Life in the City -An exit interview with a Southwest education stalwart

Catherine Shreves bucked up area parents' confidence in the system; as she leaves the school board, she talks about what comes next

When School Board Chair Catherine Shreves announced last spring that she'd step down after only one term in office, I groaned and felt a touch of panic.

I wasn't the only one. For days, my phone rang with worried parents, public officials and policy makers, all asking if there was anything we could do to change Shreves' mind.

There wasn't. And it's too bad. Because for my money, Catherine Shreves was one of the best board members I've ever seen. She was elected to the board in 1999; within a year, she was the chair. She was articulate, ethical, strategic and gutsy. She understood what a school board could and couldn't do. She was passionately committed to public schools that served everyone, from a new immigrant trying to learn English to a math-whiz trying to go to Harvard.

But there was something more. Because Shreves lives in the Southwest area (Fulton, to be specific), many parents clung to her presence on the Board as personal insurance that the district wouldn't return to the time when its attitude towards Southwest families seemed to border on outright hostility.

It all seems like ancient history now. But 10 years ago, many of us felt as if district officials singled out Southwest-area schools for the worst cuts in budget, programs, curriculum, building improvements and so on. When parents complained, we were dismissed as a bunch of rich whiners. A few board members said if middle-class families didn't like it, they could just leave. The district didn't seem to care.

Thankfully, those class-war days seem over. In truth, the attitude began changing before Shreves joined the board. The 1996 shift away from busing to community schools was a huge success in the Southwest area. So was the 1997 hiring of Carol Johnson as a much-respected superintendent of schools.

In the last couple of years, the district put new investments in the Southwest area, adding K-8 programs at Hale-Field and Lake Harriet, a Montessori magnet at Armatage, an expanded International Baccalaureate Program at Southwest High School, a whole new building for Burroughs, a new library at Kenny, and more.

All these changes seem to have paid off. On my street, the bus stop for Lake Harriet Community School had 22 kids on it last fall -- as opposed to four kids only a few years earlier. And I've watched as a steady trickle of parents transfer their kids from private to public school -- a direction that was practically unheard of six years ago.

But like a combat veteran who still gets spooked by the sound of helicopters, I still got jumpy about Shreves' departure. So I called her up and asked for an exit interview. Here are some excerpts of our conversation:

LM: I remember when the district seemed to have an "in" for schools in the Southwest quadrant and sent us the most punishing budgets cuts, the weakest principals, etc. Am I making this up? And is there a chance we'll go back to those days with you leaving the board?

CS: Perception can feel like reality. And Southwest residents really believed the district was saying, "Who cares? We can afford to lose you."

But that's absolutely not true any more. And no, we're not going back to those days. The district leaders and school board members understand there's this huge resurgence of interest, trust and confidence in Southwest schools, and they don't want to squander it.

In particular, Carol Johnson understands that if urban schools lose their middle-class base, they tend to become a welfare system. Which isn't good for anyone. Because middle-class families will push for higher standards in the district as a whole. Which helps everyone.

Public schools in Minneapolis should be schools for the public. And that means for the gifted, the challenged, the middle-class. And it also means for the poor or the students who are really struggling. We should serve them all. We don't have to pick one over the other. We should never do that.

LM: Are community schools here to stay? They've been a big success in the Southwest area. But they've also been criticized for increasing segregation. Should we go back to some form of busing? How do we resolve this?

CS: Well, for starters, we don't have the money to bus ourselves into an integrated world. And we've also learned it can't be done just by busing. When the school board adopted the community schools approach, the city council and the mayor said they were committed to integrating the city's housing. Because the real, long-term solution to integrating our schools is to integrate our housing. We need federal and state funding to help us do this.

LM: What was the best and worst part of being on the board?

CS: The worst part was cutting $25 million and then $30 million from the budget, laying off staff and having to close schools.

The best part was working with the board to switch its role to setting policy for the school system, instead of trying to micro-manage it. The school board's role is still a work in progress, but it was rewarding to be part of that change. The other best part was working with Carol Johnson, who is just an incredible superintendent: smart, analytical, warm, intuitive, totally committed to the welfare of children. Working with her is very inspiring.

LM: So why are you leaving?

CS: It's truly public service. If you want to be conscientious and respond to all the e-mails, phone-calls, letters as well as read your weekly board packets, keep in touch with your fellow board members and all the other groups you're involved with by virtue of being on the board… to do all these things can take up most of your time.

Being on the board was very rewarding. But I didn't think I could keep up that pace and feel good about it for four more years.

LM: Anyone who works with Carol Johnson insists we've got to keep her as superintendent. So how do we do that and keep the district going in the right direction, especially in its relationship to Southwest schools?

CS: The best way people can keep Carol Johnson is to give her good board members. So vote for good people and get good candidates from Southwest to run. It's also important to thank her and other board members when they do something you appreciate. We hear so many complaints that any time someone said "thank you" it was very gratifying.

Lynnell Mickelsen is a Linden Hills writer. She can be reached at LynnellM@hotmail.com or c/o the Southwest Journal.