This interview is part of our School Board Voter Guide. The interviews have been lightly edited for clarity and length. Lori Novell is running for the District 5 seat on the Minneapolis Public Schools Board of Education.
Melissa Whitler: Can you share a little bit about your background and how you think that relates to being a good school board member?
Lori Norvell: I'm a former teacher. I have over twenty years of teaching experience, about seven and a half of those years in Minneapolis. Prior to that, here in Minneapolis, I worked as a special education assistant and a substitute. We've lived here for 10 years.
During my time teaching, I taught middle school math. I have a student at Washburn right now. And I've got two who graduated from Minneapolis Public Schools. I think having the lens of a parent, the lens of a recent former educator, someone who's taught through the pandemic, on the ins and outs of distance learning, all of the changes.
I was still teaching when the CDD went into effect. I think having that lens is something that's definitely needed on the board, too. To be able to look at decisions that are being made through the lens of an educator, and the parents and the community members. Thinking about when we're making decisions– a lot of times things look really good on paper. But when we don't think about how they impact families, staff, students, it can look very different.
MW: One of the things that the board has done recently is Chair Ellison released a proposal for how to handle the hiring process for a new Superintendent. Part of that plan was recognizing that it should start before the new board members are seated in January, but that ultimately that decision will be made by whoever's on the board in January. Have you taken a look at that proposal that she put out, and, also, if you have thoughts about what you like, what you don't like, how you would change the process, or what you would keep.
LN: I haven't looked at the plan. I've actually spoken with her about it before she put it out. I did appreciate that she said that the new board should be the one hiring the Superintendent because those are the people who will be working with the new Superintendent. I really appreciated that. I know that they've put out requests for proposals for community engagement and then for a recruiting firm.
They do need to start that now. The interim Superintendent, her contract is up the last day of June. So this new board is only going to have six months to find a replacement. It would be really great to find someone before that last day. It's always good when you're changing over leadership to have some transition time where the previous leadership can share what's been going on, and the new leadership has a chance to get their feet under them. So I am glad that they are starting those requests for proposals to get that ball rolling. I do think that the decision should be made by the new board. I think the bulk of the work should be made by the new board.
I will also say that the district board liaison has already started doing orientation sessions with all the candidates. We had one a couple weeks ago where he went through the basics about being on the board. We've got another one coming up and then there are two more orientation sessions before the new board even. I believe there are two more that happen before the end of the calendar year so that this new board will be able to hit the ground running with this process and we're not wasting time like learning and then out something.
MW: Is there anything about either the community engagement process or of the role of community involvement in the Superintendent search that you want to share.
LN: I think the community engagement piece is very important. It's vital, especially after the last couple of years there's been so much harm done between the district and the community relationship, broken and damaged. It's really important that it is front and center, that community engagement piece. It's important for us to look at some sort of a hiring or interviewing committee, something that would involve community members, too. I know that's something that has happened in the past when they were looking for superintendents before. I've known people who have wanted to be on that committee, to have a say, educators who wanted to be on that. I think that's an important piece, especially in thinking about the trust broken, relationships damaged between district and community. It gives the community, staff and students and families an opportunity to say what they would like to see in a Superintendent.
It's a public service job. We want someone who knows that it's a public service job. We want to know what people want, and how this person can best serve them and our schools and our students.
MW: Do you have priorities that you're looking for in who the next Superintendent is? Are specific characteristics or experiences you're looking for?
LN: I would love to see someone from here or someone who's been here. They don't have to have lived here their whole lives. But someone who's invested in our community. We desperately need someone who is invested in Minneapolis Public Schools. I want somebody that can provide what all of our kids need education wise. And I want someone who believes that as much or more than I do.
I want somebody who is – the last administration was more authoritarian. And that doesn't work. That's not really a leadership style. We need someone who is going to be looking at all departments and all levels and every department. We don't run without transportation, without food service, without support in the classroom, without healthcare professionals, mental health services. Like it just goes on and on. Every single department. And we need somebody who recognizes that, and who is talking to people in every single one of those departments at every single level, not just the director of the department. Talk to the people who are doing the work everyday, day in and day out.
They're gonna have to make some tough decisions and those decisions won't always be popular. But I want somebody who is going to build those relationships with the different departments, all the different pieces that make Minneapolis Public Schools run. I want someone who is actually going to seek out those people doing that work and finding out what they need so that those decisions are informed by what is needed on the ground basically every day in the school.
We need somebody who's business savvy, who can speak to that, who knows how to run a business, too. It's still an organization and it's big, so there's a lot going on.
