Last summer, an ill-timed decision to give retroactive raises to her staff had put Bernadeia Johnson, superintendent of the Minneapolis schools, on the defensive.


Johnson's bosses, Minneapolis school board members, were upset that she had handed out $270,000 in bonuses after a consultant recommended it. Citizens flooded her voice mail and e-mail with complaints that administrators were getting bonuses when teachers were losing jobs.


Weeks later, on National Night Out, Johnson did what supporters say she does best: acting as an ambassador for the state's most urban district.


After crisscrossing the city, visiting cookouts and block parties, Johnson pulled into the driveway of her Brooklyn Park home. A next-door neighbor watering her lawn offered a bit of advice.


Honey, why do you keep doing all these studies? Johnson recalls her neighbor asking. "I think you ought to stop."


Johnson paused and looked at her neighbor and said: "I think you're right."


That night in August captured the spirit of Johnson's 18 months on the job: a series of highs, lows and questions about her leadership of the state's third-largest yet most-scrutinized school district.


Midway through her second year on the job, Johnson said she has learned from her missteps and will rely more on her instincts than consultants and chart her own course.


"I have to shore this up," she said about the district. "There's something you take from every experience that makes you a stronger person."


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."


Slow and steady


When the Minneapolis school board hired Johnson in winter 2010, they didn't consider any candidates other than the woman who had become then-Superintendent Bill Green's deputy. A former financial analyst who came to education as a second career, Johnson had experience as a school administrator in Memphis and Minneapolis, the place where she first served as a principal.


As superintendent, Johnson has set what she considers manageable goals for all students. By 2015, she hopes to cut the achievement gap between white students and those of color in reading by half and by a third in math.


Under Johnson's watch, the reading results of Minneapolis' black, Latino and American Indian students have increased during the last two years of state testing. Still, Johnson has failed to meet several goals the school board will evaluate her on, most of them related to the performance of the district's non-white students.


"Despite years of effort and a lot of money, we have not broken the code," said Pam Costain, a former school board member who voted to hire Johnson. Costain is now president and CEO of AchieveMPLS, a foundation that supports the work of the school district. "Other places have done better, so it's possible."


The challenges are daunting: When the state Department of Education identified 19 of the state's lowest-performing schools last summer, seven were from Minneapolis and fewer than half of Minneapolis' minority high school students earn a diploma within four years.


'Remember to delegate'


A consultant's report completed this year suggested that Johnson was spread too thin and trying to take on too many challenges herself. In response, she hired a deputy superintendent to oversee the district's day-to-day operations and assigned an associate superintendent to oversee the lowest-performing schools.


Letting go hasn't been easy though. Johnson's executive assistant still signs her daily schedule folder with a reminder: "Remember to delegate," with a smiley face underneath.


The additional staff will allow her more time to focus on her strength, connecting with teachers, families and supporters, said Mayor R.T. Rybak, a Johnson backer.


Rybak and Costain say the district's recent and projected enrollment increases are a byproduct of renewed confidence in the schools, which for years has been looked upon as a symbol of what's wrong with public education in Minnesota. Now, districts across the state, especially in Twin Cities' inner-ring suburbs, are facing issues that were once restricted to Minneapolis and St. Paul: high rates of poverty and an increasing number of English language learners among them.


"We are the bellwether of the challenges the state faces," Costain said.


Surveys find that the district's highest approval ratings come from families of students of color, those who often fare the worse in Minneapolis schools, said state Sen. Patricia Torres-Ray, a Minneapolis DFLer and a district parent. Still, Torres-Ray is unhappy with the district's record on educating those children.


"I will support someone who changes the outcomes for kids," Torres-Ray said. "I have not seen that in the Minneapolis schools for a long time."


A lonely job


On a recent weeknight, Johnson stood in the cafeteria at Green Central School in south Minneapolis speaking broken Spanish to Latino families. Two days later, she worked the room, meeting and greeting deep-pocketed sponsors, at a $100-per-plate fundraiser in downtown Minneapolis.


Fellow Superintendent Valeria Silva, of the St. Paul public schools, credited Johnson with navigating one of the toughest parts of jobs, making connections to a number of sometimes competing interests: parents, unions, community organizers, business leaders.


"It takes time to develop relationships and trust," Silva said, "but it can be a very lonely job."


Silva praised Johnson's skill in managing people and personalities, another lesson Johnson learned on job. When she took over as chief academic officer in Minneapolis, Johnson upset parents and staff by shuffling principals in short order.


In the past year, Johnson has taken a different tack: stabilize staffing, except in the district's highest need schools, where shakeups are required by the state.


"If you disrupt too much ... you lose people," she said. But "things can't continue to be the same in Minneapolis."


Corey Mitchell • 612-673-4491