“A life-changing opportunity” for Ed Graff

A conversation with Minneapolis Public Schools’ new superintendent

Dancers from Voice of Culture Drum and Dance opened Superintendent Ed Graff's first school board meeting in July.

Two weeks before he officially started as the new Minneapolis Public Schools superintendent on July 1, Ed Graff set the stakes for an audience of reporters gathered at Webster Elementary.

“It’s a life-changing moment, a life-changing opportunity,” Graff said during that hour-long question-and-answer session in mid-June, just 10 days into the district’s summer break. It was an unusual experience for the media-shy former Anchorage School District superintendent, who said he shared more with the press that day than in 25 years as an educator in Alaska.

Graff sketched out a 60-day plan to better acquaint himself with the city, the district and the political environment in which it operates, beginning with the Board of Education. Then, before he took the center seat on the dais at his first school board meeting July 12, Graff flew to Alaska, stuffed “30 years of clothes into three duffel bags,” and flew back to his new home in Minneapolis.

On Aug. 17, Graff spoke with the Southwest Journal about the new school year and the progress of his 60-day plan. (The interview has been edited and condensed.)


SOUTHWEST JOURNAL: What is your message to teachers as you start your first school year as superintendent in Minneapolis?

GRAFF: Well, I just had an opportunity to welcome over 250 new teachers to our new teacher orientation at Northeast Middle School this morning, and my first message to them was: Realize the work that you do and how impactful that that is to our society. Just appreciate that (you’ve) taken on one of the most powerful professions that’s out there.

Beyond that, we have an obligation to make sure that we’re brilliant every day for our students. They deserve that. Parents want that.

I also talked to them about focusing on our students and making sure they’re at the forefront of the decisions we make — simple decisions in the classroom and how we interact with them, from how we greet them at the door to how we prepare our lesson and trying to individualize (that lesson) as much as possible. Think about the environment they’re coming from, what their weekend was like or what their summer is going to be like as they transition into (school).

And those are all pieces that build, I believe, in that support of students excelling and achieving. So, we talked about that.

I also emphasized the importance of the employees who we have in the district and making sure that they recognize that we are here to support them and they are, in some sense of the word, obligated to support each other. We have to make sure that we’re taking care of each other as a unit.

And then I talked a little bit about the significance of engaging the community and how it’s beyond just the classroom — the needs we have are beyond the classroom, and the support we have is really beyond the classroom and beyond the district. So, finding opportunities to have our students interact in the community so they can see the real-life experiences and where their skills are going to take them, as well as having the community see what’s going on in our classrooms so they get a sense of confidence that these students are leaders for today.

And when you welcome students and their families back to school in less than two weeks, what are you going to be talking about with them?

I make sure that their transition to the school year is positive, first and foremost, make sure that they feel welcomed in our school. They have a sense of understanding of what the school is about, (and) we hear from them what their needs are for their child.

They’re their no. 1 advocate; we’ll be their no. 2 advocate for their child.

Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment results were released in July. I think observers of the district are used to, at this point, seeing frustratingly slow progress in raising overall achievement and closing gaps. In a letter you wrote on the MCA results, you said “it’s more than just improving our scores on a state exam.” What does that mean, and how do test scores shape your understanding of the district?

Well, I think we need to be very honest about: this is the data we have, this is where we are as a district. And acknowledging that doesn’t necessarily mean we aren’t doing positive things for students. We have teachers who come to school every day with the intent to create a better opportunity or environment for learning in their classroom with their students.

Whether (testing) is one of the pieces of information we use or part of many others, it’s important to have an understanding of the bigger picture.

You have described social-emotional learning as “foundational” to your work as an educator. Could you first briefly describe what social-emotional learning means to you, and then tell me how it informs your interactions with both students and the people who work for you?

I’ve been working in the field of social-emotional learning for over 25 years, and I didn’t know it. It’s part of who I am. And the simple definition of social-emotional learning is really around four key areas.

It’s self-awareness: Are you aware of how you feel, how your emotions are, how you react to situations?

It’s social awareness: Are you aware of society around you, others, what’s going on?

Self-management: Can you manage some of those feelings you have — excitement, frustration? (It’s) knowing how to navigate some of that personal, emotional reaction to things.

