The Gospel According to Carol Johnson

Minneapolis's top teacher keeps the faith in trying times

There is probably no public official in the Twin Cities who is more admired by the people she works with than Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Carol Johnson. Last summer, when the school board in Nashville, Tennessee, offered Johnson the superintendent's job at a larger district for more money near her childhood home, it prompted a huge outpouring of support from students, parents, administrators, and business and community leaders from across the political spectrum in a successful effort to convince her to stay in Minneapolis. After she announced her decision, relieved school board members voted to bump Johnson's annual salary up to $190,000, but she further ennobled her reputation by donating most of the $30,000 raise back to the Minneapolis Public Schools Foundation.

Since taking over as Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) superintendent in 1997, Johnson, now 54, has revamped the system's middle schools, instituted a goal-oriented District Improvement Agenda, and put in place a comprehensive plan to measure progress and achievement toward those goals. She has fostered a wide array of partnerships with businesses, foundations, and faith-based organizations. The results thus far, however, have been mixed at best.

After some initial progress, the percentage of MPS students who passed the Minnesota Basic Standards Test in eighth-grade reading remained virtually unchanged last year, while the percentage of those passing the math portion of the test actually declined. Even more troubling, less than half of the ninth-grade students at MPS during the 1996-97 school term went on to graduate within four years. Fewer than one in three students of color graduated within four years.

Johnson and others in the district point to a raft of destabilizing social and political factors that markedly influence this poor performance. Students already enrolled in the Minneapolis schools during eighth grade have higher test scores and are more than twice as likely to graduate as students who transfer into the system. Because of immigration from Southeast Asia, Somalia, and Latin America, there are three times as many MPS students whose first language is not English as there were just ten years ago.

And then there are the effects of poverty, which create enormous obstacles to learning. For example, consider the instability caused partly by the lack of affordable housing: The graduation rate for students who change schools at least once during the course of an academic year is 13 percent; students who don't move graduate 86 percent of the time. And in the face of these challenges, changes in the state formula for funding education has resulted in the district's loss of tens of millions of dollars over the past two years.

Similarly daunting scenarios are being played out in urban school districts across the country, making the job of big-city superintendent an inherently beleaguered, Sisyphean task. This is why Johnson's tone-setting compassion and perseverance make her valuable. At once indomitable and understated, she spends a great deal of her time listening to people at an endless procession of meetings, forever jotting things down on an endless procession of notepads, still governed by the sort of high-minded faith in human potential that enticed most educators into the field in the first place. It's an approach that bolsters morale, compels consensus, and engenders fierce loyalty.

"Carol's amazing," veteran education writer and newly elected school board member Dennis Schapiro said to me last week. "People gravitate toward her. I just came from a start-of-the-year meeting with our principals, and they just seem to have so much trust and affection for her. It's that way when she meets with private-sector folks or parent groups, too.

"Part of that is her style," he continues. "You want a snap decision and a sound bite, you've got the wrong person. For bottom-line, cut-to-the-chase types, her style can be an acquired taste; it can be frustrating. Her way to getting to solutions is not a straight line, not always that direct."

I knew what he meant. Two days earlier, I had arrived at Johnson's office in the MPS headquarters on West Broadway Avenue for what was supposed to be a one-hour interview. Just back from a week's vacation--at least partly devoted to catching up on paperwork and reading the first two Harry Potter books--she was so busy that her staff had originally said they couldn't squeeze me in. But she recalled that my son was enrolled in the district and, pen and notepad ready, asked me to talk about how he was doing. Fifteen minutes later, the interview began, stretching for more than two hours and through at least one canceled appointment. When we finally stopped, I was barely halfway through my list of questions.

The transcript of the entire interview is available at The excerpt printed here is mostly devoted to a discussion of whether the school board's 1996 decision to abandon its decades-old policy of busing students to racially balanced schools and its return to a system in which more kids attend schools in their neighborhoods has created middle-class enclaves within the district. Although the new policy has been well received by Minneapolis families, partly because fewer students now face long bus rides every day, it has made individual school demographics more reflective of the racially and economically segregated housing patterns that exist in the city. And in the six years since Johnson's controversial predecessor, Peter Hutchinson, implemented the community-schools policy, critics have blamed the return to neighborhood schools for widening the achievement gap between impoverished students and their more affluent peers.

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