Across Minneapolis, there was a hushed excitement unique to the first day of school. Ed Graff, the district’s new superintendent, attended class, as eager as the students.
“The start of the school year is filled with so much excitement, and I want to capture that,” Graff said. “There are stories to be heard every day, and it’s our job to recognize them.”
The superintendent began the day with a visit to Heritage Academy’s new principal, Jean Sorensen, and took the bus with students from Lucy Laney. Graff started class at North High, where this summer, the high school had its largest orientation with 120 attendees.
“We’re starting to see a lot of students from the community returning to North,” said Principal Shawn Harris-Berry. “With the possibility of North closing, some parents didn’t want to take the chance, but now those students are returning to North.”
In 2010, the district threatened to close the school due to low enrollment and poor academic achievement.
“How’s enrollment?” Graff asked Harris-Berry, first thing as he began his tour.
Enrollment is up. With 435 students, North is still considered a “small learning community,” but continues to exceed enrollment goals.
“Instruction happens everyday, but there’s also a lot of community building,” Harris-Berry said. “When you talk to our students, they’ll say North is like a family.”
In the hopes of improving test scores, the school is introducing a new academy that relies on project-based learning for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) instruction.
In another effort to prepare students for college, staff will continue to organize college tours with an emphasis on historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
“Some seniors have been on as many as 30 college tours since their freshman year,” Harris-Berry said.
Marquis Holloman, a senior, told Graff he hopes to attend Howard University next fall.
“I’ll check back in,” Graff said.
Later, Graff celebrated this foresight.
“Seniors are college bound,” he said. “Most could tell me where they wanted to go — that’s thoughtful and exciting.”
The superintendent made his next stop at Webster Elementary, a recently renovated school in Northeast Minneapolis, to congratulate Carissa Tobin on her Presidential STEM-teaching award.
“It’s all about that feeling when you walk in,” Graff said, moving through the naturally light halls. “You’ll notice it’s very clean, very welcoming.”
Graff took notes in Tobin’s first-grade Spanish class as students learned to interpret gestures and cognates.
“They say it’s best to stick to Spanish,” Tobin said. “I’m used to working with kindergartners, so this isn’t a problem.”
Tobin won the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching for her innovative use of data in the classroom. In addition to teaching math, Tobin collects and analyzes data to track students’ learning and reflect on her teaching.
“I want to thank you for your excellent work,” Graff said to her. “I know you won the award last year, but it is worth celebrating.”
Earlier in the day, Graff visited the district’s central kitchen to learn more about “true food,” meals prepared without high fructose corn syrup, trans fats, artificial colors or preservatives.
The superintendent joined students at Northeast Middle for lunch. The school, located near the Lowry Bridge, is focusing on the theme of “building bridges:” the bridge to high school and the bridge to the community.
Over chicken alfredo pasta, Graff asked students how the first day was going.
“Ten out of ten,” a student said.
Graff took a chance at South High.
“This is my theme song — but just for right now. I wouldn’t go around playing this anytime,” Graff said. “Do you want to hear it?”
The superintendent played “Three is a Magic Number” on his phone, and even sang along. The Schoolhouse Rock classic was new to Morgan Fierst’s freshman math class, but a couple kids joined in.
“This is the first day of school shyness,” Fierst said. “Right? You never get this back until the next year.”
The purpose of the visit was not only to connect with students, but also to congratulate Fierst on her presidential award for incorporating social justice into math curriculum.
The school’s math lab — a resource for students hoping to improve their math in a collaborative environment — is just around the corner from a new mural. Its message: “no justice, no peace.”
In response to the shooting death of Jamar Clark and the occupation of the 4th Precinct last year, students at South High walked out several times.
“Making math relevant for students, tying in social issues, is important work,” Graff said. “Thank you.”
A mural on the other side of town, at Lyndale Elementary, was the superintendent’s next stop.
“This is us,” said Principal Andree James. “We asked the kids what Lyndale Elementary means to them. It means reading, it means science, it means music.”
The project, completed this summer, was meant to engage students, and convey the importance of arts and diversity in the schools.
Laura Flynn, a parent, wrote the grant that made the mural possible.
“There was so much great stuff going on inside the school, and we wanted the outside to reflect that,” Flynn said.
To end the day, Graff arrived at Sanford Middle to see the school’s $20 million expansion.
In many ways, the building better meets the needs of students, but the growing school still has locker shortages and layout flaws, according to Emily Palmer, the school’s principal.
More notable, Palmer said, is the extended school day — from 8:45-3:45 p.m. — that allows all students to take core classes, an elective and a second language.
“That was a hard-fought battle getting that extra time,” she said.
Palmer is proud of the resulting equitable education her students receive.
When the final bell rang, Graff deftly pointed students in the direction of their bus, his experience as a teacher shining through.
“The day isn’t over until the last kid gets home and shares with their family how the first day went,” Graff said.
Reflecting on his own day, the superintendent was excited.
“I learned we have some outstanding students, we have some wonderful teachers, and we have some great parents who are really excited about sending their students to Minneapolis Public Schools,” he said.
However, Graff emphasized that this is only the beginning.
“You know, today is for many people the most exciting day of the year,” he said. “I’ve always said, tomorrow’s going to be even better. So I’m looking forward to building on the momentum and positive energy that we had today.”