And then the social management: How do you engage in situations in society? How do you help manage and influence situations in society?

That’s many times where we start at the beginning of the school year, is establishing an understanding of how people are responding to situations (and) themselves, developing those relationships. And what it does is it creates a much stronger bond and connectedness, so when you start to go into the content part — the academics, if you will — there’s a better connection and understanding of where those students might be better supported in their learning.

And the research out there supports the idea that, if students have these skills, their achievement and outcomes are significantly higher than those who don’t. So, we start with that, and when we’re successful with addressing social-emotional learning, the outcomes for students are limitless.

Graff spoke with community members during a July event at MPS headquarters
Graff spoke with community members during a July event at MPS headquarters

I want to ask you for updates on a few of the items you said you planned to tackle in your first 60 days on the job. One was building relationships with the members of the Board of Education. Are you getting to know those nine people — ten, counting the student representative? Are you all on the same page, in terms of the direction you want to take the district?

Any time you’re new to a position, there’s that understanding of where you are, what you have in terms of the resources around you. That has to be understood before you can figure out where you’re going, and working with the board is where I’m starting right now.

We had a retreat at the beginning of this month. Since then I’ve had individual meetings with board members (and) had two board meetings, official board meetings. So, I’m still developing those conversations.

I also feel good about the support and understanding they have of my position coming in as the new superintendent with all these high expectations and opportunities, recognizing that support is going to be needed, and not just from the board but the work that we have to do collectively in the community with everyone else.

As you mentioned, you spent time with school board members in a retreat in August, and I wasn’t in the room but as I understand it a major topic of conversation was the district’s strategic plan.

(Pointing to notes on a board in the conference room) Acceleration 2020.

Your retreat facilitator, Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, was very critical of the plan’s description of schools as the district’s “unit of change.”

What is your current thinking on the strategic plan and the district’s push for increased school autonomy?

Well, I think anytime you take a conversation out of context it can be taken out of context.

I think, to his point, he was wanting to walk everyone through the different elements of the strategic plan, and I think this was really the first opportunity as a group we had to sit down and begin discussing it. But I really felt from that meeting we came away with a great deal of clarity around how everyone supported the goals of Acceleration 2020 — with maybe one or two little tweaks to a goal, inserting students into one area. Everyone was very supportive of the goals that we had.

And then it allowed me to further break down the strategies and the focus areas and what were those measures, the metrics, we were going to use to really progress-monitor our work so that we can hold ourselves accountable to it. We could go back and say: If this is what we believe fits underneath this strategy, if this is our area of focus, how are we going to measure it and monitor it in a way that we can report on it, that we can have that check of success? And I think that was a positive thing.

We had many areas where we didn’t have those metrics in place, and our commitment was to come back and work with the staff over here to develop that, and then we bring that to the board in October for getting a final understanding and revisiting of where we’re going.

Karen Erickson, a former MPS principal, and her husband, Peter, spoke with Graff during a meet-the-superintendent event at Elliot Park in August.
Karen Erickson, a former MPS principal, and her husband, Peter, spoke with Graff during a meet-the-superintendent event at Elliot Park in August.

Another 60-day goal was to develop a better understanding of the district as an organization. You mentioned two issues in particular back in June: a confusing organizational chart and the morale of your employees. Are you making progress in those areas?

Yes, making progress. How do I measure that progress? Because I think when I made that statement back in June, I think I made it based on the first layer of understanding. Through more conversations and more interaction with people I have a second layer of understanding which confirms we have some organizational structures that we need to look at for better alignment for procedures (and) processes within the district, as well as accessing information and resources from the public and staff.

People have been very forthright in sharing that with me, saying: The structure we have right now, we’re still trying to see how it works, how it can work better, because we’ve gone through a lot of restructuring over here, a lot of changes and transitions. And I think that it’s an opportunity, again, to look at that.

As far as morale, definitely I think when you have a new superintendent and you have, again, transitions that are happening in the district, there’s always this uncertainty of how people feel, and sometimes that raises up maybe emotions or things manifest themselves differently than they normally would in a stable, structured (environment). I think, again, it’s been reinforced (that) people want to feel good about what they’re doing, and they need to feel validated for the work they’re doing. So, that’s something that’s very important to me.

