The Gospel According to Carol Johnson

Minneapolis's top teacher keeps the faith in trying times

And I think the challenge for an elementary teacher in that building is to have these very different populations of students and try and meet that diverse range and still be responsive and culturally sensitive. I think sometimes parents of our English-speaking population have been worried that their kids might not get what they need. Not because they resent in any way the Latino families getting what they need, but they are worried because resources are limited and so much of the resources must go to the students who need support in learning English that it may mean that the accelerating and enriching experiences they want for their children may be compromised. I think the district has a special challenge to constantly work toward doing both and meeting the needs of those kids with such different experiences.

 

CP: Learning progressions are also disparate. And that's the challenge.

Johnson: Right. Because there are kids who are very bright and what would be a mistake is to allow the fact that they don't speak English to keep them out of the IB program. How do you make sure that they get the content knowledge? It would be like if any one of us went to Germany and we didn't speak German but we knew enough to pass the ninth-grade tests, content-wise but not language- wise. And that is a piece that needs to be accommodated.

 

CP: And another piece that needs to be accommodated is the kid who is already very bright and already knows English. How do you keep that kid interested?

Johnson: That's right. Because if you can't keep that kid interested, parents will sense there is not a plan for them in that school. And when parents believe there isn't a learning agenda for their child, they will try and find a place where there is one. Let me suggest that our job is to ensure that all of the kids learn, not just the disadvantaged kids. The kids who are more advantaged shouldn't be made to feel guilty or not have a chance to progress because somehow, not due to their own making, they were raised in a family that gave them advantages and was able to do more for them.

 

CP: To what extent do the Minneapolis Public Schools provide opportunities for both the front runners and the slow runners? And when it doesn't do it well, where does it err?

Johnson: I think because we are using one accountability standard across all schools, and we're trying to measure growth based on where kids enter, that we have some accountability systems in place that help us to do a better job, rather than just looking at test scores. We have been working on a corrective action plan with the Minneapolis Department of Civil Rights to do a better job of referring American Indian students into gifted-and-talented programs. Because when they did a review of our program they felt that we under-identified and underserved American Indians in that program. We are now looking at ways to further identify kids who might potentially be gifted but don't show up in the traditional methodologies we use.

The way we are doing our small communities in our high school reform has the potential for ratcheting up the success for more students to stay in school, but also doesn't destroy the programs that have been successful with the learners who have been with us for a while.

Where do I think we haven't gotten there yet? I think that one of the resources that we haven't tapped adequately is the peer community, the culture of the students themselves. When you go to the citywide student government meetings, what you are struck by is the high range of competent leadership from students of color among the participants. For the last several years, the presidents and leaders of our citywide student government have come from the African-American community. And yet what we haven't done well is tap into those kids to help us build bridges. They know the kids who are not doing well in school, and they also have a better capacity to reach back and pull those kids with them than adults do. I think we haven't actually understood that you really have to create a cultural community around high achievement, and that comes from within the community itself.

In the past we had only put money into remedial summer school, and about two or three years ago I said, "This is ridiculous; we are going to put money into enrichment summer school and then we are going to let teachers apply and they can design really creative, high-end enrichment activities for kids." And the last three summers we have had really good participation. I visited North Star Elementary and they had first-grade teachers with first-grade students--and this a school with over 90 percent kids in poverty, a lot of kids of color--but they had kids writing their own books and illustrating them. And then we had teachers at other schools that had more affluent kids doing technology, doing science experiments and other things. So I think there is a way, if you consciously decide that you are not going to be serving just one population.

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