Interim Superintendent Michael Goar takes over at Minneapolis Public Schools in a time of significant change.
Following a path set by former Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson’s SHIFT initiative and Acceleration 2020, the five-year strategic plan adopted in September by the School Board, Goar is guiding a transformation in the relationship between the district’s central office and its schools. Headquarters will shrink so that more resources can flow directly to schools — schools that are promised greater autonomy in exchange for academic results.
Goar is an experienced education executive, having worked for two Superintendent Johnsons: Bernadeia, here in Minneapolis, and Carol, in Memphis and Boston. During his first week on the job, he spoke about his new role and his plans for the final four months of the school year.
(An abbreviated version of this Q-and-A appears in the print edition of the Feb. 12–25 Southwest Journal.)
Southwest Journal: Talk about how you approach the role of interim superintendent. Do you view yourself as a caretaker for the district, or is this a chance to enact your own vision for the district?
Goar: I don’t see myself as a caretaker, meaning maintaining, treading water, if that’s how we want to define it.
I rather see myself as a superintendent with a clear vision and goals and objectives that we need to achieve. And I think that the best way for me to honor the work of Bernadeia Johnson, and my mentor and friend as well, is to make sure that her vision, which is the strategic plan we have enacted and the board approved in terms of the next five years, we have to make sure that work is progressing, going forward. …
We have four more months of school that we have to finish really strong if we really want to see strong academic gains for the upcoming year. I’m very focused on doing that, focused on ensuring whatever we’re working on is not add-on or different than our plan that the board has approved. Rather, it is about being much more narrow and deep and creating an opportunity for a nimble and innovative organization.
I want to push our organization to a greater level of a sense of urgency. I know superintendent Johnson had a level of urgency, but I want to push it even further to really accelerate our teaching and learning that is happening in Minneapolis Public Schools.
You’re talking about a greater sense of urgency and a need over the rest of the course of the school year to see some strong academic growth. Do you have some specific strategies?
SHIFT is all about kind of reframing the work of the (district headquarters at) Davis Center, and I think that one of the things we have noticed is Davis Center should exist to serve the schools. It is a service aspect of what we’re doing, not compliance, and we sometimes forget roles and responsibilities. …
How do we begin, then, to right-size Davis Center, identify significant resources and then make those resources available for schools? …
Three specific areas that we are really focusing on in terms of getting resources and ensuring schools have adequate resources:
One is we want to make sure schools have additional time, especially high schools and middle schools. Schools, then, will have the opportunity to use the time as they see fit.
Some schools are very interested in adding a seventh period because they are in the process of obtaining IB or they are an IB school and they need to have a seven-period day. Other schools may use those additional resources … for remedial intervention or they might create some other program for credit recovery or some other aspect of their mission or what students need. …
The second is lowering class size. As you know, we spent quite a bit of money last year, or this year, lowering class size for high-priority schools, but there are non-high-priority schools that are suffering from, I think, the large class size that we need to address. That also gets to the working conditions for our teachers but, more fundamentally, for our students. …
The third part of it is really focusing on professional development for our teachers, giving schools time and money to really look at: What are the things we can do to improve instruction? …
Along with that, there are a few things I think we really need to do a better job.
I’m a strong advocate for re-engaging our parents and our community. I think that sometimes as a district that has been a significant challenge for us. I think we need to do a better job to build trust, that parents feel like they have an opportunity to connect with the district in a meaningful way.
So, we need to do a different way of engaging with our parents. That work is going to be launched through the work of our Community Engagement Office. I’m really focused on that, in terms of how we’re going to do that.
Along with that, in terms of key priorities, are community partnership schools. Right now we have four community partnership schools, as you know. The board is receiving a recommendation, hopefully in March, giving us authorization to launch our community partnership schools.
I feel really strongly it’s a unique opportunity for us to be very creative, cutting-edge, an opportunity for us to grant these four schools autonomy in large areas that will enable them to improve academic performance. We want to make sure these four community partnership schools are nurtured, as well as providing them with support.
Our hope is that we will add more, and as the board approves these four schools, on the heel of that, right away, we’re already planning for expansion of community partnership schools and sending out additional information to our schools for participation in our community partnership schools.
Then, the last but not the least is really having a clear pathway for having what I call a recovery plan for our most vulnerable schools in our school system, being very clear as a system: How are we going to support them? What are some very specific recovery plans we have in place ensuring our schools move the academic needle?
Can you speak at all about the magnitude of what the change is going to be (at central office)? I’ve heard (district CFO) Robert Doty say a cut of maybe 40 percent of the staff here. Is that roughly accurate? What are you looking at?
I think what we’re looking at is having significant resources that will enable us to do those three big things that I talked about. And I’m not going to say this is 40 percent or 50 percent or a percentage of dollars, or whatever the case may be.
The chiefs that are working with me have already been given a specific target based on a preliminary assessment we are seeing in terms of redesign work of the Davis Service Center. It is critical that I give them an opportunity to work on that.
What I can say is this: There are folks who are working in this building who will next year either work at the school level providing school-level responsibilities, or there are people who are currently working in this building who will not be working in Minneapolis Public Schools. And we will help them land within our opportunity for other employment in Minneapolis Public Schools.
The reality is what we have as an enterprise as we move forward this model that we have is no longer sustainable in the long term financially or academically or a variety of other indicators that we are measuring the work of the Davis Service Center. …
Those are resource-driven decision-making processes, and I think we’re going to get there in the next few weeks. …
I wanted to get to contract negotiations, which are coming up also this spring and summer. More time: Is that going to have to be part of your discussion with the union?
I think we already had some discussion with (Minneapolis Federation of Teachers) about more time, and obviously if there are things we have to negotiate with MFT we’re willing to do that. But the reality is that if there’s a provision that we have to talk to them about we will do that.
We will work very collaboratively with MFT, and we’ll work with our principals and Principals’ Forum, but I probably have to get additional advice from our labor relations division what manner of time that we have to negotiate with MFT. If there are items we have to negotiate we will do that. If there are things we don’t have to negotiate, we will not negotiate. We’ll talk to them about this and tell them what we’re looking for.
What are your other priorities for the next round of talks with the union? What are the areas you’re focusing on?
I think we’ll have to have a discussion with our board. As you know, we have new board members on board.
Are there key lessons you take from Carol Johnson or Bernadeia Johnson that shape how you’re going to lead the district?
Carol had three words that she taught me: relationship, relationship, relationship. …
Somewhere along the way we lost our way in Minneapolis, where it always has been we had a strong relationship with our community and central office folks had a strong relationship with our school leaders and school leaders had a strong relationship with our teachers. We need to reignite that.
Also, Bernadeia Johnson, her passion for all kids, regardless of who you are, and her vision for equity, her zeal for making sure the kids had voices — and also having a strong moral compass as we move (forward) — that guides our work.