The Gospel According to Carol Johnson

Minneapolis's top teacher keeps the faith in trying times

Johnson: Our job is making sure that that capacity happens at Bethune.

CP: I am just looking at the reality of the district. And I will grant you the success of the Lyndales and the Lincolns. But that sort of progress is already going to have had to happen before middle-class kids go there.

Johnson: It isn't necessarily white families. There are plenty of black families who are that way. I never met a parent who didn't care about their kids academically. I really haven't. But I have met parents who are better able to advocate than other parents.


CP: I have met parents who don't care and you have, too. It is like the guy who says he loves his wife and still beats her. There are parents who don't care about their kids as much as other parents. And those kids get hurt. And to the extent that the district can help them and give them added resources, they do. But you still need a critical mass of enthusiasm for the district among the most involved families. And one of the ways that happens is by allowing them the freedom to create that for their kids.

Johnson: I believe what keeps people in the district is either that the children have had an academically positive existence or that when kids have special-education needs or special needs they feel the district is responsive to whatever their child needs. And by the way, I feel that is true of both the children at the high end and the low end. Even families where they know their child has a special learning difficulty, if they think the teachers are working to help their child overcome that barrier or difficulty, then they will believe in the system and work closely with it.

I think what happens in some families is that they access information. In some neighborhoods they talk to each other over the fence, or it might be at church or at Lunds or wherever they might find themselves. They ask questions about the schools. And there is a lot of informal talk about the schools that happens in neighborhoods that frames how people think about the schools, and it is based on personal experience. And so I think that a lot of decisions people make about the schools have to do with their own understanding about their child and their child's particular needs, as well as an understanding about what the school can offer. To the extent that those two conditions are met by us, people choose us.

Now I will also say that people choose private schools for a whole variety of reasons that have to do sometimes with religion or with their financial wherewithal or where they themselves went to school. And so in some cases no matter how good a job I do or how well we describe Southwest's IB program or South's liberal arts, there will be people who choose private schools, regardless of whether or not they can get into the public school of their choice.

CP: If you have a great principal, nine times out of ten they don't stay at that same school; they get moved somewhere else. You put topnotch principals in places where they are most needed.

Johnson: Yes, but I would say that we put top principals in some of our best schools as well. The goal here again is not to have some good principals and not others, some good schools and not others, but to have great schools, great principals, and great teachers.


CP: Obviously. And that's a perfect world. But there are places with durably good reputations within the district.

Johnson: Yes.


CP: And there are places with fluctuating and often not good reputations within the district.

Johnson: And we are working to improve them.


CP: I understand. I would argue that the places that have durably good reputations become a self-fulfilling prophecy because the people who talk at Lunds and over their back fences know that is where they want their kids to be. There are still times when you have to cater to the people who know the system, don't you?

Johnson: I think most parents are operating from a vantage point of just trying to do the best for their kid. And I don't think we should begrudge parents doing that. We should want them to constantly challenge us to do better than we are. And one of the ways we find out how well we are doing is related to parent demand. Because it is not just that we look at test scores. We also look to see how many choice cards did parents fill out to go here? And we have the opportunity to ask them what troubled them or pleased them about this choice.

I always hesitate to use a real-life school example. I am going to use this one, and hopefully there will be a way for you to put it in context without either being offensive to parents or scaring people, neither of which I would want to see happen. Windom Open School is located in southwest Minneapolis. It has a good principal and a strong group of teachers. Something like 35 to 40 percent of the student population is Latino, and they are learning English. And then you have families who live in southwest Minneapolis, and if they don't get into Barton, Windom might be the natural next choice. I think the real challenge here is meeting the needs of families who are learning English for the very first time, but also doing a good job for families sending their kids who are maybe reading before they come to kindergarten.

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