Whether she's helping a school district reverse an enrollment slump, reshaping educators' approach to the challenging middle school years or helping to resolve bitter community divisions over pandemic policies, Lisa Sayles-Adams relies on a similar approach: listen carefully, lean on data and lead with a steady hand.
It's a style that won over the Minneapolis school board, which this month selected Sayles-Adams to become its next leader. District leaders think her brand of leadership — along with her local roots — will equip her to "hit the ground running" as she faces challenges ranging from a looming financial crisis to tough decisions about whether to close schools.
"She's not a 'shout it from the rooftops' kind of person. Her leadership is very deliberate and community-focused," said Stephanie Burrage, the state's former deputy education commissioner and now its chief equity officer, who worked with Sayles-Adams at two Minneapolis schools in the 1990s. "She's the type of person who would do something behind the scenes and you may never even know it was her who got it done."
In a nearly unanimous vote, the school board on Dec. 1 selected Twin Cities native Sayles-Adams over fellow finalist Sonia Stewart, a veteran educator and administrator currently working in Tennessee. Throughout her interview, Sayles-Adams told board members she aims to "listen, learn, engage and then lead" the district as a "student-centered" and "data-driven" leader.
"I fully intend on being here for the long haul," she said. "Change takes time. You need to build trust, and I feel like my expertise and my commitment is a good match for the district."
The details of Sayles-Adams' contract, including when she'll start and how much she'll be paid, are still being negotiated.
Sayles-Adams, 54, is well known in Minnesota education circles. Fellow superintendents — who describe her as thoughtful and unflappable — say they're confident in her ability to lead the state's fourth-largest school district.
"My questions are more about the board than Lisa," said Steven Unowsky, superintendent for Richfield Public Schools, who worked with Sayles-Adams in St. Paul and tried to recruit her for other jobs in his district. "With the very significant financial challenges and also the possibility of future school closures, they're going to have to come together to find success."
Sayles-Adams grew up in the Twin Cities and graduated from Central High School in St. Paul. She described her childhood as "filled with love, encouragement, and wonderful memories of being with my family and friends" and noted that she comes from "a long line of leaders with a heart of service to the community."
She is the niece of Sharon Sayles Belton, mayor of Minneapolis from 1994 to 2001. Sayles-Adams is married and has four adult children and two grandchildren.
In her board interview, Sayles-Adams repeatedly said she was eager to again serve the district where she started her career.
"I describe it as coming full circle and coming home," she said. "I am ready to come back to where I started because I know that I can help."
Sayles-Adams worked in the Minneapolis school district from 1996 to 2004 as a teacher, middle school reading coordinator and principal at an alternative high school.
"Working in Minneapolis is where I learned my 'why' as an educator," Sayles-Adams told board members, adding that her time in the district taught her that "strong schools make strong communities."
She is an active member of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, which has a mission to "support, uplift, and directly impact the African American community in the Twin Cities." Burrage, the state's chief equity officer who serves as the sorority's president, said Sayles-Adams is very involved in the group's community service activities, including a mentorship program for high school girls.
"She's someone who is going to make time to hear you," Burrage said. "That's just who she is and always was."
Sayles-Adams also spent eight years working in Clayton County, Ga., outside Atlanta, where she worked for one high school and two elementary schools before she was recruited for a job with St. Paul Public Schools. She worked as a principal in the district's elementary and middle schools before being promoted to assistant superintendent.
Sayles-Adams was instrumental in creating that district's current middle school model, which aims to teach social and emotional skills — including time management and financial literacy — alongside traditional academic subjects, said Amanda Herrera-Gundale, assistant director of middle school programs for St. Paul Public Schools.
"She was always looking at what the experience at the end of the day looked like from a student's perspective," said Herrera-Gundale. "She really insisted that we knew students' names and made sure we had more than a face behind the numbers."
When Christine Tucci Osorio was beginning her job as superintendent for the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale district, she recruited Sayles-Adams as assistant superintendent, focused on middle and high school programming.
Sayles-Adams looked at enrollment declines "at a granular level," interviewing families to find out why they were leaving the district, Tucci Osorio said.
She said Sayles-Adams has a passion for urban education. She is "going in with eyes wide open," Tucci Osorio said, "not just an optimism for how it could be supported and improved but also with practical ideas for how that might happen."
Sayles-Adams was hired in May 2020 as superintendent of Eastern Carver County Schools, a district of about 9,400 students, nearly 85% of whom are white. The district was facing a lawsuit alleging that the past administration hadn't done enough to protect Black students from racist bullying, including slurs and a shooting threat.
The district is currently under a consent decree requiring it to review its harassment and bullying policies and to heighten requirements for investigating and reporting race-based incidents. An attorney for the plaintiffs didn't respond to a request for comment.
Tucci Osorio said Eastern Carver County Schools' policy on racial harm is now one that other schools are borrowing for its guidance on responding to incidents "in a way that can help repair and educate and strengthen your community rather than tear it apart."
In her interview, Sayles-Adams referenced another challenge she encountered in her current district — stepping in after voters in 2019 rejected an operating levy referendum amid an undercurrent of distrust in the district over the lawsuit.
In 2021, the district tried again, sharing its message in a tour of presentations at senior centers, Rotary clubs and schools. Voters overwhelmingly passed the $550 per pupil operating levy.
"In my four years, I've had an opportunity to work collaboratively with the community to regain trust, to build relationships, to be transparent and to be very open," Sayles-Adams said.
That balance was threatened throughout the COVID pandemic, as Sayles-Adams steered a district divided over pandemic precautions. Tensions over the district's mask mandate led to a scuffle at a fall 2021 school board meeting; Sayles-Adams was quick to denounce the disruptive behavior.
"She stood her ground when she needed to protect students and teachers," said Dwayne Johnson, president of the local teachers union.
Marcia Howard, acting president of the teachers' chapter of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, said that's what teachers want to see Sayles-Adams bring to their district.
"We're hopeful that a superintendent with hometown connections will feel vested in making the Minneapolis school district better and more stable for the future," she said.