Joe Gothard settled his 6-foot-6 frame into a bean-bag chair on a recent morning at the American Indian Magnet School in St. Paul.

He was there to observe a reading intervention class — a routine that dates to the fall — and he noted the name on the chair, which was Big Joe.

That had been his nickname in his hometown of Madison, Wis., where he will return as that district's new schools chief next month.

Gothard leaves St. Paul as the 2024 National Superintendent of the Year, yet he and others say that it's the right time for a fresh start for all.

"Being back in Madison to me is really appealing at this stage in my life," he said in a recent interview. "It's not bigger than St. Paul, but that doesn't really matter to me. The purpose is still the purpose. The challenges are still going to be there."

Gothard is one of America's longest-serving urban superintendents, the third longest, in fact, among 78 in the Council of the Great City Schools. Although he and his leadership team have made creative moves that have garnered national attention, challenges remain for Minnesota's second-largest school district.

St. Paul's enrollment has steadied a bit under his watch, thanks in part to the district's multicultural offerings. Nonetheless, it still is sliding and now stands at 32,145 students.

The literacy work made possible by a massive infusion of federal pandemic aid shows promise and will remain in place, but the district's annual test scores lag and the achievement gap persists.

As Gothard prepares to hand the reins to veteran interim leader John Thein, he is helping shape a 2024-25 budget with a $107 million deficit and with cuts that undermine the goal of his Envision SPPS district redesign. School closings and mergers were supposed to make a well-rounded education for all elementary students possible, yet dozens of specialist teaching positions now are on the line.

Stephanie Anderson, a parent who helped block the proposed closing of Wellstone Elementary and later chaired board member Yusef Carrillo's campaign, said she believes Gothard "believes in public education and in the value of it. I believe he goes to work each day doing the best he can."

But, she said, "I think the timing is really good for him to leave."

Calm in a busy job

On Feb. 15, Gothard was in San Diego for the national conference of the American Association of School Administrators, during which the 50 state superintendents of the year are paraded out, an envelope is unsealed and the name of the National Superintendent of the Year is announced. As a finalist, he prepared a few words, just in case.

At the same time, St. Paul's teachers were in the process of authorizing a strike — a clean sweep of such votes during his seven years at the helm — and Madison's school board president phoned him in the morning to offer him the superintendent post.

"Thankfully, I've been through some tests in my tenure in St. Paul," he said of the ability to stay calm when emotions may be running high.

A year ago, a student was fatally stabbed in a hallway at Harding High School, and the district spent months exploring what it would take to make the schools safer.

As a mentor to aspiring leaders, Gothard said he makes it a practice to be present in the moment, to listen before speaking, to ask good questions and take cues from people who come at him all day with diverse perspectives.

"In this work and the work of leadership, you can't say 'yes' to everything," he said. "In fact, I have a quote I often share with people: How good are my 'yeses' if I never say 'no?'"

School closures and additions

Last spring, Gothard and his administrative team said yes when Somali parents and others advocated for a broader array of programming — eventually opening an East African Elementary Magnet School that helped ease the district's projected enrollment decline.

They launched a Karen language program believed to be the first of its kind in the nation.

Even Envision SPPS, which Gothard acknowledges as unpopular, set the district apart from others in the country by taking on school closures in a systematic way that allowed for some innovation, he said.

But Anna Peters, a parent at Galtier Community School, which was closed to make room for an early childhood education hub, said that after a year at nearby Hamline Elementary, she and her husband decided to pull their fifth-grader and place her in a St. Paul charter school.

Teachers need support to meet all of their students' needs, Peters said, and it isn't clear the bigger schools that result from mergers can deliver. Not that she blames Gothard. "Running a school district is such a behemoth of a job," she said.

What's next in St. Paul

Gothard's tenure in St. Paul ends on May 17, and Thein, who was interim leader before Gothard was hired in 2017, will bring the 2024-25 budget with its expansive cuts to the finish line in June.

The school board has not set a timeline for its search for a permanent superintendent.

Last week, Gothard was in Madison, visiting schools long familiar to him and his family, and in an exchange with a student who asked why he was returning, said: "How can I make school awesome every day for you? That's why I'm back."

But he has made clear, too, that he is National Superintendent of the Year because of St. Paul.