At 6-foot-6, Joe Gothard commands attention, but it’s the people of St. Paul who have his attention now.
The new superintendent of St. Paul Public Schools is 10 days into a job carrying high hopes and expectations. He is not just the new leader of the state’s second-largest district, but the man for whom a change-minded school board cleared the way by buying out a previous superintendent’s contract for $787,000.
Fresh from a four-year stint as superintendent of the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District, Gothard has shown an ability to reshape a school system. In the south metro, he led community conversations that produced a new strategic plan and a voter-approved $65 million building bond and $2.5 million-per-year technology levy.
But this week, when the 45-year-old Madison, Wis., native shakes hands along community parade routes on the East Side and in the historic Rondo neighborhood, he arrives with no preset notions about the direction of his new district. For now, Gothard sees himself as an “investigator” of sorts, he said in an interview Thursday, out to learn not just about what needs fixing, but also the pride that people have in St. Paul schools and the positive experiences their kids are having.
“We want to make sure that narrative is part of our work moving forward,” he said.
He has notepad and pen at the ready. On July 1, his first day of work, Gothard’s Twitter feed showed the page was, indeed, blank — wide open to ideas.
In Burnsville, Gothard embraced social media, at one time blogging in support of AVID, a college-readiness program tailored to the “academic middle” — kids, often minorities, capable of challenging work but falling short of their potential.
It is a group with whom he could feel some kinship. A 2012 newspaper story noted that Gothard, then a newly named assistant superintendent of the Madison Metropolitan School District, was someone who hadn’t taken his education very seriously until he dropped out of college. Earlier, he had other problems to confront.
As he told a crowd at St. Paul’s Washington Technology Magnet School in March, he did not open up about his racial identity until a sixth-grade teacher, Lois Bell, asked him: “Joe, how does it feel to be a minority?”
Gothard, the son of a white mother and black father, had little involvement with his father at the time and needed “Mrs. Bell,” he said, to be an advocate.
“But let’s put race aside for a minute,” Gothard added on Thursday. “She found a way to find a personal connection with me that remains to this day. That’s the objective, I think, of every teacher: to find a personal connection to their students.”
Later, Gothard would student teach with her, and in 2009, he nominated her successfully for the district’s distinguished educator award. He still draws on examples she set. The children in her class were not allowed to say, “yeah,” he said, only “yes,” something that his three children would tell you they “do at home because of her,” he added.
Gothard graduated from La Follette High School in Madison in 1989 and went on to become a biology teacher and head football coach there, amassing a 33-19-0 record.
In 2007, he was named the school’s principal and later won praise from a search firm executive for having turned around “one of the toughest high schools in the city,” a description that Gothard says today was “embellished a little bit.”
The school, however, had gotten off track, he said, and he and others found success reducing student misbehavior by engaging students in disciplinary solutions and in the creation of a youth court.
Gothard said he is eager to learn about St. Paul’s pilot programs in so-called restorative practices.
A new plan for voters?
Asked if he feels pressure due to the circumstances leading to his hiring — the ouster of former Superintendent Valeria Silva and yearlong transition under interim leader John Thein — Gothard said he is accountable to the board and will make certain there is clear communication and expectations — and the proper level of support.
“That has to be my focus in terms of having any fear, I guess,” he said.
He comes aboard as the district struggles with declining enrollment and the St. Paul Federation of Teachers is pushing to have the district ask voters to approve a new levy.
That may seem a natural move for Gothard, given his Burnsville experience, but he said no such plans currently are in the works.
He is preaching patience as he embarks on his fact-finding mission, determined that any models or programs to be recommended — and hopefully approved in the future, he said — are models that the district can build on for the 21st century.
“It doesn’t mean that process has to lead to a levy,” he said. “But that process needs to move to change.”