African American school board candidates offer hope for reform

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Two African American candidates for the board of Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) won DFL endorsement at a nominating convention earlier in May.

Just a week after Keith Ellison became the DFL candidate for Minnesota’s Fifth Congressional District, Chris Stewart and T Williams raised some eyebrows and turned some heads when both secured the endorsement, which is often seen as a prelude to victory in the DFL-dominated city.

The nominations came in the wake of the controversial tenure and resignation of former Minneapolis Public Schools Superintendent Thandiwe Peebles and announcements from three incumbent school board members that they would not seek reelection. Current MPS Board Chair Joseph Erickson failed to win the endorsement in what some party members viewed as a vote for complete reform of the much-maligned school board. Tom Madden and Pam Costain picked up the other two endorsements.

Another surprise at the convention came when Fred Easter, president of The City, Inc., announced that he was withdrawing his candidacy and lodging his support for Stewart and Williams. In a later interview, Easter said that his duties at The City, Inc. would have not allowed him to run an effective campaign.

Some members of the African American community saw the endorsements as a sign of hope after months of discontent with the current school board. Nevertheless, it is still a long road to the November election.

A recent rainy Thursday evening found the candidates at a forum in the gymnasium of the Windom Spanish Immersion School, located on the edge of Minneapolis’ Southside. More than 50 parents attended the forum, which was held almost entirely in Spanish with translations given for both English and Spanish speakers. It was one of hundreds of forums and public appearances that the candidates will make over the next five months in an attempt to show how they will effectively get the district back on track.

Before the forum, the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder had the opportunity to interview both Chris Stewart and T Williams, who shared their views on the achievement gap, school closings, school board restructuring, and a new vision for Minneapolis Public Schools.

Stewart seeks to end ‘cultural gap’
Chris Stewart’s meteoric rise to becoming a DFL-endorsed MPS board candidate didn’t start in the classrooms or hallways of Minneapolis’ public schools or its board meetings. A parent and longtime resident of Minneapolis, Stewart had followed the recent storm over the resignation of former superintendent Thandiwe Peebles, along with the steady overall decline of the city’s schools.

His real motivation to run for school board, however, came when he saw the link between inadequate education and a lack of employment opportunities. For the past three years, Stewart has worked as a business consultant for the state of Minnesota and has a long history in employment services for disadvantaged communities.

“I began to see the projections and how African Americans are about to be left on the launching pad for another change in the economy,” he said. “We can’t afford to get left behind again.”

Stewart added that he also wanted to ensure that the African American community would have an ample number of qualified candidates, and that the community’s voice would not be left out. Finally determined to run, he announced his candidacy in March and quickly won supporters in a school district ripe for reform.

“We need to re-envision how we think about public education and re-create how we approach it,” he said. “The way things have been going, we have nowhere to go but up.”

Seen as an innovator, the 38-year-old Stewart says that he has the right range of experience, from working with multimillion-dollar CEOs and homeless families, to best serve the district and take a holistic approach to school-board issues.

Early childhood education stands as one of his most pressing concerns. He noted that many students enter public school already at a major disadvantage because they have not received the same early education opportunities as other students. He said that there should be a much higher standard for daycare with the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP), and that the current public school program, Head Start, is not funded enough and not adequate.

According to Stewart, for $28 million per year, every child in Hennepin County could receive excellent early childhood education and could enter kindergarten on equal footing. He said that would be the first step toward bridging the achievement gap between black and white students.

Stewart also said he would both engage and challenge the African American community. “Minneapolis has a problem of having the same old black and white conversation of 1952 when so many different communities are at stake now,” said Stewart. “The black community is in a fragile state between the old school and the new school leaders. I have respect for my elders. They got me where I am today and they have a much greater perspective on everything. But the oppositional politics of the past are not as effective any longer.”

