Dr. Brenda Cassellius, a former Twin Cities’ teacher and administrator, recently returned to Minneapolis from Memphis, Tenn., to accept the position of Associate Superintendent Area B for Minneapolis Public Schools. Focusing on high school reform, Cassellius is working closely with Chief Academic Officer Bernadeia Johnson to implement Minneapolis Public Schools’ strategic plan initiatives to increase student achievement, promote equitable learning and better prepare students for college.
At its Nov. 6 meeting, the MPS Board of Education reviewed nine recommendations to achieve these goals, which include plans to restart or replace low-performing schools, raise academic rigor, empower teachers and administrators, engage families and stabilize the district’s financial situation.
Prior to the meeting, Cassellius talked about her new role as Associate Superintendent and how she intends to lead high school reform in Minneapolis.
TC Daily Planet: You received degrees from the University of Minnesota and the University of St. Thomas, and you served as both a teacher and an administrator in Minneapolis and St. Paul. Most recently you were working in Memphis. What were you doing there, and why did you decide to return to the Twin Cities?
Cassellius: I taught in St. Paul and was also an administrator there, and then I came to Minneapolis as an administrator and was at Washburn High School as an assistant principal. I went to Memphis with Carol Johnson [MPS Superintendent, 1997-2003] and started up special projects for her around middle school reform. I was the middle school superintendent there for 3 ½ years, working with 32 schools.
TCDP: What does it mean to be the ‘Associate Superintendent for Area B’?
Cassellius: It means that I supervise the south side of Minneapolis. I supervise principals in 17 K-12 schools, and I am also responsible for high schools.
TCDP: What is your focus for high school reform in the Minneapolis public schools?
Cassellius: Bernadeia [Johnson, MPS Chief Academic Officer] knew of my work in Memphis because she was my supervisor there, and she knew that as a team we were able to move achievement in schools, especially in under-performing schools. She asked me to come here and work around high school reform initiatives.
Since 2000, Minneapolis’ high school reform has been focused on Smaller Learning Communities (SLC) … to bring students into the 21st century and to give them skills centered on college readiness. Not enough of our students are ready for college, and that’s not just in Minneapolis, it’s really a state and national dilemma.
TCDP: Which high schools present the most challenges?
Cassellius: We have prioritized four high schools: Roosevelt, North, Henry and Washburn. There is something called the “core four,” which is our instructional core around rigor. It’s about increasing the College in the Schools (CIS) program, Advanced Placement (AP), Career and Technical Education (CTE) and the International Baccalaureate (IB).
We already have these programs in some of our schools … Southwest and Henry already have IB programs and a strong instructional core. We prioritized the other schools so that we could replicate some of the success that we’ve seen at South, Southwest and Henry.
TCDP: Financially speaking, public schools have struggled to do more with less money. How will the reform initiatives be funded?
Cassellius: Well, we have a federal grant, a Small Learning Communities grant, which gives us about $1.3 million every year for five years, and we’re in our third year.
Certainly there are other costs associated with implementing IB programs, so we’re hoping to secure support not only from within our own school district, but also from the governor, who already supports rigor. And the state supports instructional rigor around dual credit options for students attending college early.
TCDP: When will you implement these reform initiatives?
Cassellius: Right now we’re in the design phase, so we don’t have a reform plan yet. We’ve been aligning our work to the recommendations of the McKinsey Group [a consulting firm offering pro bono services to MPS], which will help us direct our efforts. Once the school board approves the recommendations we will set priorities and determine what it will cost to implement.
TCDP: The MPS website [mpls.k12.mn.us] has detailed information about the McKinsey Group’s nine recommendations to the school board. Briefly, what are the priorties?
Cassellius: The IB program and the other college readiness initiatives [AP, CIS, CTE], and open and liberal arts, which have democratic processes. Also, increasing levels of choice and self-advocacy—students owning their own learning—and flexibility in the schedule. We’ve talked about free transportation for students, so that they can get to and from programs. Removing transportation costs frees up money that can go into classrooms.
TCDP: What would you say are some of the biggest challenges facing Minneapolis’ public high schools?
Cassellius: Right now we have declining enrollments, increasing competition from charter schools, and, of course, financial challenges in terms of deficits. In terms of student achievement, we have learning gaps among our students. We have a diverse student body that have diverse learning needs—language learners who have unique needs—and we have a higher number of students who need special services, such as students with autism and more multiply impaired students who require services around nursing. All of that costs money.
TCDP: What achievements are you most proud of?
Cassellius: Well, I’ve only been here since August, but I know we have a number of schools with consistently high achievement—Lake Harriet, Burroughs—and we’ve had some ‘beating the odds schools,’ such as Lyndale, just doing wonderful things. Those are elementary and K-8 schools.
We’ve had two schools, Hall and Whittier, recently authorized through IB, which is a very rigorous process. We have a number of award-winning Milken teachers, and Henry and Southwest were recognized in Newsweek as being schools of excellence. We’ve also had higher graduation and lower dropout rates over the last five years.
To learn more about Minneapolis Public Schools’ strategic plan and the proposed recommendations, go to mpls.k12.mn.us mpls.