Community members shared their thoughts about what they’re looking for in a superintendent at eight community listening sessions, plus two meetings specifically for students, throughout the city. An additional meeting for MPS staff is also planned.
The listening sessions, which are part of the community engagement aspect of the Minneapolis Public Schools superintendent search, began at Hmong International Academy on Jan. 12 and ended on Jan. 21 at Urban Ventures.
On Jan. 17 the Minneapolis School Board voted to delay the superintendent search process until September.
EPU Consultants facilitated the sessions, which took a small group, discussion-based approach. Participants answered questions about which qualities and priorities are important to them for the next superintendent.
Attendance was low at the most of the listening sessions, with several meetings only hosting three or four participants in addition to several board members. Just one participant attended the first session at Hmong International Academy. Sessions at Washburn and North High were well-attended.
Attendants sat in groups with a EPU Consultants facilitator and went over six questions about the incoming superintendent and improving the student and family experience at the district.
The first question asked what leadership qualities MPS should look for in a superintendent, the next three asked about strategies to improve the district, one asked about supporting student well-being and the last was an open-ended question asking if participants had anything else to add. There were five to nine options to answer each question, plus an “other” option on every one. Participants who chose “other” were asked to include a sticky note explaining why they made that choice.
The questions were extremely similar to the superintendent search online survey questions. The survey is no longer online. Attendants marked their priorities with a sticker for EPU consultants to track the data. Childcare and translation services were available if requested in advance and the questions were available in several languages. One Somali parent translated for another parent at the Washburn meeting on Jan. 13.
The final question at the listening sessions was open-ended, and participants wrote out their answers on sticky notes. The results seen here at the Washburn session on Jan. 13 reflect the larger themes heard across listening sessions including communication between staff and families and trust issues. Photo by Melissa Whitler.
School board members made appearances at the listening sessions, including Directors Ira Jourdain, Lori Norvell and Kim Ellison at the Washburn meeting, Sonya Emerick and Abdul Abdi at the Northeast morning session, Abdul Abdi and Kim Ellison at the Northeast afternoon session, and Adriana Cerrillo, Kim Ellison, Sonya Emerick and Lori Norvell at the Emerson Elementary meeting. Adriana Cerrillo, Sonya Emerick, and Collin Beachy attended the Urban Ventures meeting.
Minneapolis Schools Voices did not have reporters at the Hmong Academy session on Jan. 12 the Division of Indian Work session on Jan. 19 or the Jan. 20 meeting at North High.
Small group discussion takeaways: Trust
One of the biggest issues that participants brought up at the listening sessions was the lack of trust between families and the district, including former superintendent Ed Graff.
Several participants at the Northeast Library meetings cited the Comprehensive District Design, a 2020 initiative to address equity and financial stability within MPS, as a reason for broken trust. The CDD redrew boundaries and impacted enrollment.
One parent at a Northeast Library listening session on Jan. 14 said that the CDD’s “terrible rollout” deeply impacted her child’s community school, with enrollment sharply decreasing in the past year and many families leaving MPS altogether because of the lack of communication surrounding the CDD.
Parents of students from Lyndale noted how the CDD hollowed out the programming and services at their school that had attracted Somali families. Although Lyndale is now home to the Somali language program, after the CDD, the students do not have the option to continue with Somali language at Justice Page or Washburn, as they transition to middle and high school, according to parents at the Washburn listening session.
Furthermore, several participants said that they lost trust with MPS during pandemic-era online learning in 2020 and 2021. The distance and communication during this period left some families feeling disconnected from their schools.
The incoming superintendent will need to rebuild this trust between community members and MPS, according to participants at several sessions.
“I want somebody that’s going to help us build our community, help us heal our community,” Christin Crabtree said at the Northeast Library morning session. Crabtree is a community member and the former campaign manager for school board candidate KerryJo Felder. “I want to see us restore or transform some of the work that happens in our district.”
At the Washburn session, the participants left comments that said they hoped a new superintendent with school-age children would live in Minneapolis and send their children to MPS schools. They noted that this would signal a commitment to the district.
Authentic relationships between MPS families and the district was a frequent response to the questions posed at the sessions. Participants felt that leadership hasn’t been up-front with families about what is happening in their schools, and that they don’t feel like the superintendent was listening to what families want. According to the community members, these broken relationships caused the lack of trust between families and district leaders.
