I will never forget the day when Theresa Battle asked me to join her for lunch. She informed me that Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) was hiring an Associate Superintendent. People who know me know that I live and lead by my faith. I must feel ‘purposed’ to serve in a community so that I know that I am blessing others, while at the same time God is blessing me. Reflecting on the seven years I served MPS, I can say I am grateful for the opportunity, and in the end, I only pray that I will be told, “Job well done, my son!”


I like to believe that educators are called to this work not to make a name for themselves, but to make differences in the lives of the students and families they serve. I am proud to say that overwhelmingly, these were the leaders I worked with each day—a team of dedicated professionals that expected the best for MPS. I am forever changed by my experiences there.

I began my career in MPS as the Associate Superintendent in Area A, which was the north and northeast portion of the city. I supported 18 schools, many of which were classified as high priority. I started by meeting with parents and the community to engage their support in increasing the achievement in our schools. I truly believe that our schools belong to the community. Those of us providing service in our schools are blessed to support students six to seven hours a day, but we must recognize that our parents are our students’ first and foremost teachers. Without them at the table, all that we do will be in vain.

I take pride in my role as a parent, and it influences my professional role greatly.

Many districts are challenged to maintain strong parental involvement, and when this relationship is not supported, we lose trust with our respective communities. Without trust, no one benefits, especially our students. I believe that MPS’ priority to establish partnerships with our families is absolutely the best investment we can make at this time. Having a responsive approach to families and cultural humility allows us to better serve and place value on the diverse voices often not at the table. There is great intentionality around this effort in MPS.

To build trust with families, it has been important for MPS to understand three common domains where trust is often assessed (adapted from the work of Julio Olalla). The first is competency. Do we have leaders and staff throughout the organization who bring a skill-set that is student-centered and who act according to proven practice and research? It is imperative that we demonstrate to the community that we actually have the competence to advance what is best for students. In absence of such competence, our students and families have no trust that what we are offering has value, and they will continue to choose options other than district schools.


The second domain is sincerity. Does MPS show deep care and concern for the community in all that they do?  Public education is truly a calling and cannot be approached simply as a job. The moral responsibility placed upon public educators is very high, and the consequence of not fully embracing such a call can be detrimental to students and families.


The third and final domain to establish trust is reliability. Fundamentally, this is the commitment to follow through. Does MPS do what they say they are going to do, and are they accountable to the community?


Trust is something that is established over time, and it can be lost over time. When families invest in public education, they are doing so with their most precious possession—their children. Families want to know and be assured that their children will experience a significant return on the investment in them and that they will graduate college, career and life ready. Without such assurances, families will find different schools willing to make that promise.

The most important question being asked is, “Why can’t MPS move the needle on student achievement?”

This is a fair question.  Like many urban districts, MPS is a large complex system and change is not something that happens overnight. I learned that quickly within my first year. Recently, MPS recently articulated four priority areas: Equity, Literacy, Social Emotional Learning and Multi-Tiered Systems of Support. I believe these areas can truly create the conditions and provide the resources necessary to advance student outcomes. I would not go so far as to say that we have cracked the code, but we are able to monitor initial efforts and expand on the work that is generating the outcomes our students and families desire.

Lastly, I will share that the sustainability of great outcomes in MPS is highly predicated on the ability to stay the course and not get swayed when the political winds begin to blow. I am not so naïve as to believe that a certain level of politics doesn’t exist within public education; I get it. We may not always see eye-to-eye on what is best for students. But in the end, MPS is an organization comprised of phenomenal leaders and staff, who must be given the ability to do what they believe is best for students and families. They have ultimate accountability for results. It is backwards to insist on accountability without also providing support to that group of leaders and staff. That support must come from our community, including our families, business and philanthropic leaders, faith communities and others.

The task of providing strong public education is daunting. The model of public education is fundamentally shifting, and if we cannot adapt our efforts, MPS will be left behind and our students will not reach their full potential. I am excited to be an observer of great things to come for Minneapolis Public Schools. I offer the entire community the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. who stated, “The time is always right to do that which is right.”

At the end of the day, everyone wants to hear, “Job well done!”

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Michael J. Thomas
Michael J. Thomas has over twenty years of experience in the fields of education and social work. Currently, Michael is a doctoral student and a full Presidential Scholar in the School of Education’s Educational Leadership program at the University of St. Thomas, where he also completed his PK-12 Principal and Superintendent licensure. Mr. Thomas spent seven years as a leader with Minneapolis Public Schools—as Associate Superintendent, Chief of Schools, and most recently as Chief of Academics Leadership & Learning. He enjoys spending quality time with his wife and two high school age daughters, fishing, cooking, and writing poetry.