendent’s term lasting about three years, time is flying.
A superintendent’s experiences in the first year often become more visible the second year, said Gary Amoroso, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.
That’s evident in Graff’s longer-term goals. He is a champion of a set of practices called social-emotional learning that helps kids build self-awareness and self-control, and do better in school. Later this month, he’ll join school board members and district staff on a Minneapolis Foundation-sponsored trip to Chicago to hear how schools there use these practices — and how to bring them to Minneapolis.
As he takes on Minneapolis’ myriad challenges, his wife has faith that the changes he is making will work.
“If anyone can do it, it’s Ed,” she said.