As I spoke to the group this morning (about) investing in our staff: We know that this work is not easy. It’s never done. And people have to know that we’re committed to making a difference and learning together.

So, I feel strongly that the morale of an organization — any organization but in particular a school district — is important.

You have described your leadership style as “collaborative,” but ultimately the buck stops at the superintendent’s desk. How do you balance collaboration with ownership of your decisions?

I look at education as being a shared responsibility. It’s very easy for me to just say, “Here’s the challenge. Fix it.”

I also know that I’m one person and what I have for thinking is coming from the experiences I’ve had or the education I’ve had or the professional development I’ve had and training (I’ve had). But when I have others bringing their knowledge and their lens and perspective into it, it increases the capacity for understanding where we need to go or how we can get there. I really feel that’s part of the collaboration. Especially the people who are going to be impacted by what we’re doing, I need their input, I need their perspective.

And, yes, at the end of the day I need to make the decision. Hopefully, it will be a decision that people will understand how I got there and my rationale, and it will be one that is keeping the focus on the students, first and foremost, and it will be something that creates positive progress for our students in the district. It will be sustainable.

It’s a balance, definitely, of: I need the collaborative input, support, ownership (and) buy-in, and at the end of the day I will be the one who’s accountable for it.

You spent time on American Indian reservations growing up and, in Anchorage, worked in a district where, if I read the demographics correctly, almost one in 10 students identifies as indigenous. As you focus on community engagement in your first 60 days, are you making connections with Minneapolis’ American Indian community?

I had the opportunity to meet with the Phillips Indian Educators group on Monday night (Aug. 15), and, as I told them, I said, for someone who’s experienced a certain culture, race, ethnicity in their upbringing, to be brought back into that environment after being away from it, it’s powerful, the connections you have. And, for me, it just really reinforces how important it is for us to have students to be able to see (themselves) in their teachers, in their educators. So that was the first thing that I got out of that interaction.

When someone was mentioning the reservation that they worked on and it was the same one where I went to school as a kid, and they were talking about a town that they visited and it’s the same one that we used to compete against in athletics, you draw these instantaneous connections. We’ve got a link. (I’ve) never met them before, but (we) have that link and connection.

Again, it just speaks to the relevance and the significance of our students feeling connected to the learning and to the people they work with.

And they gave me a great lacrosse stick that they had made as kind of a symbol of where they are now in their understanding or acknowledgement of keeping their languages and their cultures moving forward. You know, lacrosse is becoming a very popular sport, and there’s a very strong connection to the indigenous culture, Native American culture of the game of lacrosse. So that was really neat.

You’ve spent time meeting with a variety of district stakeholders, including the former superintendent, the mayor and other local political leaders, parents, students and teachers. Is there one conversation that really helped you understand this district?

I think from those interactions and discussions, what I’ve come to realize is there’s a great deal of interest and support for education in Minneapolis, a lot of people who care very much about how Minneapolis Public Schools does. That’s been probably the greatest eye-opener for me, is that there’s so many people.

I’m getting ready to meet here with NAZ, the Northside Achievement Zone. Former superintendent Bernadeia Johnson is going to be in the meeting.

I think that’s been probably the greatest thing, is that you see the connections. Everyone is connected. I meet later tonight with the —

I know you have your first meet the superintendent event in Elliot Park.

I have that in Elliot Park, and also Rep. (Keith) Ellison, I’m meeting with him tonight, as well.

So, so many of those conversations are clearly aligned to supporting education in Minneapolis Public Schools.

In June, you told a roomful of reporters, “The expectations I have for myself are going to far surpass the expectations anyone has for me.” It’s part of the Board of Education’s role to review your work. Parents and students and teachers will definitely let you know what they think of your performance. How will you evaluate your work as superintendent?

I do it every day.

I had a board meeting last night, and (I was) reflecting on the needs that we have, from the conversations that were taking place — members of the public, the board members — (and) just, again, revisiting the power and the impact we can make in our city with the work that we’re doing here at MPS.

So, it’s never-ending. There’s always room for improvement. I think we have to acknowledge that, and we have to also take the time to know that we are making a difference where we’re making a difference, but be realistic about (the fact that) there’s always room for improvement.

Every day a student walks into our school with the hope that they’re going to learn great things and do better. That’s a lot of pressure to have on you.