Interim Superintendent Michael Goar met with dozens of parents from Green Central Community School on Friday night, less than two hours after taking over as head of Minneapolis schools.
The parents gathered at a small community center on Chicago Avenue to express frustration. The Minneapolis School District does not seem to listen to immigrant parents, they said.
“I’m here because I care. I want to hear your worries and thoughts,” Goar said. “I am also an immigrant, and as an immigrant I understand your pain.”
Goar served as former Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson’s chief executive and now steps into a role that he wants to keep permanently. He takes over at a challenging time for the district, which is dogged by a persistent and gaping achievement gap between white and nonwhite students. Goar must lead the district, at least temporarily, as school officials are still reeling from Johnson’s sudden departure midway through the school year.
In his first interview since assuming his new role, Goar said he will bring some major changes to the district immediately. In just three weeks, he plans to downsize the central office staff. He will create concrete improvement plans for some of the district’s most struggling schools and he will begin meeting with parents who he said have been marginalized.
“My career path has led up to a superintendency,” Goar said. “It’s a calling, and I love this school district because I know what is possible.”
Jenny Arneson, the new school board chairwoman, said Goar will bring stability and continuity to the district during a transition phase that can often be difficult for school districts.
“We want people to remain stable for the remainder of the year,” Arneson said.
The school board has yet to decide how quickly they will conduct their search for a permanent replacement, but Goar is pressing ahead with the kinds of changes and new direction of an administrator who wants to keep the job.
Steep obstacles already are emerging, however, such as the fact that Goar has never taught in a classroom.
At a recent school board meeting, several community members and teachers implored the school board to select a superintendent with classroom experience.
“I am looking for a superintendent who has spent many years as a classroom teacher and who is highly recommended by their colleagues,” teacher Jim Thomas said at the school board meeting.
Smaller central office
Goar said he plans to place a strong emphasis on fixing community engagement in the district, especially around immigrant families. Goar will continue Johnson’s initiatives to engage black families, with the creation of the Office of Black Male Achievement. But Goar said it is also important to reach out to students who have been traditionally “invisible” in Minneapolis schools.
“We need to re-engage and recruit our parents,” Goar said. “We need to say, ‘We are sorry, and please give us another chance.’ ”
Many of his plans are a continuation of work that Johnson started.
In three weeks, Goar will put Johnson’s “Shift Initiative” into action. The plan would eliminate several central office positions and put more resources at the school level. Goar expects that many workers will either be moved to schools directly or lose their jobs.
Johnson’s academic plan, which Goar helped write, is still in place. Goar said schools should continue to feel a sense of urgency in meeting the academic goals outlined in the plan. They include increasing test scores by 5 percent every year for all students and an 8 percent gain for students of color. Schools must also increase graduation rates by 10 percent each year.
He also plans to establish a clear improvement plan for schools that are currently underperforming. “We need to be able to tell parents how long it will take to turn the school around,” Goar said.
The school board will evaluate Goar’s performance as interim superintendent on July 1, said Arneson, the board chair.
“Michael is a strong leader. His strength is his management skills,” Arneson said. “He is very clear with what he wants and is able to execute that vision.”
Focus on immigrant families
The majority of Goar’s experience has been administrative. He became the district’s chief executive in 2013, a position that gave him a strong administrative role under Johnson. Before that, he was the executive director for a year at Generation Next, a nonprofit organization that aims to close the Twin Cities’ achievement gap.
Goar graduated from Washburn High School in 1982. He was adopted from Korea when he was 12, and he came to Minneapolis unable to speak English.
He grew up in a white, middle-class family that lived in southwest Minneapolis. Goar said his cultural background and experience as an English language learner gives him great empathy for families who feel that the school district is not meeting their needs.
At the community meeting, Goar heard from a woman whose son has special needs and was assigned to attend Green Central.
She described how the school was not well-equipped to serve her son’s needs. She said she watched her son and others get mistreated physically and emotionally by an employee at the school.
After the district refused to move her child to another school, she moved her son to Bloomington schools, where he is thriving.
“I’m glad you are here to listen,” said the woman, who was in tears. “I really hope that you take into account the needs of every child in this district.”
Goar said in an interview that he is certain that if the mother was able to speak English “with a degree of forcefulness, her outcome would have been very different.”
“As an immigrant, I can empathize with her,” Goar said. “It struck my core nerve that our system is still treating our immigrant families very different.”