MW: Is there anything in particular about the person's background? I think this came out at the last meeting, someone who was a former principal or someone who's already been a Superintendent? Are there things like that that come to mind for you?
LN: I would love someone who has had classroom experience. It would be great because I have worked for administrators who've not had classroom experience. And while some of them have been good administrators, some of not even the good administrators don't understand what it's like to be in a classroom everyday. I want somebody who understands that those extra four kids you put in that class, that makes a difference. You know when you go from 31 to 36 or 35 or whatever that it doesn't sound like a lot, but it makes a difference. You can ask any teacher. They'll be like, oh yeah, that's huge.
So I want somebody who understands that and someone who also understands all the work. If they've worked in a classroom before, they understand the work that goes into that daily. And then they're also going to understand what is reasonably expected and what is unreasonable, because right now a lot of the expectations that we're putting on educators are completely unreasonable.
I want somebody who is going to, when we're looking at a program or a curriculum or whatever this initiative is we're going to do to help them through reading growth or math growth, numeracy skills or literacy, whatever, I want somebody who is going to make sure the teachers have the tools to implement that program and give them the time. Because what typically happens is this new initiative comes out. Teachers are given some of the tools and then you gotta make up the rest of it. We're going to give you maybe a school year to figure it out. And then the next year, we still want you to do that, but now we're going to add this on to it. And so I want somebody who understands that.
If you're trying to do too much, you don't do anything well. So we've really got to figure out what are our priorities, what are the things that we can do really well that are going to be best for our students.
MW: Last year, the board and former Superintendent spent a lot of time putting together a strategic plan. It's something that the district had not really had. It was passed and now there's going to be this turnover in the board. And there will be a turnover in the Superintendent. If you're part of that future board working with a new Superintendent, do you think that you push forward with this strategic plan that the interim Superintendent is working to implement, or if you're elected, would you support trying to make some sort of change to that strategic plan?
LN: I think it depends on which part. It will depend on various parts of it. I think there will be some parts of it that, if they align with my values of putting students first and supporting educators, then I don't want to just go in and change stuff just for the sake of changing it. So the things that are in alignment with strengthening Minneapolis Public Schools so that we have quality public education for every child, yes, we continue to move with that.
If there are things in the strategic plan that I look at and I'm like “I'm not so sure about that. I don't know that that's really serving our students.” Then that's something that I would want to talk about and see how we could not necessarily get rid of it, but can we change it so that it is putting student needs in the center.
At a glance of the strategic plan, we're talking about high quality anti-racist education, culturally responsive education and curriculum, holistic education. These are all things that I agree with. I think it's going to be looking more at diving deeper into how those things are implemented and if I'm still feeling like these are things that are putting students at the center.
I don't think that I'm just going to change it because I didn't have a hand in it. I don't think that's right either. That’s not something that I want to do. I don't think that's serving anyone's needs. I think we can look at what they already started, and how do we build off of that. And if we do need to adjust, then change things, then we all need to be open minded about it and be willing to do that.
MW: One of the other big roles, besides hiring and supervising a Superintendent, that the board has is the district budget. The current budget is balanced using temporary COVID relief funds and those have to be spent by September 30th, 2024. So when you think about the budget going forward, do you have ideas about how to address that when the temporary funds are gone?
LN: I think we need to look at some of the contracts that we're holding and obviously they are contracts, there are time limits with those. When those expire, looking at some of them, and are they necessary? Of course some of them are going to be necessary, but maybe some aren't. Looking at if there are things that we're contracting– one thing that I think about is the tutoring contracts that they have right now. Is that something necessary or – and I'm not saying students don't need the tutoring– but is there a way that we can have that tutoring available and offer more work to part-time employees? Or do we already have some resources within Minneapolis Public Schools that we can use rather than going to outside sources.
We just need to be creative about some of those types of things. And another thing is, you know, I don't know how it'll play out, but lobbying for the state funding to fully fund schools. Working with our state legislators. I know a lot of them. A lot of the people that I've been talking with on the campaign trail are in favor of supporting fully funding public schools. How do we get people, the people who are the holdouts, the other side of the aisle.
One thing that some of us talk about is partnering or meeting with other school boards around the state. How can we work together to get people in our different communities to lobby for that state funding, to get that approved and, get people to understand the importance of public education, for everybody.
