The Gospel According to Carol Johnson

Minneapolis's top teacher keeps the faith in trying times

In general terms, the current system is designed to give students and their parents a choice between a guaranteed slot in a school in their neighborhood and a chance at a space in one of the district's popular magnet schools. Predictably, however, middle-class parents are better able to navigate the bureaucratic workings of the district to increase the chances that their child will land one of the more coveted spots. In 1997, the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP and a number of parents sued the district, charging that the policy failed to ensure their children an adequate education. A settlement forged in early 2000 increased the chances that kids from impoverished neighborhoods could attend the school of their choice, but few families have taken advantage of the arrangement.

Although the length and tenor of the interview were consistent with the way Johnson's friends describe her style, I wondered if her interest in my son was at least partly designed to curry favor with a journalist, and if her need to provide a broader context and add more nuance to many of her answers was a way to partially evade more directly unpleasant conclusions. It was hard to maintain those suspicions, however, as I saw tears occasionally well in her eyes, both out of joy when she spoke of the potential of children and of the opportunities the district was creating for them and out of frustration for the ways in which those opportunities were being denied.

 

CP: Middle-class parents and kids get a good education from the Minneapolis Public Schools for the most part. But there's a huge disparity, often driven by factors of race and class. It's been the pattern of urban school systems to allow enclaves, to keep a middle class in the system to advocate for the system. Because if the schools lose the middle-class advocates, they run the risk of white flight, lowered expectations, and low performance. To what extent are middle-class enclaves a necessary evil?

Johnson: I am not sure what you mean when you say enclaves.

 

CP: Places where good learning is ensured.

Johnson: I think that our job here is to improve and make all of our students better. Our whole accountability system is set up to measure not just one test score but to look at a range of indicators that tell us how a student is doing. What we know today is that you can go into schools that have very high numbers of students with poverty, and if you look at the continuously enrolled students within that school, you can see high levels of performance. And the reason is because we have a combination of stable staff, students coming to school every day, and really good instruction. Schools like Lincoln and Lyndale and Bancroft, which, despite the fact that they have higher percentages of poverty than other schools, are showing students with more than a year's growth from a year's instruction. To me, that is really the evidence of success.

Minneapolis has more choice than any other school district in the state. Students can go to schools closer to home. They can go to one of our magnets. We have schools at the high school level like the Perpich Center for the Arts or the Mall of America high school that we partner with, as well as 30 other alternative schools for students at the secondary level, as well as postsecondary enrollment and charter schools. So I think families do have a large range of choice of where they want to send their kids.

What we are striving for is creating a system where schools have high expectations for all kids. Some kids are entering schools and they are learning English for the first time. Their parents have high expectations for them to perform well, but that expectation may revolve around their English acquisition. It depends on how you define excellence. If I take a student who arrives from another country in third grade, and by fourth grade I have them speaking English and able to compute and do some initial writing, I may define that as excellence, given where they started. But another student who has been with me all that time, they have to perform at a higher level to get to that place.

 

CP: But the reality of the system--

Johnson: The reality of the system is, we have some schools that have students with high mobility rates, and some schools that have fewer kids with free and reduced-price lunches. Parents choose on January 15th where they want their kids to go. The most involved parents, probably the better-educated parents, are more involved in our choice system. We have worked really hard to try and get information out there to a broader range of families. Next Saturday we'll be at the Urban League family day and have tables up with information about Early Childhood Family Education and how to register students for school. We'll be advertising in the neighborhood newspapers about how if you haven't registered yet here is what you need to do.

 

CP: Schools produce certain test scores, certain dropout rates. If in fact people's participation in the system occurred in equal numbers and if in fact there was a totally evenhanded approach--and I am not saying the district isn't evenhanded--there is still a danger of middle-class people leaving the system if they don't have their setup. If they couldn't work the system to their preference, they could vote with their feet and go to a different system or a private school.

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