“An authentic relationship to me is about building up that trust and that connection in a way that students, teachers and families can feel confident that whatever recommendation the superintendent gives, that they feel heard, represented and valued,” MPS parent Jen Garman said at the Northeast Library afternoon session.
Several participants said that MPS uses words like “anti-racist” without following through with anti-racist actions. Creating authentic relationships between MPS and families would include meaningful words backed by actions.
“I don’t want to just talk about equity or liberation anti-racism, I want to do them,” Crabtree said. “I want somebody who sees those as a practice and not a character trait, but like a practice that you see every day.”
Director Abdul Abdi, former director Jenny Arneson and Director Kim Ellison sat separately from community members and spoke among themselves during the afternoon listening session at Northeast Library on Jan. 14. Photo by Anna Koenning.
Communication, accountability and transparency from the district were three priorities for many participants at different listening sessions as well. A couple participants praised Interim Superintendent Rochelle Cox in particular for her communication and engagement with families.
At the Washburn event, parents shared that Cox had been more present in schools and the community. However, they also felt that other district leaders should be out in the community more, particularly during the summer months when families gather at parks and outdoor events around the city. Some parents expressed a desire for Cox to stay on as superintendent permanently, or for the board to hire another candidate internally, noting the importance of having someone with a history with the district.
“I am not interested in somebody who can say all the right things,” Garman said. “I want somebody who wants to really hear and listen deeply to the people around them, to the teachers, the staff, the students within our district.”
Mental health support & hiring and keeping educators
Other priorities that participants mentioned are respecting students and providing mental health support for them. Minneapolis students have experienced considerable amounts of stress and trauma from the 2020 murder of George Floyd and the subsequent uprisings, the COVID-19 pandemic and other factors like family problems or food insecurity. Due to the pandemic and the three-week teachers’ strike last March, students lost a significant amount of in-person learning from 2020 to 2022.
One parent at a Northeast Library meeting suggested that the schools reintroduce Wellness Wednesdays, a mindfulness practice that began during distance learning, at all schools and grade levels. Another said that educators’ mental health should be just as much a concern as students’ because of their impact on classes.
Participants also said that hiring and sufficiently paying educators, especially teachers of color, should be a priority for the district. At Washburn, a participant left a comment asking the district to “use a cohort model” for newly hired educators of color, so that they have a support system.
Other ideas from small group discussions
One parent at the Emerson Elementary session on Jan. 18 used the “other” response to the survey questions to talk about student punishment. She said that schools should stop suspending and expelling students and should focus on the problems, like family life or bullying, that cause students to act out. When kids fight, for example, she said that the students should talk over the problems with each others’ families instead of punishments like expulsions and suspensions.
Additionally, several parents at Urban Ventures urged the district to become more accessible, particularly in terms of interpreted materials and the language used to communicate with those who speak English as a second language.
There were just three participants in addition to the four board members at the Emerson Elementary listening session on Jan. 18. Directors Lori Norvell, Kim Ellison and Adriana Cerrillo sat with the community members in the Emerson cafeteria. Photo by Anna Koenning.
An educator at a Northeast meeting suggested that schools swap out older, white-centered curriculum for more culturally appropriate curriculum, for example teaching more books written by authors of color. Another parent said that curriculum should be relevant to today’s technology and job market so that students are prepared for the world they’ll graduate into.
Participants also brought up their concern about decreasing enrollment and the impact it has on schools and funding. One parent said that MPS’ tarnished reputation following the CDD deters new families from sending their kids to the district.
“It’s hard to get my neighbors to go to the schools that my kids go to,” she said.
MPS families received emails, text messages and robocalls from the district alerting them to the listening sessions, and student leaders were invited directly to the student-only meetings.
The first email to parents was sent on Dec. 12, 2022, inviting them to participate in an online survey. Two additional emails were sent in January with a link to the listening session information. A final email was sent on Jan. 18 explaining the board's decision to delay the superintendent search process.
The district sent families four text messages reminding them about the superintendent search community engagement sessions. Those messages were sent on Jan. 5, 11, 12 and 17.
EPU Consultants will share their findings from the listening sessions at the MPS School Board meeting on Feb. 7. The board will consider these findings in the superintendent search.