Shooting Every Single Messenger—and Expecting the News to Change

Comes now the news that Minneapolis Public Schools’ communications chief has resigned some three months after her appointment.

Is this good news? Bad?

Who knows. Seriously.

When the news rolled in Monday I was in the process of wading through all 123 pages of the PowerPoint presented at the Minneapolis School Board’s March 28 meeting. I was in search of a particular factoid, and I was falling into a familiar rabbit hole.

The presentation had pages of graphs and charts showing increases in Minneapolis Public Schools graduation rates, including a long dissection of how better record-keeping contributed to the rise–but no actual numbers showing how much of the increase was the result of improved tracking.

There were also charts outlining the results of a survey that found—unbelievably and in total contradiction even to other data in the same presentation—that almost all families are thrilled with their children’s experiences with MPS, that they feel affirmed culturally and are asked for their feedback on the school’s operations on a regular basis.

Not surveyed: The third of Minneapolis families using public education who enroll their school-aged kids somewhere other than MPS—a percentage that rises to half on the north side.

And, the piece de resistance: a communications plan including the sharing of positive stories about MPS, “proactive communications and issues management” and an “eventual” marketing campaign aimed at retaining and recruiting families to district schools. Because none of that EVER occurred to communications regimes past.

Two weeks after the PowerPoint presentation, school board members closed a scheduled public meeting to the public, saying it would be easier to hold the conversation in question—about getting along—without reporters in the room.

(Reminder: This willingness to err on the side of secrecy might have been one element in the district stonewalling the Star Tribune on records requests to the point that the paper last summer sued. And no, that wasn’t Communications’ ineptitude: The board’s staff and the general counsel are responsible for fulfilling requests for public records.)

We’ve heard every single note of this before. Time and again. And it has been pointed out, over and over, that you can’t communicate your way out of tough realities. A lack of marketing is not the reason why upwards of half of families in neighborhoods served by struggling schools have gone in search of higher-quality alternatives.

And let’s be honest, at the moment the district isn’t exactly facing intense scrutiny. With the majority on the board, the superintendent and the reporters covering MPS all relatively new to their roles, we’re treated to plenty of “beat-sweeteners,” the cheerful stories that are more about forging relationships and securing access than about news. This school year has brought an avalanche of short, thin mainstream news outlet stories about MPS that ignore or gloss over crucial, negative context.

Did you see the story about the aforementioned survey? It quoted parents from three of the district’s wealthiest schools saying test scores weren’t their chief concern when making enrollment decisions, demographics and enrichment opportunities were. One of the three chose Burroughs, which is 77 percent white and where more than 81 percent of students are on track academically.

What about families with students at MPS’ North High, where just two 10th graders were reading at grade level in 2016 and only four of the 11th graders passed last year’s math test? If their feelings jibe with most national research on parental choice, their chief concern is likely school safety. But you can’t say they don’t care about the fact that their children lack basic literacy and numeracy.

Related question: How does North have an 81 percent graduation rate when more than 90 percent of its students can’t read or do math?

And while we’re on the subject, did you know that MPS’ school guide does not include information on academic outcomes at individual schools? How convenient, then, are those survey results? And how irksome must it be that someone else has made that data easy for parents to get?

I had no dealings with Tonya Tennessen during her brief stint as communications czar at MPS. She had a great reputation in her previous post, handling communications for St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, so when she took the job in January I imagined she was a great hire.

But lately stories had begun sprouting on the MPS grapevine that sounded like business as usual: Information requests ignored, media access to schools and educators blocked and—how many times have we seen this in recent years?—the decision to reorganize the entire communications staff.

Perhaps Ms. Tennessen was bad news. In over her head. Or, as has been the case with plenty of MPS comms chiefs, guilty of hubris in concluding that the PR of the past was bad because the cavalry had not yet arrived.

Perhaps she was a seasoned pro who, confronted with thin-skinned board members, administrators who don’t believe in government transparency laws and pressure to market the district’s way out of its problems, decided the big yellow bus looming on the horizon was aimed squarely at her.

Maybe it’s time to consider a communications plan that charges in the other direction. That invites the community, the Fourth Estate and the purse-string-pullers over at the Capitol into schools and tells them the messy, hugely complicated and urgent truth about how hard change really is, and how much courage is needed to make it.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

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