Matchmaker, salesperson and minister

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You can’t sell a product you don’t believe in. Jackie Turner, director of student placement for the Minneapolis school district, truly believes in the Minneapolis public schools, and she’s so good at selling them that she makes you want to enroll yourself. She is also devoted to her family and faith. “God is where I get my hope, my compassion, my zeal and my excitement,” Turner said.

Family and faith
Her family and faith give her strength and help motivate her, she said. Her family has included a number of foster children, including one who’s living with Turner this summer. She is, through her foster children, a grandmother.

Being a foster parent helped her to see the importance of a good education, Turner said, and also gave her insight into different types of families. “I believe every family is different and every family has needs. [Different families] look differently. Some children live with relatives. Some live with same-gender parents. Regardless what family comes in the door [at Minneapolis Public Schools], it is our job to make them feel welcomed. That is what keeps me going.

“My own exposure to different lifestyles and communities has made me more open… and I then guide and mentor staff to do the same thing.”

Turner understands intergenerational families well: Her own parents live next door. “They are a big part of my children’s lives. Different generations raise children [differently]. It makes a difference in the schools today.”

Her three children, ages 5-11, are frequent visitors to her office. “My office becomes a place for homework and eating dinner,” Turner said. Because she must be accessible to students and parents all day on weekdays, she often stays at her office in the evening for meetings or to catch up on administrative work. Sometimes she comes in on weekends, but tries to avoid this. “This work is not 9 to 5,” she noted. “You want to bring it home. But it is important to keep a separation to be fair to your family. I do that by trying to not work much on weekends and on certain nights, not work late. On weekends we do some things that involve all of us together.”

She listed bike riding, swimming, going to the park, “and just playing games and things that keep us together as a family.”

Sunday mornings find her in Roseville; she’s a member of Christ Temple Apostolic. “Faith is a big part of my life,” Turner said. “It helps me keep going and stay motivated.”

Her pastor is one of her mentors. “He’s always able to help our family,” she said, “If I’ve had tough decisions or career decisions, he has helped me to look at advantages and disadvantages.”

Jackie’s passion
Though Turner’s had other job offers, she said, “The work is just not as rewarding… I’m in this because I love it. I believe in education and I believe in choice. There is a place for everyone,” she said, “and the Minneapolis schools do an excellent job of offering choices to fit the needs of the individual student and family.”

In a sense, Turner is a matchmaker: Her challenge is to match each student-that unique bundle of needs, dreams, issues and aspirations-with a school. She saves the most challenging cases for herself. “As the manager,” Turner said matter-of-factly, “I work with the parents who are more disgruntled.”

Her staff handles most of the initial contacts and the “smoother” transactions. “The challenge is to find out what the needs are and turn it into a positive outcome,” she said. “My goal is that [families] never leave my office without feeling they have been served. I may not give them what they want, but they should feel I have made the effort.” When that effort pays off, Turner said, “I get to see a child’s face light up, or hear a parent’s sigh of relief over the phone,” when she tells them they can attend a particular school.

Finding the right place
The sigh of relief is understandable; choosing a school can be an overwhelming decision. Minneapolis has 103 schools, and parents who decide not to send their children to the neighborhood schools must factor in a variety of options, such as location, focus and more. And then once you’ve narrowed it down, there’s the question of whether or not your child can be placed in the school-is there room?

This past winter, Jim Davnie and Cara Letofsky were struggling with the decision of where to send their child to kindergarten in the fall. The couple visited schools and talked with other parents. “I also called the placement office,” Davnie said. “They talked me through the options, helped me strategize, made suggestions, and gently but firmly explained the process to me each time I needed a reminder. The placement office was great.”

Facing the challenges
Not all politicians (Davnie happens to be a state representative) have kind words about the Minneapolis school system. Indeed, many lawmakers have gleefully bashed it. During floor debate at the end of the 2004 legislative session, Senate Minority Leader Dick Day (R-Owatonna) infamously remarked, “Minneapolis schools suck.” (It was subsequently noted at a Minneapolis School Board meeting that four Minneapolis schools with demographics similar to Owatonna schools had higher test scores.) Turner has her own frustrations with legislators. “In a school district like Minneapolis, and throughout the country, we are always doing more with less,” she noted.

She finds it frustrating when “legislators do not understand the importance of education … when ballparks and road construction are chosen instead of our kids.” The district faces challenges beyond funding: A disproportionate number of students who are English-language learners have a disability or live in poverty. It’s faced scrutiny and criticism over graduation rates and an achievement gap between white students and students of color. There have been three superintendents in the past two years, and in July, reports of questionable financial management generated calls for more accountability and oversight.

Meanwhile, the district fights an annual battle at the Legislature for its share of the remedial education money known as compensatory revenue. None if this makes Turner’s job easier. But it does make her all the more determined to succeed in her mission of finding the right place for each student to learn.

“Education is a way out of poverty,” she said, “and a way to strengthen community.”

Given her strong faith, did she ever consider the ministry as a career? Turner laughed and said no. But while she has no pulpit per se, she considers her work a type of ministry. Minister, matchmaker and salesperson-that’s quite a job description. Luckily for Minneapolis students and their families, Jackie Turner is up to it.

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