Lyndale’s “reluctant principal”

Ossie Brooks-James retiring after 35 years with Minneapolis Public Schools

LYNDALE — Ossie Brooks-James’ official retirement date is sometime in early January — she’s not sure exactly when — but Friday is her last day at Lyndale Community School, where she has been principal since 1997.

Brooks-James spent her entire 35-year education career with Minneapolis Public Schools, beginning in1977 as a speech-language pathologist. She called herself a “reluctant principal,” someone who spent four years at three different schools interning as an assistant principal before finally accepting a mid-year posting at Lyndale.

Brooks-James learned to embrace the job, and the community embraced her.

The school is a high performer. It ranks in the top 25 percent of district schools, despite demographics that would indicate otherwise. Three-quarters of Lyndale students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and nearly half are English-language learners.

When school attendance boundaries shifted several years ago, neighborhood families who once were reluctant to consider the school gave it a shot. Some even opted in early, and the transition, by most accounts, has been a smooth one.

Brooks-James credits her success not to her abilities as a manager of personnel or finances, but as an instructional leader, a role all district principals are now supposed to play in their schools. In an era when controversial high-stakes tests determined whether schools made the grade or failed, she was an early adopter or regular assessments to keep tabs on student performance.

Brooks-James has often been a reluctant interviewee, but she sat down with the Southwest Journal at the start of her second-to-last school day to look back on her career.

Southwest Journal: Why are you retiring now?

Brooks James: I’m going on to another phase in my life. My daughter has an opportunity to do something, and I want to be supportive of her.

So, it’s really for family, personal reasons. Those politicians always say that they are resigning to spend more time with their family. I really am. I’m going to be spending more time with my family.

You mentioned your daughter. Are there grandchildren involved?

Yes, one, so I’m going to be the caretaker for her part of the time, which will be a whole different role for me. Well, not too much unlike the one I’m in, but in a different manner. 

You spent almost 20 years as a speech-language pathologist. Tell me more about the transition to principal.

Well, I don’t know. It wasn’t any kind of epiphany or anything like that. … But, you know, I looked at my skills and I listened to some friends of mine, and made an assessment of what I thought I could do, my assets, [and] thought surely I could learn to do something different.

I knew a lot about language. I thought I did. I still do, because that was my expertise and my forte. So, I thought it would be an easy transition, because I saw myself making a greater impact on a greater number of children. And I just felt that my skills could be used at a different level, my knowledge base could be used at a different level. …

And, interestingly enough, it has stood me in good stead, because almost immediately when I became an intern [principal], the state started their … testing. The AYP [Adequate Yearly Progress] thing came out, [as a result of the federal] No Child Left Behind [law].

I was just able to use my skills about language and vocabulary, comprehension. … 

Tell me what you learned. I’m sure it’s a lot, but what are some of the important lessons over 12 years as principal of this school?

I learned — and this is not necessarily in a hierarchy of importance — but I learned the value of good teaching, good instruction. There’s no substitute for a competent teacher. I don’t care what you do. A competent teacher will make up for so many things that are not working for you. There’s no substitute for that.

I learned the value of being a learner. You have to be open to new ideas and open to learning and thinking about things in a different way. I learned that.

So, if you stagnate, or you think that there is only one way, and you’re not open to new ideas, you can’t grow. I learned that.

I learned that all knowledge at some point converges. 

Tell me what you mean by that.

Well, for the little children … there are no silos of information. There are some interconnections between all knowledge, and the more children are able to make that connection, and the more you are able to show them that connection, the more they are likely to learn. That’s how they increase their knowledge base.

I learned the value of good parenting. And while I may have known that all along — and everyone does know it — I saw, up close and personal, how it impacts children and their educational success. … And it need not be a parent. It may be someone else. …

And I think, more than anything else, the success of this school — whatever success that the children have experienced in this school — has to do with the kinds of relationships that you had with people. 

I want to ask you a little bit more about that. You must know something about building relationships because a few years back when the open area closed, you had an influx of new families, new parents, into your school.

… I value those parents. That’s the first thing. I value them. I think they bring, of course, value to the school.

Now, the interesting thing about that is that, before those parents came with that Changing School Options, I had a set of parents here then. And I dare say they will tell you the same thing, because I had the same relationship with them as I had with these new parents, with these parents who live west of here. … 

Somehow all of these lessons translated into academic success for this school. And I want to ask you about this because Lyndale has been one of these schools where you look at the demographics, particularly the proportion of your students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, and you would make an assumption that this school would not be doing as well as it is. In the last report to the School Board, you were in the top 25 percent, Lyndale. How did you do that?

Well, I didn’t do it alone. You have to have those competent teachers. You have to have teachers who are with you and are with you in [the sense that] their vision is the same as yours.

The principal who was here before me had set up some systems in place, and what I did was I guess I expanded the systems. …

It was something called curriculum-based measurement. And, yes, there are limitations to that assessment, that kind of assessment tool, but there are limitations to all assessment tools.

The district still uses curriculum-based measurement, and they have used it, but in this building I had my curriculum resource person do that every three months. In this building, this whole building, we started that, so that every three months, the teachers knew [where their students were at academically], even when they said they didn’t have time to test. It became public knowledge, what was happening. Everything was public. It became transparent.

I think that what made it more than anything else: It created some transparency in the building, so that you didn’t go in your classroom in September and come out in June and no one ever knew what happened between September and June. … 

What are you going to miss about this job?

The children. …

I’m going to miss all the embellishments in the wild stories. I’m going to miss the kids. I’m really going to miss the interactions you have daily with those children. That’s what I’m going to miss.

I’m going to miss hearing their voices. I’m going to miss going in their classrooms and watching them as they’re learning, as they’re talking, as they’re growing.

Seeing the changes in them from Hi-Five to fifth grade, I’m going to miss that.

When you think about children, when I see them now, children who were here in Hi-Five and they’re now in high school, and this boy’s shoulders are out here and he’s like a big fullback or whatever, you think, “Oh my god, was he ever in those little chairs? He’s huge. And he’s an adult. And he’s productive.”

That’s what I’m going to miss. Seeing all those kids. Those relationships with those little people, that’s what I’ll miss.