The Gospel According to Carol Johnson

Minneapolis's top teacher keeps the faith in trying times

Johnson: But don't you think we should be designing a system that creates opportunity? What we want for the best and the brightest of our kids is what we must want for all of our kids.

 

CP: I agree with that sentiment and I think a lot of middle-class parents do, too. And they will advocate for the schools system-wide. But they will put their kid where they need their kid to be.

Johnson: That is a little bit different. Every parent has a responsibility to advocate for their child, to get the best education possible. That is part of their job. And in doing so, some of the parents who advocate strongly can be advocating for other people's children as well, because they ratchet up the performance expectations that we as parents have. And it can improve for all children. The danger that you are outlining is that there is the potential for parents to advocate only for their own children, and in doing so threaten the district that if the district doesn't respond to their child only, as opposed to the larger community of learners, that they will go somewhere else.

 

CP: I don't think it's that nefarious or that planned. I think the district needs involved parents to advocate for them. And they are valuable people.

Johnson: Absolutely.

 

CP: And in order to keep those people around, the district allows a situation where these parents can send their kids to school where they want to. If you started to limit their choices on the basis of poor kids or kids without parent advocates getting in, if we wanted to say, "Let's make it so these kids get that same level of leverage..."

Johnson: I think our choice model is designed to give greater opportunities than we've had in the past to have all kids get to our most choice sites. We've increased the number of vacancies at Southwest High School and been able to greatly diversify our opportunities for students to participate in the international baccalaureate program both at Patrick Henry and at Southwest. We also, through the NAACP settlement, have certain targeted areas where families in those areas can get some priority for some of our schools that have less concentration of poverty and race.

A long time ago, we assigned space based solely upon where a kid lived. And because the housing stock in Minneapolis tends to be segregated by income, what that meant is that certain kids were attending schools in very isolated environments. Then we went to assigning students based on some number on how we wanted to create [racial] balance, and that was a state mandate, and we ended up with court-ordered busing and then a state guideline. What we have now, I think, is more open and more useful than either of those two. We are at a stage where we have choice. Some families choose to stay in neighborhood schools closest to their home and some choose to take advantage of our magnet schools and other outer-district choice opportunities.

I am not saying we have reached equality of outcome, because it is clear we have not. Otherwise, our performance rates for African-American students and American Indian students in particular would be better; our dropout rates would look different. And they don't yet.

 

CP: But can we talk straight about how difficult it is to balance creating situations where people can stay in a school district instead of leaving, and the needs of bringing up the underachieving areas?

Johnson: We have families in our community who have been in our schools for a number of years. And they want their kids to do well academically, graduate from high school, and get into the best colleges and universities in the country. And our job is to make sure that that is possible. But our job is also to take the student who hasn't been with us for a long time, who may not speak English very well, and to equally try and accelerate them at a rate that also gets them into college. When I go over to the graduation ceremony at Roosevelt High School for the medical magnet [here Johnson's voice cracks with emotion], it is filled with students of color who have had not only classroom experiences, but internships and shadowing opportunities in the healthcare community so that they can think about going into the healthcare field, and not just as doctors and nurses but as technicians and paramedics and public-health administrators. They get to see the range of opportunity.

And I think that is both the beauty and the complexity of public education. That is, we take everybody who comes and are able to design a system that uniquely tailors them a pathway to high achievement. It is just that the pathway to getting there may require some variation because people come with different experiences as they enter. And so part of the work is trying to diagnose their needs and then try and map out a strategy. In order for us to be an effective public school system I don't think we can have an academic program that caters to either one group or the other. If we say we are a public institution that is going to accept all who come, regardless of race or family circumstance or handicap conditions, nationalization, whether they came here yesterday or speak English or not, then we have to design systems that allow us to take into account that we have different needs out there but still have high expectations for all the kids. I can't just throw a kid who is not English-speaking into a room and say, "I hope you can figure out this calculus."

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