Plain-spoken Cleveland educator says public education is the civil rights struggle of the new millennium
On June 14, the Minneapolis Board of Education voted 7-0 to hire Thandiwe Peebles as its new school superintendent. Peebles will replace Interim Superintendent David Jennings, who has held the job since September, when Carol Johnson left for the superintendent's post in Memphis.
Pending contract negotiations, Peebles is expected to start work in late June or July.
Peebles is currently regional superintendent of the Cleveland Municipal School District and has almost 40 years of experience. Her name, pronounced Tohn-de-way, means "beloved one" in Xhosa, an African language.
The 61-year-old educator was born in Baltimore but grew up in Queens, N.Y. She impressed not only the School Board, but was also the first choice of many school district employees and Minneapolis Teacher Federation President Louise Sundin.
Peebles beat out two other finalists, Dr. Cheryl L. King, chief academic officer for the Providence Public Schools and Joseph Olchefske, a Minnesota native and former superintendent of the Seattle Public Schools.
Conventional wisdom surrounding the superintendent search suggested that the Olchefske, a white male, did not stand a chance against the two black women candidates at a time when the racial make-up of the schools is about 43 percent black.
Sharon Henry-Blythe, the School Board's only black member, failed to get the DFL endorsement, though she says she will continue her campaign.
However, race was not the reason for Peebles' selection, Board members said. Peebles showed a firm grasp of the issues and spoke passionately about public education as the great civil rights battle of the new millennium, which clearly moved the crowd that attended her 75-minute public presentation on June 9.
In making its decision, the board also considered 72 pages of opinions, submitted over the Internet by Minneapolis parents, students and employees.
Peebles comes to the job at a critical time for a district that faces a fourth straight year of budget cuts and declining enrollment. The board plans to close schools for the 2005-06 school year, a decision in which Peebles will now be intimately involved.
According to Board Member Dennis Schapiro, nothing closes the achievement gap better than an entire community gathered around the needs of kids.
"When I heard Ms. Peebles talk about her commitment to early childhood education and I heard her describe the way she worked through her church to deal with housing issues in Cleveland, when she talked about a school home literacy program that was going to get kids to school prepared, that meant more to me than a two or three point bump in tests scores," Schapiro said.
He added that he made a cold call to a Cleveland principal to get an insider's view of Peebles and liked what he heard. "We have found someone of great character. If we open our arms to her, she will open our hearts," Schapiro said.
Sundin also made a call. Hers was to the president of the Cleveland teacher's union. "Peebles can be a little rough around the edges when it comes to people skills," Sundin said. "But she knows teaching and learning very well. She gets into schools and works hand-in-glove with principals and knows how to make them educational leaders."
Board Member Judy Farmer echoed the praise. "The nice thing about what we heard and what we saw is that she can be very gracious and charming, but she does not suffer fools lightly nor does she have infinite patience. She wants results."
Peebles did her undergraduate work at St. John's University in Queens. She earned a master's degree in education at New York's Hunter College and will receive a doctorate in educational administration from Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fl.
Her career began as an elementary school teacher in Harlem and advanced through a series of administrative positions including principal with the New York City Board of Education. She was later recruited to work in the Cleveland Municipal Schools.
She made a name for herself there by implementing a schoolwide assessment program that improved test scores at 15 out of 17 underachieving schools in Cleveland, she developed a principal's leadership professional development program to increase principals' focus on data analysis to help in decision-making. She also published a monthly homework book in all testing grades to increase parental awareness and involvement in their children's learning.
Peebles was runner-up for the Charleston, S.C. superintendent's job late last year.
Board member Audrey Johnson was the Board's liaison with the search firm of Hamilton, Rabinovitz & Alschuler, who received $100,000 for their work. Johnson said she was pleased the way the process panned out.
"A long, drawn-out process is a very accident-prone," Johnson said. "If you have candidates twisting in the wind for several weeks before you make up your mind, there is a very good chance that the outcome won't please anybody."