On Wednesday, the Minneapolis school board interviewed superintendent finalist Lisa Sayles-Adams, marking the last step before the board's Friday vote to name the next leader of the state's fourth-largest school district.
Sayles-Adams, the superintendent of Eastern Carver County Schools, took questions from the public before a two-hour interview with the board about her leadership style, experience and priorities. The other candidate, Sonia Stewart — deputy superintendent of Hamilton County Public Schools in Chattanooga, Tenn. — was asked the same questions in her interview on Monday.
The school board will meet on Friday to choose the final candidate, and a start date will be determined after the contract is negotiated and approved.
Here's what to know about Sayles-Adams:
Experience: Sayles-Adams, 54, began her career in Minneapolis Public Schools in the late 1990s and served as a teacher and coordinator before becoming a principal of City Alternative High School.
She has also worked as an assistant superintendent for St. Paul Public Schools and North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale schools. In 2020, she took the helm at Eastern Carver County Schools, which serves about 9,600 students.
She was a finalist for superintendent of Osseo Area Schools earlier this year.
Sayles-Adams said she wants to serve Minneapolis Public Schools because it's where she found the passion that has driven her career in education.
"I describe it as coming full circle and coming home," she said on Wednesday. "I am confident I have the skills to come back here. I am ready to come back to where I started because I know that I can help."
Focus on social and emotional skills:
During her time in St. Paul, Sayles-Adams helped shape the district's middle school model, said Amanda Herrera-Gundale, assistant director of middle school programs for the St. Paul Public Schools. That model aims to provide 10- to 14-year-olds with a strong education in traditional academic subjects while also encouraging social and emotional development. A key piece of that model is a foundations course that teaches students about goal-setting, time management, friendships and budgeting.
When the district moved to distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, district surveys showed that students appreciated those foundational courses, Herrera-Gundale said.
Steven Unowsky, now the superintendent for Richfield schools, was working as an assistant superintendent in St. Paul when he recruited Sayles-Adams to lead Battle Creek Middle School. She had a reputation as a "very high-performing principal," he said.
During her time as principal there, the district transitioned its junior high schools (seventh and eighth grade) to a middle school model that included sixth grade.
"The first year was extremely challenging," he said, but under Sayles-Adams' leadership, the transition at Battle Creek was a smooth one. Test scores improved and the number of behavior issues dropped — results that Unowsky credited, in part, to her focus on social and emotional learning and attention to the mental health of students and staff.
What colleagues have to say:
Dwayne Johnson, president of the union representing teachers in Eastern Carver County, said Sayles-Adams has a clear plan and has been "open to problem-solving" with the union and in collaboration with teachers.
"You never wonder what she's thinking. She can always explain why we're doing what we're doing," Johnson said.
Eastern Carver County Schools is in a consent decree negotiated to end a lawsuit brought in 2019 — before Sayles-Adams was hired there — by students who alleged the district hadn't done enough to protect them from racist bullying.
She took the leadership role in June 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic and a year after the lawsuit.
"When I came in, there was a lot of community division and the students had experienced a lot of harm," she said.
Under her leadership, the district revised its discipline, harassment and bullying policies and created a racial harm protocol that all staff have trained on, she said.
Johnson said she handled that time with "all kinds of grace."
Herrera-Gundale worked with Sayles-Adams when Sayles-Adams was principal of what was then Galtier Elementary. She was a "hands-on" principal, Herrera-Gundale said, and she believed in using data to find ways to support students, especially those who were struggling the most.
"It struck me right away that she was always looking at what the experience at the end of the day looked like from a student's perspective," Herrera-Gundale said.
Her entry plan:
In her first 100 days, Sayles-Adams said she would focus on listening to the board, students, parents and community members about the achievements and challenges in the city's schools. She called herself a "data-driven leader" and said she would spend the beginning of her tenure reviewing budgets, district policies, and the district's strategic plan.
More about Lisa Sayles-Adams:
She grew up in the Twin Cities and graduated from St. Paul Public Schools. When she was a student at the University of Minnesota, she said Minneapolis Public Schools was where aspiring educators wanted to work.
"If selected as the next superintendent, I fully intend on being here for the long haul," she said. "I believe my expertise and commitment are a good match for the district."
She is the niece of former Minneapolis Mayor Sharon Sayles-Belton, the first African American and first female mayor of Minneapolis.
"I come from a long line of leaders with a heart of service to the community," Sayles-Adams said.
She is married and has four adult children.
A recording of Sayles-Adams' interview with the board is available online at mps.eduvision.tv.