Such statements have earned Stewart some critics among community leaders. Nevertheless, Stewart went on to talk about his excitement for potentially working with T Williams, who is more than 30 years his senior, if they were both elected to the school board. Besides the gap in their ages, Stewart and Williams also live on opposite sides of the city, the south and north respectively.

“The Northside schools [issue] is the most sensitive discussion, and it needs to happen now. I don’t think White candidates have seen it as their place to address that issue,” Stewart said. “There is also a cultural gap in our schools right now. As a black community, we have to get serious about the cultural gap. We have to work within our own community and address that.”

Stewart, who lives in South Minneapolis’ Wenonah neighborhood, also mentioned the divisions between regions within Minneapolis, noting Northeast residents’ frustration that the DFL did not endorse a candidate from their area. He has voiced support in the past for restructuring the school board elections by district, as proposed in a bill at the Minnesota State House of Representatives by Rep. Bill Davnie (DFL-Minneapolis).

Stewart first moved to the Twin Cities in 1987, having grown up in New Orleans. He said he has always thought of himself as optimistic and a forward thinker. Given what the school board is up against, he will have to be if he is elected.

“It is the perfect storm for change,” he said.

(For more information about Chris Stewart’s campaign and viewpoints, go to www.betterminneapolis.com.)

Williams wants ‘new model of accountability’
During the last Minneapolis school board election, community activists and friends urged Theatrice “T” Williams to enter the campaign. He had over 40 years’ experience in social research and community work. Three of his own children had attended Minneapolis schools, and, toward the end of former superintendent Carol Johnson’s tenure, he had been working on a concept paper for a new model of school accountability.

At that time, Williams decided to focus exclusively on his work for the nonprofit group Rainbow Research and not enter the race. After three of the most turbulent years in the school board’s history, however, enough was enough.

“If we let our public schools continue to deteriorate, the city is the loser. We need to have a strong public school system in order to have a strong city,” said Williams. “You can only complain for so long. At some point, you have to step up.”

With his vast experience in the community, the 71-year-old Williams sees himself as a consensus builder among different organizations, city groups, and the community. He describes himself as calm and low-key, not quick on the draw, but focused on long-term planning and goals.

If he were elected to the board, Williams said he would focus on developing a new model of accountability in the schools. He hopes to work with the community, district, and schools to establish a set of measurements for success and accountability both in the schools and in the community.

“We believe that through a stronger partnership between the community and the schools, we will have a higher attendance rate and classroom discipline. If we do that, children will learn more and will probably perform better on the tests,” Williams said.

Living on the Northside since he moved to Minneapolis from Chicago in the early 1960s, Williams has become known as the sole Northside candidate in the race, a role that he does not take lightly.

“It is important to be accessible to the community, and you have to be out there for them on the weekends and in the evenings,” he said. “I know the Northside institutions in part because I helped build some of them. I have learned that we need to be effective for all our children.

“We also need to have a series of educational forums for the school board where we talk about what the school board’s role is. You make policy and see if you can secure the resources to implement those policies.”

Williams also supports early childhood education efforts, and said that restructuring the school board elections so all districts are represented is worth considering.

He sees the achievement gap as a priority, but said just as the schools need a new system of accountability, they need new systems of measurement for success that does not focus exclusively on exams.

Like many, Williams acknowledges that there will be more school closings in the district, and that the search for and decision on a new superintendent is monumental. Currently, former school board member Dr. Bill Green is serving as the interim superintendent; a new superintendent search will not begin until the new board is installed after the elections.

Williams said that, given more school closings and the widening achievement gap, he does sense the urgency in the community and the need make major changes. However, he wants to dissuade the community from falling into quick fixes that ultimately fail.

“Anything worth doing is going to take time,” he said. “We have to disavow the district and community of quick fixes. We need to work with the community over a long period of time to stabilize the schools.”

Share your views on the achievement gap and the upcoming school board election in our “Education forum”:https://www.tcdailyplanet.net/forum/62.

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