In a boardroom that has echoed with the demands of protesters, the cries of parents and the frustration of board members, the quiet presence of incoming superintendent Ed Graff may be the thing to change the tone in the Minneapolis School District.
Board member Nelson Inz noted that Graff tends to lower his voice, like teachers do when they want students to quiet down and listen.
“That changes that culture of your classroom, and I imagine that will change the culture of this room, which will be something that we might want to have happen,” Inz said.
Graff’s leadership stabilized Anchorage public schools, his former colleagues there say, and brought a renewed commitment to students in a district that had been distrustful of top district administrators.
In Minneapolis, board members, staff, teachers, parents and community members speak of an urgent need for change. Teachers and principals want a better relationship with the central office administration. The board wants a transparent, trusting and supportive relationship with the superintendent. Parents want better academic results.
Graff is crucial to that change, said board member Rebecca Gagnon.
“We are just so tired of everyone with their heads down, and just kind of there to get a paycheck,” she said. “I know that’s not what people want to do.”
Still, the school board in Anchorage decided not to renew Graff’s three-year contract, a move that surprised many in Anchorage. The current school board president, Tam Agosti-Gisler, described Graff in a written statement as a “good man and an upstanding citizen.
“Although our board and he had a different vision on where we want to take the Anchorage School District, I wish him well in Minneapolis,” she said.
Before Graff became superintendent in Anchorage in 2013, the mood was grim, said several officials there.
The district was led for more than 10 years by a highly regarded superintendent, Carol Comeau, and funding for schools was stable. In Alaska, schools are mostly funded through oil revenue.
But Comeau left in 2012 and the board hired Jim Browder, a superintendent from Florida, on a three-year contract. Within a year, Browder decided to leave.
David Hagen, a music teacher in Anchorage, described Browder’s tenure as “caustic,” saying he “immediately set up a feeling of animosity between the administration and the teachers.”
“When [Graff] stepped in, he brought a sense of calm and focus that teachers and administrators really felt good about,” Hagen said.
Graff didn’t undo everything that Browder had done. He kept the strategic plan. But the way Graff listened to teachers and administrators made the difference.
“People trusted him and you felt the tension come down,” said Anchorage’s chief academic officer, Michael Graham.
Graff is not overly charismatic, Graham said, and is a very private person.
“It’s hard for people to know Ed. They know the professional Ed, but who is this guy really?” Graham said. As a senior staff member, Graham learned that Graff has a “great sense humor that you don’t see in public very much.”
Interviewed by phone from Anchorage, Graff acknowledged being called the stabilizing, calming guy. He said he doesn’t know if it’s intentional or just part of his personality.
Graff admits he doesn’t get rattled. He often uses a monotone so that people understand the information instead of reacting to the emotion and inflection of his voice.
“Having someone who has created an environment full of trust, confidence and stability, those are the pieces that we want in all situations in education,” Graff said. “It’s who I am. That’s part of my leadership style.”
Social and emotional skills
Nevertheless, for someone who is described as private and not emotional, several people say Graff immediately “lights up” when he enters a school. In his interview with the Minneapolis school board, Graff said he sets time in his calendar each week to visit schools and meet with students.
In Anchorage, Graff emphasized “social emotional learning,” a curriculum teaching students how to identify and manage their feelings and recognize what others might be feeling. It was a priority that impressed many school board members in Minneapolis.
The standards for Anchorage’s social emotional learning include statements such as “I am aware of where I can find help and support.” “I can appropriately handle my feelings.” “I will work on having positive relationships.”
Although Graff did not come up with the curriculum, he is seen as one of its strongest proponents. In 2013 Graff received an award for exemplary leadership from CASEL, the nation’s largest research organization focused on social emotional learning.
Gagnon visited Anchorage before Graff’s selection and said social emotional learning was infused in the instruction, and teachers and principals could articulate the standards.
“That district has gotten better by tending to people. That’s what moved achievement in Anchorage,” Gagnon said.
Still, that wasn’t enough for the seven-member school board that opted not to renew Graff’s contract in October. Board members have not publicly said why, citing personnel laws. The decision does not appear to be popular, based on news stories in Anchorage and Star Tribune interviews with officials there.
Not a politician
A $49 million bond proposal failed in April and a district survey found that voters did not “trust the school district and the school board.” Some were upset with the decision not to renew Graff’s contract, according to an article in the Alaska Dispatch News.
Several current and former employees, including former superintendent Comeau, said the board’s decision appears to have been driven by politics. Since funding for schools is declining because of slumping oil prices, the board wanted a more charismatic superintendent who could lobby the Legislature for more money.
“There is no question, in my mind, that they wanted somebody who was much more political with the Legislature and the governor’s office,” Comeau said.
Comeau, who had worked with Graff since 1991 when he was a teacher, said that will continue to be an area of growth for him in Minneapolis.
“All superintendencies are political, and I know he knows that now,” she said.
Hagen, the music teacher, said the fact that Graff was not a politician was exactly why he supported him.
“A lot of superintendents are about the politics, the power struggles,” Hagen said. “I had a very strong sense that he was just committed to the classroom.”