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Minneapolis school boss reflects
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In Memphis, Carol Johnson will lead a public school system more than twice the size of Minneapolis. (MPR Photo/Tim Pugmire)
Minneapolis public schools superintendent Carol Johnson is completing her tenure. She'll spend the rest of September cleaning out her office and getting ready to leave for her new job as superintendent in Memphis, Tenn. Johnson has worked in the state's largest school district for nearly 30 years. She says Minneapolis has made enormous progress in her six years as superintendent, but a lot of work still remains.

Minneapolis, Minn. — Carol Johnson grew up in Tennessee. She met her husband Matthew, a Minneapolis native, while attending Fisk University in Nashville. Johnson began her career in the Minneapolis public schools as a substitute teacher. She's worked in the district as a teacher, principal and administrator. The Minneapolis school board hired Johnson as superintendent in 1997 after she spent two years leading the St. Louis Park school district. She says she's grateful for the opportunities to work and learn in Minnesota.

"I don't know that I was very centered on going back to my home state. But there is a part of me that I realize wants to serve there as well," she says.

In Memphis, Johnson will lead a public school system more than twice the size of Minneapolis. Memphis schools serve 118,000 students, compared to about 48,000 in Minneapolis. But the challenges are similar. The federal No Child Left Behind Law has raised classroom expectations for all students. Johnson says Memphis, like Minneapolis, has too many students of color who've fallen behind their white classmates.

"That is really one of the most important areas that urban education has to address today. And I think if we can really focus on improving the achievement of African American students in particular in urban schools, I think that we can see accelerated progress in ways that we haven't experienced to date," says Johnson.

Johnson says Minneapolis schools have made some progress closing the achievement gap, but not enough. Test scores have gradually risen over six years. Johnson credits all-day kindergarten programs, a classroom focus on the arts and the help of volunteers from businesses and community groups. Graduation rates remain troublingly low at less than 50 percent. But Johnson says the district's new focus in high schools on small-group experiences and personalized instruction should bring improvement.

"There's a lot more work to do. And I don't think that we've been unrealistic or ever in denial about the challenges ahead. But I think we're proud we're making progress," Johnson says.

Still, rural and suburban legislators have grown increasingly critical of Minneapolis school performance. They also object to funding formulas that provide the district additional state money based on poverty levels and immigrant population. Johnson says the additional funds are a good investment.

"Students enter our schools from different places, with different experiences. And what we have to do is try to accelerate and ratchet up their growth as quickly as possible. And sometimes I think that people think we are failing at that, because they look at the test scores without recognizing the complexity of the challenge that's before us."

A year and a half ago, Johnson hired David Jennings away from the Minneapolis Chamber of Commerce to serve as the district's chief operating officer. The former legislator and corporate executive will now serve as interim superintendent until a permanent successor is found. Johnson says the district is in good hands with Jennings.

"David brings a wealth of experience at the Legislature and in his experiences there dealt with education funding and education policy issues. So, he's no stranger to the education community. I think he has demonstrated success working as chief operations officer in Minneapolis, and I think our staff have enormous confidence in his leadership, and I know that the board does as well," she says.

David Jennings takes on his interim duties Oct. 1. Minneapolis school board members will meet Tuesday morning to begin planning their search for Carol Johnson's successor.

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