Sharon Henry-Blythe: no crisis of confidence amid a first term of crises

Updated: April 25, 2007 - 4:28 pm

Board president says she has learned from controversy and will govern to reduce the student achievement gap

Sharon Henry-Blythe's re-election campaign for the Minneapolis School Board may be more difficult than her rivals'. That's because as an incumbent and current Board president, many want to blame her for the struggles city schools have endured over the past year.

Unlike three years ago when she ran for the first time, Henry-Blythe did not get the Democratic Farmer Labor (DFL) Party endorsement. Still, she came in third among the 16 candidates in the Sept. 14 primary for three open seats.

If voters give her a second term, Henry-Blythe has a list of priorities she would like to attend to. However, all of them revolve around one issue: the achievement gap between white students and minority students.

"As a Board member it is unbelievable how much information gets thrown at you," said Henry-Blythe , the Board's only black member and one of two blacks on the Nov. 2 School Board ballot. "You wonder sometimes what is most important and what you should pay attention to, and the thing I have learned is that the most important thing is the achievement gap.

"If we are truly serious about closing the achievement gap, we have got to create a culture in the district where we put the children in the center of the discussion and say everything else that interferes with that is negotiable," she said.

School district research suggests schools with the highest teacher mobility also struggle the most. Henry-Blythe said the correlation between high teacher turnover and low student achievement needs to be addressed.

She feels giving principals the power to choose their own teaching staffs would increase principal accountability and maintain successful teaching teams -- one reason union supporters in the DFL rejected her.

Henry-Blythe said the state teacher tenure law prevents the district from assigning teachers where they are most needed.

The extent of the problem was made obvious by this summer's teacher realignment controversy. To preserve overall seniority, teachers were reassigned, sometimes to unfamiliar subjects for which they were licensed but hadn't taught.

"We need to get rid of the bumping and bidding process of teacher assignment," Henry-Blythe said. "The rule of teacher seniority broke up a lot of good teaching teams."

Any change in the practice would have to come from a change in state law passed by the State Legislature and signed by the governor and a renegotiation of the teacher contract.

But would the Minneapolis delegation -- made up entirely of DFLers -- risk the support of teacher unions to pass a law mandating such changes?

Henry-Blythe wasn't sure it could be done, but she said she would be willing to try. She insists the Board did try after this year's realignment controversy. District leaders asked the union to make allowances to keep less-senior teachers working with autistic students and some other areas, and the union said no.

"The union said that until you change the law, this is what it is," Henry-Blythe said. "And we are required to follow the law. As angry as it made teachers, parents and the Board, it sure did pull the covers off of something. It showed us that we have a law that dictates how teachers move around the district that is not serving the best interests of our children."

She added, "These laws were created for a reason, to give teachers some control over their professional destiny. But that was created in a very different era. As a community, we have to maintain the integrity of the teaching professional, but our number one priority must be serving the needs of our children."

Henry-Blythe also wants to initiate a community dialogue about behavior issues within schools that she called another important aspect of the achievement gap.

"I have heard repeatedly about the behavior issue, even from students," Henry- Blythe said. "In some classes, a few unruly kids can throw everything off. When it gets brought up, it is kind of cold in my mind because much of the time it's about 'those black kids just being too disruptive.' That's the underlying message."

What would she do?

"This is a huge issue which can only be addressed when leaders from within the African-American community are at the table," she said. "It is a discussion that the whole community must be involved in because it compromises the quality [of the] education of the very children that are seen as the problem. And we need to make sure that we are all talking about the same thing because someone might see a behavior problem where another does not."

Currently, 84 percent of the Minneapolis teachers are white while the district's student population is 70 percent minority, figures that are not likely to change in the near future.

She said during her first term, she was so overwhelmed learning all the aspects of her new job, and then dealing with so many crises over the past year that there just wasn't enough time to address this issue.

Regarding school closings, Henry-Blythe alone among the current candidates believes that the Board made the right decision not to close eight schools for the 2004-2005 school year, as Interim Supt. David Jennings proposed last winter.

Said Henry-Blythe, "It was a proposal that came from the administration, and the community felt that something was being done to them, rather than with them. People jumped to the conclusion that it was a done deal, but it was not a done deal."

Not closing the schools cost the district an estimated $2 million. But the issue, which inflamed the community, did some good, she said, by putting the problem on the table so it can no longer be ignored. The Board is currently in a new round of school closings discussions, headed for a scheduled Nov. 30 decision.

Henry-Blythe credits Jennings for proposing the closings in a bold and unapologetic way. However, facing the throngs of angry parents who came out to protest the school closings at community meetings was the most difficult thing she had to do in her three-year tenure, Henry-Blythe said. "It is hard to hear people tell you that they don't trust you and that you are a liar."

Born in Memphis, Tenn., Henry-Blythe came to Minneapolis with her family when she was 2. She attended Central High School and graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in secondary education. She has three children, two of whom are in their 20s and one who is a 6th-grader at Emerson Spanish Immersion School, 1421 Spruce Place.

The Field Regina neighborhood resident made her career in early childhood education and is currently the executive director of the Greater Minneapolis Daycare Association.

Last year, was painful personally as well as professionally. Her husband Leon was diagnosed with lung cancer. His going through chemotherapy and radiation has taken its toll on the couple. "He is trying to live instead of waiting to die," she said. "It is his journey, and it is my job to assist him."

During the same time, her 27-year-old son, Jaime, who has Down Syndrome, fell seriously ill and was on a respirator for several weeks. While for a time she feared she would lose him, he made a full recovery.

With all that, why go through another Board term?

Henry-Blythe thinks what she has learned during her first term will give her the experience to take on the challenges to come during the next three years.

"As a human being and a professional, the one thing I pride myself in is my integrity and my willingness to admit when I made a mistake," she said. "I am willing to fight when I think that I am right, and I am willing to change when it is clear that I need to change the way I am looking at something."