Marcia Thomas: Response to Achievement Gap questions


1.      The Minneapolis Public Schools have struggled for some time to raise the achievement of low-income students and students of color. 

a.      What in your opinion are the most important factors in raising student achievement?

Academically challenging classes, enrichment opportunities in arts, music and athletics must be available to all students in all schools. These classes engage and stimulate students to think more critically, more creatively and expect the best for themselves. Expand early childhood programs that prepare children for kindergarten and foster parent partnerships. Small class sizes are critical to ensure a student-teacher connection.  

b.      What measures should the school board take to improve student outcomes?

Prioritize equitable program offerings. Invest in early childhood and small class sizes.

c.       If the school board follows your suggestions, how soon would you expect to see significant results?

I think it is reasonable to expect to see results in three to five years. In addition to test scores, results would be demonstrated by greater kindergarten readiness and an increase in graduation rates.

2.      Some people are concerned that focusing on academic achievement for low-income students may lead to insufficient attention being paid to the needs of average and higher performing students. How do you respond to that concern?

All children deserve to be challenged academically. Differentiated instruction, use of technology and partnering with other schools are some ways to address the needs of high academic achievers. In addition, high expectations and a positive can-do environment contribute to intrinsic motivation that supports all students reaching their potential. 

3.      It has been suggested that certain provisions of the teachers’ contract make more difficult the staffing of schools adequate to meet the needs of all students.  What is your view?

I feel teachers should be hired and assigned by mutual consent. Currently there is a memorandum of understanding between the Minneapolis Teachers Federation and Minneapolis Public Schools allowing assignment by mutual consent. I support this. By allowing teachers to apply for the positions they are interested in and school sites to select the teachers with the desired skill set, the practice of mutual consent increases the likelihood that teachers will be successful and schools will be able to meet the needs of all students.

4.      One idea to improve student outcomes is to have a longer school day or a longer school year.  Do you favor increasing learning time for students, and if so, how would you like to see that happen?

I support increasing learning time with longer school days or longer school years. Currently MPS is working with the legislature to make the necessary changes to the law that will allow School Districts to determine their own calendar. 

5.      Early childhood education is often offered as an important strategy for addressing the achievement gap.

a.      What are your views on investing in early childhood education?

Early childhood education is necessary to ensure all children are kindergarten ready. MPS must pursue all options for state and federal funding of early childhood programs. In addition, we need to be willing to explore creative options to support early childhood with K-12 dollars and be willing to charge tuition where there is an ability to pay.

b.      How can there be better alignment between pre-k programs and the K-12 system?

Locating pre-k programs within our elementary schools facilitates greater collaboration between preschool and kindergarten teachers. Professional development that supports common practices and curriculum knowledge for both pre-k and kindergarten teachers and assistants will help align pre-k and k-12 programs.

6.      Some people suggest we need more flexible or innovative models of delivering education.

a.      Do you favor or oppose charter schools?

I have concerns about the ability of charter schools to treat teachers fairly. At a recent presentation I listened as a local charter school reported an annual 25% teacher turnover rate. I was alarmed by the attitude that teachers are expendable and easily replaced. I do not feel this is a sustainable model for school stability.

Some charter schools offer educational opportunities that meet the needs of families and students such as dual language immersion programs. In the case where MPS does not offer a comparable option, charter school can be beneficial to families and students. I favor schools that have high performance and accountability standards.

b.      What should the relationship be between the charter schools and MPS?

The relationship needs to be mutually beneficial. Charter schools that have high standards and offer an educational environment that is compatible with MPS present an opportunity for sharing resources that should be explored in these tough economic times.

c.       Do you favor or oppose self-governed (teacher-led) schools?

The autonomy of self-governed schools allows for a whole school approach to meeting the needs of students with fewer constraints. I support self-governed schools and look forward to watching and supporting the successful implementation of the French Immersion school.

7.      A group of Northside residents have formed a Northside Achievement Zone, aiming to replicate some of the outcomes experienced by the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York.

a.      How should the School Board respond?

The board should embrace this opportunity to provide resources and programming that meets the needs of the community.

b.      Is it appropriate for the School Board to make special efforts or investments in a particular portion of the city?

Yes, we need to work with communities where our schools exist to ensure their needs are met. 

8.      With 65% students of color, the Minneapolis Public Schools face significant challenges with regard to integration. Some people prioritize integration efforts, while others argue that that it is more important to improve the quality of schools in low income neighborhoods. What is your opinion on this? Do you favor efforts to increase integration in the city schools?   If yes, what steps would you take to make that happen?

I feel both integration and improving school quality are important.  Currently schools in Southwest and North Minneapolis are racially isolated. Bussing students from one area of the city to another has not significantly improved achievement. It is important to ensure that all schools are offer equitable programming with academically challenging classes, enrichment programming in arts, music and athletics.

9.      Improving governance of our public schools is a big topic of discussion.

a.      What in your opinion are the main governance challenges for public education?

One of the greatest challenges is the increase in Federal mandates and decrease in funds. Another challenge involves the tension that exists with a policy making body and management decisions. Although the board is primarily a policy making body, it does have the responsibility for approving contracts and deciding on property and assets.  

b.      Are there different governance models that you believe are worth exploring?

I am not aware of other governance models in comparable districts that have proven to be more effective than how we currently operate.

c.       The Governor has recommended that the Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts be managed by the cities’ mayors. What is your opinion of this recommendation?

I feel school districts and school board must remain independent from city politics. Voters overwhelmingly passed the ABC referendum in 2008, allowing school board directors to be elected by district. Representational governance gives the public a voice in the decision making process. This is necessary for people to feel a sense of ownership in their public school system.

10.  Your role in the school board

a.      How do you define the role of a school board member?

The school board is a policy making body. Its role is to govern. The school board does not manage daily operations of administration or school sites. However, it is the role of a board member to understand how decisions are made and offer support and guidance without micromanaging. A board member builds trust with the community with open, responsive communication. I n addition, a board member brings the needs and concerns of constituents to the superintendent.

One of the greatest responsibilities of a school board member is to hire and create a contract for the superintendent. Accountability measures built into the contract such as project and performance goals set the standard for the district.

b.      How much time each week do you expect to spend on school related matters?  

The position of school board director is an extremely important job. It can easily be a full-time position and I’m prepared to treat it as such.

11.  Finally, what does success in the Minneapolis Public Schools look like to you.

I define success as every child reaching their full potential and elimination of the achievement gap. Increased graduation rates with students having multiple post-high school opportunities. I envision our schools as hubs of community activity with robust programming for all ages, attracting students from the entire metro area.  This vision includes every adult feeling a sense of purpose and pride in the contributions they make to the well-being and later-life success of our students.