New education commissioner vows to take on achievement gapby Tom Weber, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — Two weeks into her new job as Minnesota's education commissioner, Brenda Cassellius isn't yet a household name. But if her track record is any indication, she will be.
Education leaders say Cassellius is an energetic workhorse who is determined to tackle the state's biggest education problems.
After growing up in public housing in Minneapolis, the 43-year old Cassellius won a full-ride scholarship to Gustavus Adolphus College. After being called a racial slur, she soon left, transferring to the University of Minnesota. She still earned her degree in four years, even as she took time off to give birth to her first child. That work ethic, she says, comes from her father.
"He said, 'quite honestly, as a black woman you may have to work twice as hard to get there,'" Cassellius recalled. "'But, there's no limitations -- you can achieve your dreams.'"
Cassellius is the first person of color ever to serve as education commissioner. Her friends, and even some critics, admire her energy; always on the go, constantly checking her two Blackberries.
She also displays that energy outside of work. She water-skis and plays hockey.
"I'm a much better skater than stick handler," Cassellius said of her performance on the ice.
Cassellius, who has scored one goal so far this season in her women's hockey league, arrived at Gov. Mark Dayton's inaugural ball last weekend wearing her son's hockey jersey. Dayton was an all-state goalie in high school.
Her adventures even led to Cassellius once breaking her leg wakeboarding.
"I was getting up on the rope and I heard this snap and all of a sudden, I was thinking 'oh shoot, the rope broke.'" she said. "And then I thought 'oh no, that's not the rope!'"
Cassellius kept working from a wheelchair during her recovery, even after doctors had to re-break her leg because the fracture had been set incorrectly.
She now has three children and is married. Her husband Jason is a stay-at-home dad.
AN EDUCATION CAREER
Cassellius spent her early career as a single mom. She worked her way up from teacher to assistant principal to associate superintendent in St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Memphis. For the past six months, she served as superintendent of a Twin Cities area district. The East Metro Integration District draws students to its two schools from 10 districts, including St. Paul's.
St. Paul superintendent Valeria Silva is pleased that Dayton picked a commissioner with teaching and school experience. Previous commissioner Alice Seagren had political experience, as a lawmaker and school board member.
Silva said this week she doesn't remember when the state education commissioner and the superintendents of both Minneapolis and St. Paul have ever had more similar backgrounds.
"We've known each other for years, and we've hired each other for years," Silva joked.
That joke refers to the similar paths of Cassellius and Minneapolis superintendent Bernadeia Johnson. They've been each other's bosses at times, and both worked in Memphis with former Minneapolis superintendent Carol Johnson. Bernadeia Johnson called Cassellius a 'visionary' who will focus on the right problems.
"She's always interested in thinking about how her work will close the achievement gap and also how to make sure there's equity built into any agenda she's working on," Johnson said." I think that will be something that will be a focus."
NOT WITHOUT CRITICS
Cassellius, however, is not without detractors. As an associate superintendent in Minneapolis, she oversaw a high school re-design, which had its critics.
Robert Panning-Miller, a teacher at South High, found fault with her ability to deliver.
"In terms of being a creative thinker, I think she is definitely strong with regard to generating lots of different ideas," Planning-Miller said. "But in terms of strategies and implementation, the experience in Minneapolis was so chaotic."
Panning-Miller is also the former president of the Minneapolis teachers' union, though his comments were not on behalf of the union. He said Cassellius hasn't stayed at any job long enough for a complete assessment.
Cassellius, though, regards the effort as a success and is most proud that four high schools added the advanced International Baccalaureate, or I.B., curriculum as a result. Other critics say Cassellius comes off as headstrong.
"She had some listening skills that made it appear that she was interested in what you were saying, but in reality it was this patronizing 'oh yeah' and then [I'll] go do what I was going to do anyway," said Mary Hanson, who has three children in the Minneapolis district. She often saw Cassellius at community meetings.
Cassellius rejects any notion that she doesn't try to build consensus.
"I took a whole year to design the high school plan, and I talked to students, parents, teachers, went out to communities [and] town hall meetings," she said. "I presented the plan, we amended the plan, I presented it to the board, we amended it to the board, and so we went out and did what we thought was best for kids."
Kate Towle, who once chaired a panel of parents that works with the district in an advisory role, said Cassellius receives mixed assessments.
"There are people within our system that really have disliked her approach," Towle said. "I've also worked with people that have viewed her as somewhat of a savior -- because she was willing to make difficult decisions and tackle tough issues that nobody else would touch."
Cassellius insists she learned early in her career that you can't bulldoze people to change.
She said she sees her role as commissioner as that of a facilitator - someone who travels throughout Minnesota to see who's doing the best job educating job and spreading those practices statewide.
- Morning Edition, 01/14/2011, 7:20 a.m.