Last month, Jill Davis was elected chair of the Minneapolis School Board, where she has served for the past two years. Coming from a social work background, Davis values early childhood education and improving equity among all the schools in the district. She also aims to find ways to make Minneapolis schools more equitable, and has advocated encouraging parents to send kids to their neighborhood schools, in order to strengthen community and parental involvement.
This is one of a series of short interviews, introducing members of the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education. To see all the interviews published to date, click here.
Davis draws from her professional experience as well as her personal experience as a parent with a seventh grader in the district as she looks toward her leadership of the school board. Here’s an interview with Davis where she addresses topics including inequity, school choice, and how to make the best choices for kids.
Twin Cities Daily Planet: What have you learned in the two years you have served on the school board?
Jill Davis: … I’ve learned a lot about myself. I approach people about issues in different ways…
TCDP: Can you think of specific experiences that were particular learning experiences?
JD: Well I’m talking as a parent and as a board member. I have a seventh grader. As a parent–what does it mean to send your child to a school that looks different from what you grew up with? I value diversity, I value equity, but I’m a person who is in social work. I know the challenges that some of the kids are going through.
TCDP: How do you create equity?
JD: That is a million dollar question. The choice system we had initially did increase opportunities for kids. What happened was that some parents took advantage of certain schools. We got away from making sure every school is educationally sound… We were having schools competing with each other for enrollment, eating each other alive within our system…
One thing that’s a passion of mine is that we did go toward more of a boundary system. Prior to that, if you look at the high schools, and the disparity of coursework available, the level of course work, and the extra curricular activities—we had three wonderful high schools and four high schools that were struggling … If you look at Southwest, South, and then look at Roosevelt and Edison—what is there and what isn’t there? What isn’t there is a challenging math program. We have to increase the coursework available. We have enough kids and we have enough kids who left and can come back.
TCDP: How do you get the kids to come back?
JD: That’s where it totally has to change. Number one is we need solid academic offerings. More than that, we need a welcoming environment. We need to go after people and say—we want you and need you. That takes solid connections with parents and communities. To parents, we say: this is what I need from you. You have to be specific about what you need.
TCDP: How is your leadership style different from the previous chair?
JD: I don’t know if it’s totally different. I actually really like Tom Madden. For this group we have a lot of people with great leaderships skills. My job is to facilitate the business of the district by helping board members learn what they need to learn. My goal would be to define opportunities for board member to shine…
For me I want to continue to repair our relationship with parents and the city of Minneapolis, and find ways to provide stability and improve confidence. Customer service hasn’t always been spoken about in public education. With the increase of charter schools and choice, having a warm, engaging and respectful relationship with the community is the only way we are going to succeed.
TCDP: How to improve that relationship?
JD: By challenging the stories… By highlighting the many aspects that are great… Parents are volunteering in their schools. Administrators are working 14-hour days…. That’s why I get upset when I see articles in paper focus on bad things. I think good things far outweigh bad…
I live six blocks from St. Anthony. It’s a wonderful school district. When people choose different schools outside of their community, you lose parent volunteers. Do I think people need to make best choice for their child? Yes. But I have no qualms for my choice for my child.
TCDP: What high school will your child attend?
JD: Most likely Edison.
TCDP: That’s one of the schools you mentioned earlier was struggling. Does that make you nervous?
JD: Edison does not have best test scores, but it has some awesome leadership…You are battling reputation. The other part is reorganizing. … They have increased their course of opportunities. Both Edison and Roosevelt have advocated for ELL programs- Again it’s giving the right kinds of support so kids can succeed.