The two Minneapolis superintendent finalists may have vastly different backgrounds, but they both believe rebuilding trust will be their first task if they get the job.
Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius and Ed Graff, the outgoing superintendent of the Anchorage School District in Alaska, were selected as the top candidates late Friday.
On Monday, the candidates spoke to parents and others at community centers around the city. In the evening, they presented their vision for the school district’s future at a community reception at the district’s headquarters.
Cassellius and Graff are the district’s second set of superintendent finalists, after the school board voted to give the job to Sergio Paez of Massachusetts in December. The board rescinded its offer after allegations surfaced of abuse at a school in his previous district.
Parents and community members asked the new candidates how they would close achievement gaps between white and minority students, reduce suspensions, and change the perception that the district’s headquarters does not provide enough support to schools.
Cassellius said she wanted to step down from her position as commissioner because she believes Minneapolis could be a national model for how urban school districts can close achievement gaps.
“I really want to be a part of making this city great and making our schools great,” Cassellius told parents at Walker Library.
Graff, who grew up in northern Minnesota, said that the Anchorage School District is similar in size and demographics to Minneapolis and that he wants to bring his “laserlike focus on students” to the struggling district.
“Parents are the Number 1 advocate for their children, and as an educator, I should be the Number 2 advocate,” Graff told the same group of parents.
Graff spent most of his career in Alaska. He was a teacher for nine years before becoming a principal. His other posts in the Anchorage schools include central office administrator, assistant superintendent for elementary schools and chief academic officer. He became superintendent in March 2013.
As the district’s top leader, Graff said, he spent time in the schools every week, eating lunch in cafeterias, meeting with students or participating in school events.
At the first community meeting at the Urban Research and Outreach-Engagement Center, Graff was asked why the Anchorage school board opted not to renew his contract late last year.
Graff did not directly answer the question, saying that he was hired during a “transitional time” in the district and that he fulfilled the duties of his contract and helped make improvements in attendance and other measures.
Cassellius, who gave out her cellphone number at the community reception, drew on her experience growing up in the Minneapolis housing projects in a single-parent household and as a single parent herself to talk about the struggles faced by many students.
As a teacher, principal and district administrator in the Twin Cities, and as commissioner, Cassellius said she has focused on giving all students access to the same resources, such as rigorous coursework and quality teachers.
As superintendent, Cassellius said, she would continue to focus on closing gaps, but she told community members that they would need to get involved as well.
“There is no one superintendent who can do it, no one board,” Cassellius said.
At the community reception, a group of more than a dozen parents, students and teachers from Andersen United Community School held large purple posters with phrases such as “Got equity? All students need clean schools.” “Clean schools are a human right.”
They told the candidates that the current administration and the school board have not heard their pleas to clean up their building, which has been riddled with pests.
Graff said he would immediately visit the school and “fix it.”
“We have an obligation to have the best facilities possible,” Graff said.
The candidates will continue to visit schools and talk to staff members on Tuesday before spending the evening in public interviews with the nine-member school board.
The board is expected to select its preferred candidate next week.