Switching gears

An interview with Minneapolis Public Schools’ Craig Vana

Earlier this fall, Craig Vana was named to a new position in Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) leading emergency management and crisis response planning.

Vana’s reassignment ended his 18-month tenure as associate superintendent for Area C, which includes all Southwest-area public schools. Several weeks after a replacement was named, Vana agreed to reflect on the experience in a question-and-answer session.

The interview was conducted Oct. 24. The previous evening, the Minneapolis School Board discussed a high school reform proposal that, if adopted, would usher in sweeping reforms of the city’s high schools.

Highlights of the interview follow.

SWJ: In your former role as associate superintendent for Area C, you were also assigned to lead the high school reform process. How has the work you did then influenced the new model for high schools proposed by Chief Academic Officer Bernadiea Johnson and Associate Superintendent Brenda Cassellius?

Vana: We’re looking at all the positive pieces that worked with the small learning communities … for instance, the whole piece on [high school] personalization and AVID.

[Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID, is an elective course designed to prepare high school students for

We’ve made progress in some of those areas, but we’re not satisfied with where our schools are at.

That’s what the new design piece is all about, taking all the good things that we’ve done and then designing or evolving the high schools, as Dr. Cassellius would say, evolving those high schools so that they become even better.

SWJ: In your last year as head of Area C, you heard from a number of parents frustrated about the state of the district’s high schools, especially after it was decided to delay expansion of International Baccalaureate into Washburn High School. How do you reassure parents — especially parents of 8th graders — their children will have fair access to rigorous programs as the district embarks on a major high school reform project?

Vana: I think one of the main focuses as you redesign high schools … is to make sure all students are getting access to the high-quality programs.

We’re going to a choice process that’s going to allow everyone … to really apply to the program they want to be in. I think that parents are going to find out that this choice process is going to work pretty well.

It’s not as if these programs [like International Baccalaureate] have gone away. In the future, they might even expand or even have more access to some of those programs.

SWJ: The district recently appointed new associate superintendents for all three of the city’s areas. It also made communication with parents an explicit part of their job description.

How will this improve the sometimes rocky relationship between parents and district administration? How important are clear lines of communication in the district?

Vana: The parent area councils … have been very good.

I think some very controversial topics or concerns come up at those, which is exactly where they should come up. [Associate superintendents attend the monthly council meetings and respond to parents’ questions.]

Also, DPAC … allows parents more of an avenue to both support the district and, at the same time, bring to the district’s attention concerns that they have, where they think things need to improve. [The District Parent Advisory Council, or DPAC, is a group of parent representatives that meets regularly with district administration.]

I think that communication is always an issue in a large organization, so it’s something we need to continually work on. When your main focus is education and academic performance, you sometimes forget you also have to communicate what you’re doing, and we’re working on that.

SWJ: What accomplishment as associate superintendent of Area C are you most proud of?

Vana: I enjoyed working with our area parents in developing our area council. I think it’s been functioning very well.

We have a great group of parents who are very interested in their child’s education and the success of their children, and also the success of our schools and all of our children.

Most of all, I think I’ve had a positive presence in schools. I’ve worked hard with our principals and our parents, and I can honestly say I’m very familiar with Southwest-area schools because I’ve been in those schools [and] I know what’s going on.

The parents of Area C, and rightfully so, are very proud of their schools, and that’s why they fight so hard for them. I think that’s a really positive thing about being able to work in that area, is the real passion that those parents — and the community as a whole — have for those schools.