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Johnson leaves lesson plan for Mpls. schools, but will it be used?

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Outgoing superintendent Bernadeia Johnson
Bernadeia Johnson's last day as Minneapolis superintendent is Saturday, Jan. 31, 2015. The next superintendent's biggest challenge will be the gap in graduation rates and test scores between white students and students of color.
Tim Post / MPR News

Bernadeia Johnson steps down Saturday as Minneapolis schools superintendent, leaving behind her detailed plan to close the achievement gap — and a debate over whether the plan should be scrapped.

As frustration grows over the performance of students of color in Minneapolis, school officials, parents and teachers are divided on whether the district should push ahead with Johnson's ideas, or toss them and start fresh.

The right path isn't clear. Johnson led the district for a decade — five years as superintendent and five as deputy superintendent. While she counts a drop in suspensions for African-American students and greater charter school collaboration among her successes, she has little to show in 10 years when it comes to raising test scores and graduation rates for students of color.

Last year, 33 percent of Native American students, 41 percent of Hispanic students and 43 percent of black students graduated on time, compared to 72 percent of white students.

Johnson believes Acceleration 2020, the plan she leaves behind, will erase achievement gaps within five years. Her supporters hope interim superintendent Michael Goar gets the job permanently to keep Johnson's plan on track. Critics, however, say the district needs new leaders, better ideas and a break with the past.

The next superintendent doesn't need to start a completely new approach to fixing the district's problems but they'll need to bring new ideas that deliver immediate results, said LaDonna Redmond, a Minneapolis schools parent who serves on a committee looking for answers to the district achievement gap.

"Time is a luxury that we don't have," she said. "We need school systems that work right now."

Acceleration 2020 is designed to give some teachers and schools more autonomy in how they teach. It also calls for a "rigorous scorecard" with 46 metrics focused on improving graduation rates and test scores. Five schools have applied for the chance to become autonomous schools.

While the plan promises more freedom at the school level, some teachers are skeptical.

"Just pushing forward in the wrong direction ... is not wise," said Robert Panning-Miller, a social studies teacher at Minneapolis South High School and a former head of the city's teachers union. "At some point ... you need to recognize this is not the direction to go."

Panning-Miller questions how autonomous they'll actually be, since the district will still require the schools to meet strict performance benchmarks for students to remain autonomous.

Data helps teachers understand how their students are doing, but relying too much on test results could stifle innovation in the classroom, Panning-Miller said, adding that the school board needs to consider candidates from across the nation.

The current president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers, Lynn Nordgren, has said her teachers have a good working relationship with interim superintendent Michael Goar. And Nordgren said teachers are looking forward to better collaboration with the district when a permanent superintendent is named.

Minneapolis School Board Chair Jenny Arneson says it's in Minneapolis' best interest to hire someone who will push Johnson's plan.

"We're really interested in not recreating a new idea, a new fundamental or foundational program every time somebody new comes," Arneson said.

Former Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak
Former Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak says the next superintendent should work to implement efforts that Bernadeia Johnson put in place.
Tim Post / MPR News

That approach could make Goar a favorite to replace Johnson. He says he'll seek the permanent job.

Former Minneapolis mayor R.T. Rybak wants Goar to get the job. Now executive director of Generation Next, a group that's working with the Minneapolis and St. Paul districts on ways to close the achievement gap, Rybak says there's value in promoting Goar and continuing the efforts in place.

Others say a change in leadership is the perfect time to try something, or someone, new.

One of the district's strongest critics, Chaska-based Better Ed, has mailed postcards to parents pointing to the district's low graduation rates. It's even put that message on a billboard across the street from district headquarters.

The group's leader, Devon Foley, even thinks state officials should consider breaking up the district.

"Does the state continue just to fund something that seems to be unable to meet the challenges of its situation? Or is it time to listen to folks who are in the district as well as outside who are saying there are better ways that we could do this?" asked Foley, whose group supports the school choice movement.

Foley says lawmakers should set up educational savings accounts so parents can send their children to private schools if they choose.

The district, however, has been hurt for years by parents choosing charter schools — publicly funded schools that run independently of the school system. That's driven down the district's enrollment and the state money that follows each child.

The district must show it can succeed with all students, said Minneapolis school board member Tracine Asberry.

"We can't ignore the facts that everyone, every family and every child is not experiencing Minneapolis Public Schools the way that we want them to and we want to be honest about that."

Asberry is optimistic the data-driven Acceleration 2020 effort will provide struggling students with intense help and will gain traction in coming years.

Elizabeth Christensen, who has three children at Barton Open School in south Minneapolis, hopes the next superintendent listens to parents from across the district.

"We want to be heard, we want to collaborate, we want to work together," she said. "We want to feel that our kids are always getting what they deserve, what neighborhood they live in, what community they belong to."