Acting Superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools works to create a positive school culture

Sporting a bright orange Minneapolis Public Schools t-shirt, Acting Superintendent Rochelle Cox walked through a crowd of hundreds of families, often stopping to offer high-fives or try out a few dance moves with the students.

The district-sponsored celebration for families with young children was one of the first events under Cox’s one-year tenure. Talking to parents and students marked a step toward his priority of building community trust and reinventing the culture of Minneapolis schools after a tumultuous few years.

“When we attend community events, we’re not sitting behind a table,” said Cox, who also recently attended neighborhood meetings and visited several schools. “We’re initiating these conversations so we can hear honest feedback.”

Many Minneapolis families have long been calling for a district culture reset. A parent assessment process launched in 2018 found that parents of color wanted to feel more included and better reflected in schools across the city. Pandemic pressures coupled with a three-week teachers’ strike last spring added to the challenges the district was already facing.

Enrollment has been declining for years, and the latest statistics suggest fewer black families in particular are choosing Minneapolis public schools. From July 2021 to July 2022, the number of students fell by around 3,300, and the decline was greatest among black students.

“We’ve had families tell us through different channels … that they didn’t feel welcome in their schools and we need to change that,” Cox said. “We are a public educational institution that should serve everyone.”

One of Cox’s top priorities is to build relationships and improve communication in the name of creating a positive climate – one of the pillars of the district’s strategic plan.

“It was about dusting off [the framework] and being really intentional about how we talk about it,” she said. “There’s a real need to do that now.

As part of the district’s recently restructured School Climate and Equity Department, Minneapolis public schools now have a dozen “climate coordinators.” Each school will have access to a designated coordinator, who can provide resources and support while the school creates a welcoming environment among staff and students.

The goal is not to create a standardized atmosphere in every school, but to help the district’s 28,000 students and their families feel welcome and to ensure that school staff have the necessary support to achieve this, say district leaders. Each of the more than 90 schools in the district already has its own atmosphere and community, Cox said.

“That’s the beauty of MPS and I would never want to take it away,” she said.

This relieves Melisha “MiMi” Carroll, the family and community liaison at Lucey Laney Elementary School on the North Side, better known as Mrs. Mimi. She said the school already has a distinct supportive culture and credits school leaders for setting the tone: they ensure – right from the interview process – that every educator in the building cares deeply children, while setting high expectations.

She remembered coming in for her first job interview and realizing that the woman wiping a child’s nose at the front door was Principal Lisa Pawelak. This showed Carroll that the school principal was not above the relationship building she demands of her staff.

“Culture absolutely starts with leadership because leaders set the tone,” she said, adding that she was still a bit skeptical of culture-building advice from those who aren’t in class all days.

“They have to bring that responsibility to those who don’t,” Carroll said, “and get out of the way for those who do.”

Pawelak said she was happy to hear more conversations about climate and culture in schools across the city. The concepts can be difficult to quantify, she says, but there are measurable indications of a welcoming school environment, including staff and student retention and school placement requests.

“In our white American culture, we often don’t value feelings enough,” she said. “He really has a lot of weight.”

Keeping that family welcoming isn’t just about fun relationship-building activities like lunchtime karaoke on Fridays. It’s also about having tough, respectful conversations with students and staff when they’re not meeting expectations, Carroll said.

Cox agreed.

“There has to be a balance between that support and that responsibility,” she said.

During Wednesday’s event at the Mona Moede Early Learning Center, Minneapolis mom Chelsea Sullivan stopped by a table where the kids were making clay pots. Her 4-year-old will soon be starting preschool at Marcy Elementary School, and her two children have participated in district early childhood programs.

Before returning to his car, Sullivan looked over his shoulder and spotted Cox in his orange shirt. When they entered the event, Cox greeted them with a smile and danced for a few moments with Sullivan’s daughter – although Sullivan didn’t realize then that the dancer was the head of the school district. It was a pleasant surprise, she said.

“A lot of families have a bitter taste in their mouths after the last two years in this school district,” Sullivan said. “I hope we chart a new course… But I’m waiting to hear more. I’m cautiously optimistic.”

Martha K. Merrill