The majority of Minnesota students are below proficiency levels in math and just over half are proficient in reading — a sharp decline since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. And national culture wars are making their way into school board elections and meetings.
Taking over as the new head of the state’s education department will not be an easy task.
But Willie Jett, 58 says he’s ready. And he adds he always wanted to have a positive impact on the lives of young people.
“Access and opportunity for young people — that's kind of been a kind of a life calling,” Jett said. “Commissioner of education in the state of Minnesota, you're talking about 880,000 students, over 2200 sites… that outreach, and that impact across the state — that was one of the big draws.”
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Across the state, in all sorts of positions
Jett has plenty of experience.
Name a job necessary to keep Minnesota schools open and running and it’s more likely than not that Jett has held that position. He’s been a teacher, student, coach, principal, parent and superintendent.
And he’s done that work in districts throughout the state. Jett graduated from Osseo High School and has worked at Anoka-Hennepin, Minneapolis, Osseo, Hopkins and St. Paul. Most recently, he led St. Cloud Public schools for nearly a decade as superintendent.
“William Jett has experience at every single level of the education system… he understands the highest level of discussions on education down to the lowest level of education,” said Senator Steve Cwodzinski, a democrat from Eden Prairie and chair of the Senate policy committee.
He praised Jett during the discussion on the Senate floor ahead of Jett’s confirmation vote. Cwodzinski was among the 51 Minnesota lawmakers who voted to confirm Jett as education commissioner. Thirteen voted against him.
Jett will be the first Black man to lead Minnesota’s education department and the second person of color, after Brenda Cassellius.
He is stepping into his position backed by enthusiastic recommendations from former students and colleagues.
‘Willie’s leadership changed this community’
Paul Novotnoy remembers Jett from Champlin High School where Jett taught a health class and coached a basketball team.
“Any teacher can convey information and teach information, but the unique ones are able to truly connect with students, and I think that’s a gift of his - connecting with others. He makes you feel good every time you talk to him,” Novotnoy said.
Patrice Overton said Jett was there for her during a difficult time in high school when she and her brother were experiencing housing instability, trying to avoid foster care.
“He was the very first positive reinforcement from a male that I had ever received and boy, did it get me a long way — the values he taught me,” Overton said.
She described him as a champion of student success, committed to community and high standards.
Colleagues at other schools said Jett focused on how his decisions impacted individual kids, and that he is adept at forming strong working relationships.
St. Cloud School Board member Natalie Copeland says he transformed the district during his nine-year tenure.
“When Willie came into leadership in St. Cloud, St. Cloud was really struggling with equity and inclusion,” Copeland said. “We’re still struggling with that, but I can tell you Willie’s leadership changed this community.”
For Jett, approaching the inequalities in Minnesota’s education system is personal. Jett’s parents moved to Minnesota from the deep south. Growing up in Brooklyn Park, Jett says they were one of the only families of color in their community.
“That brought its own unique challenges,” Jett said. “But then, I'm a student that's in honors classes, or a student that's accelerating in activities, people don't always see the struggles that those students are enduring… So when you look at the continuum of a student... I've been that student throughout that entire continuum… I've lived it. “
Jett said he’s always worked to make his classrooms, schools and districts the best places to learn. Now, as commissioner, he wants to make Minnesota the best state to be a student.