It's rare to find minorities leading school districts in greater Minnesota. But that's beginning to change as school boards look to broader pools of applicants and try to serve the needs of increasingly more diverse student populations.
This summer, three minority superintendents will start jobs in the Duluth, Rochester and St. Louis County school districts.
The change is perhaps most significant in Duluth, where school board members have used the words "historic" and "progressive" to describe their choice for the district's next leader.
In a few weeks, I.V. Foster will become the city's first African-American superintendent. Foster, superintendent of the Prairie-Hills School District in suburban Chicago, wants to take a few months to familiarized himself with issues affecting the district.
Foster, 52, will lead a district of nearly 9,000 students, about 18 percent of whom are minorities. Already he sees areas that need improvement: increasing student performance, increasing the graduation rate, reducing the drop out rates and generating new revenues.
He believes hiring more minority teachers and administrators will help the district's increasingly diverse student population.
Foster said his experience working with diverse students in the Chicago area has best prepared him for this new job. At the Prairie Hills district, more than 85 percent of the students are minorities.
He's made closing Duluth's achievement gap -- the difference between how well white students perform on standardized tests and in the classroom compared to students of color -- a key area of focus.
"I hope people will look at my intelligence, my ability, my skill as being an effective CEO or leader of an organization, as opposed to looking at the color of my skin and making some determinations as to whether or not I will be, or can be, effective or not," Foster said.
Foster is one of three minority superintendents in greater Minnesota coming into their new positions this summer. To the north, Teresa Strong will be the first woman and first American Indian to lead the St. Louis County Schools district. Geographically, it's the largest district in the state and has about 2,200 students. Strong did not return calls for comment.
In Rochester, the school board chose Michael Munoz to serve as that district's first Latino superintendent. He replaces the district's first black superintendent, Romain Dallemand, who left earlier this year to lead a district in Georgia.
Munoz, 54, believes it's important for districts to hire teachers and administrators who reflect the diversity of the student population. In Rochester, students of color make up about 30 percent of the district.
Munoz comes to Rochester from the Des Moines Public School District, where he worked as chief academic officer. He's also been a principal, teacher and coach at districts in Iowa and Nebraska.
"I think that I could serve as a role model for them that they can see 'Yes, here's somebody that looks like me, can be successful, and is successful, and so can I,' " he said. "So if it provides a role model for students, I think it's great."
Munoz is of Mexican and Spanish descent. He was born in Nebraska and has worked in districts around the Midwest.
Like Duluth's Foster, Munoz knows schools are often the place where ethnic and racial tensions emerge. In recent years, cultural misunderstandings have lead to high-profile fights in schools in Rochester, Owatonna, and St. Cloud.
Munoz hopes his own background will make it easier for him to connect with the community, particularly with parents of diverse students.
"We can't always rely on our traditional ways of engaging and interacting with parents," he said. "You know, we always have parent-teacher conferences and expect parents to come to us. But I think sometimes some of our parents, just are unable to come to our school. So we have to reach out to them."
Attracting minority teachers and administrators to districts in greater Minnesota is a challenge, said Jeff Olson, board president of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.
Colleges and universities in Minnesota that prepare teachers are working hard to actively recruit a wide-variety of students of color and minority and disadvantaged backgrounds, said Olson, superintendent of the St. Peter school district.
"I think that will increase the pool of administrators down the road," he said. "Unfortunately, it's probably going to take a while ... but it's going to be a good thing when it happens."
Another challenge for school districts is convincing minority teachers and administrators to move to smaller communities in greater Minnesota.
But Olson believes that too will evolve as minority communities outside the Twin Cities metro area continue to grow.