Tim Cadotte stood in the auditorium of Burroughs Elementary school and watched as dozens of kindergartners practiced a song about a little white duck. Attending the kids’ performance next week will be one of Cadotte’s final duties as the 18-year principal of the Minneapolis school, so his career has come full circle: Kindergartners welcomed him on his first day of school as a teacher, and kindergartners will see him off.
Cadotte turned to leave the auditorium, one which will soon be named for him, and touched a concrete relief of the school’s namesake affixed to the wall. “This was part of the old school,” he said, his voice beginning to break. “Who will remember this stuff when I’m gone?”
“It’s all up here,” said Cadotte, tapping his head.
Indeed, the history of Burroughs school is ingrained in Cadotte, and vice versa. He has been its leader, cheerleader, historian and disciplinarian for nearly two decades. Kids who tugged on his coat when they were little now send their children to the school.
One day this week he spent time taking down photos of previous students from a large bulletin board in his office, a room filled with board games and classic children’s books such as “Charlotte’s Web.”
“It’s all I got done all day,” said Cadotte, 62, who will retire next week. “I was emotionally exhausted.”
During his tenure, Burroughs has been the envy of city schools, with consistently high test scores and high participation by parents. It has also been highly segregated, with the majority of its students white and middle-to-upper class. It used to be more diverse because of the Native Language Literacy program started by Cadotte in 2000. The successful program taught Spanish-speaking students subjects in their native language while they also learned English.
But the end of the program became Cadotte’s most challenging moment. Minneapolis Public Schools administrators were trying to deal with increasing segregation and suggested moving kids of color from other neighborhoods to Burroughs, while at the same time phasing out the Spanish program. When some parents tried to argue to keep the Spanish program, it was interpreted by some that parents were favoring Latino students over black students.
After an argument between Cadotte and a black school board member, Cadotte was suspended for a few days. A subsequent investigation into the school found only a couple of paperwork issues. Cadotte went on to run one of the city’s most successful schools, outlasting all of those who sought to dismiss him.
Jeremy Graff’s three children have grown up at Burroughs. “In this era of revolving doors of leadership in the Minneapolis Public Schools, Tim gave the Burroughs community 18 years of consistent leadership,” said Graff. “The results of the school speak for themselves. Tim actively sought the involvement and input from the parents and community. When appropriate, he fought the district on behalf of the Burroughs community. He won a lot of permanent fans for that.”
While Cadotte butted heads with former Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson, things turned around under interim Superintendent Michael Goar.
“When Michael took over, the first thing he said was he didn’t want veteran principals to retire — do you hear that, Tim Cadotte?”
“Do you know how remarkable it was to have the superintendent want me and respect me?” said Cadotte. “Because of Michael Goar and his kindness and respect I am departing with a great deal of peace. Not everyone gets that when they leave a job.”
Cadotte, who said he might seek a part-time job with kids, offered one piece of advice to the new superintendent: “Work closely with principals. We have a level of management now between principals and the superintendent” and that discourages good conversation between them, Cadotte said.
Also: “Do what’s best for the kids.”
That has been Cadotte’s mantra from day one, said Steph Smith, who has four boys attending Burroughs.
“Tim’s impact on education will be felt for generations here in the Lynnhurst neighborhood,” said Smith. “Fifteen years ago, you didn’t have young families wanting to move into the neighborhood because of the schools. Now you do.”
“Tim shows up,” said Smith. “He’s in the lunchroom opening milk cartons and on 50th Street [directing bus traffic]. He fully appreciates that there are times when he needs to dress up and move like Elvis. He understands that the little things are the big things.
“We will miss Tim for sure, but a true testament to his leadership is that Burroughs will be fine, actually great,” Smith said. “We have Tim to thank.”
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