MW: One of the narratives that I hear when I talk to people about MPS is that a lot of parents feel like they provide feedback, but they don't always get the response they want. On the one hand, the district has all of these avenues to engage parents. They have site councils, they have parent advisory councils. People can give a public comment at a board meeting. You can email your board members or someone at the district. All of those things already exist. But then there's also this narrative that I participate and I don't get a response or I don't get the response I want. You mentioned earlier, rebuilding trust and relationships. Is there something specific to parent engagement that you think about as a way that MPS can improve? Or do you think these existing avenues are good, maybe they just need some tweaks?
LN: Well, first of all, all those avenues that you mentioned are all based on privilege, every single one of them when you think about it, right. And so we're not reaching all of the families through those different avenues. It's a lot of different ways. But to be able to do any of those things, you either have to have transportation, you have to have access to a computer. You have to have time to show up at a site council meeting or a PTA meeting.
We've got to figure out ways that we're meeting families where they are. I don't know how much of this has been done because I have not experienced this in my ten years of living in Minneapolis and having kids in MPS schools. But we need to be in the community and the communities that they're serving, whether it's district, city wide or whatever. They need to be out in the community at events and they need to be talking with people and meeting them. Where they are.
Or they need to be going out and door knocking and saying, ‘I'm here. We're knocking with Bancroft Elementary. We've lost a lot of families this year and we want to know, if you left, why did you leave? What is it gonna take to bring you back?’
It's going to be a lot of work. Rebuilding that trust isn't going to happen overnight. It's going to take a long time, but we have to do it. It's vital for MPS to continue, for us to thrive and we really do need that input from families about how they're feeling about Roosevelt not having as many IB classes as Washburn or Southwest. Why is that? Is it a staffing issue? I don't know. Those are a couple concerns that I've heard from families. We need to have our board out talking with people out in the community, engaging with them.
People aren't always going to get what you want. You're not always– being heard is not the same as getting what I want. Sometimes what people want isn't maybe what's best for all kids. And sometimes it is. And that's where it gets tough with the decisions that are being made. When it comes down to it, on the school board and anybody working in MPS, the question always has to be: how is this going to impact our students and how is this going to make education better for them?
MW: You mentioned being heard isn't the same as getting what you want. That's very true. And also we have an extremely diverse district where some of our schools need things that are different than other schools. As a board member, how would you try to strike that balance?
LN: I think again, that's the meeting with the different schools and finding out what their needs are. Like what happened in the spring, when they had to add the time at the end of the day and some schools were already meeting that need. I think Patrick Henry was one of them that was already meeting that quota. They already had that time. They did not need to add an extra 20 minutes or 21 minutes, per day, right. We are a big district, but we're not so big that we can't look at different situations and try to do what's best for each school because every school is different and they will have different needs. Every community is different and they'll have different needs, too.
MW: One of the other things that has been going on at the school board recently is they shared the MCA assessment data. It showed declines across student groups, but also widening of gaps between BIPOC students and white students. There are gaps between students who qualify for special education and English learner services and students who don't. My first question on this topic is what was your initial reaction to either hearing or seeing that data?
LN: The MCA test is flawed. It tells us a very small snapshot of what students know. I'm not denying that that gap has widened. I'm not trying to say that, but I will say that it just doesn't tell the whole story and. We have got to come up with better ways of assessing student growth. That test is not the be all and end all. It's just not. I taught math and I'm supposed to be this data-driven person. It is biased. There are other ways to assess student growth. When we teach kids, we don't just teach one way, we teach in multiple ways to meet the needs of all different types of learners. Why would we not assess in different ways?
We are still just doing these standardized tests that are supposed to tell us how every single kid is doing and showing us their growth and if they're in the red, yellow, green or whatever. A big thing is that we need to look at different forms of assessment and we need to have some flexibility with that in how we are assessing, especially our special needs students, our English language learners, and our students of color.
The other thing is, when students opt out of those tests, they are marked as not proficient.
MW: I know that. I went and I looked at the MDE data. I was really surprised. You can go and pull the data. I don't have my notes in front of me but there was a very clear pattern that at the younger grade levels, K-5, I think, it was that 3rd, 4th and 5th had over 90% of students taking both the reading and math assessments. I'm not sure I pulled the science data.
It starts to taper off in middle school, so it's more like 80% take the tests. And then in high school there's this really big drop off and it's about half of students in the district take the assessments. That definitely has some impact. But the take away that I took from that is that the impact is probably greatest at the upper grade levels, than at K-5 where it seems like most students participate.
LN: Right. And if we can get the assessment piece right, we can get that right to where we're thinking about different ways of assessing students based on their needs, the thing that we need to do to lead into that, can work on that gap is one thing, is making sure that we have culturally relevant curriculum for students at every school.
Making sure that we're on track– from what I've been hearing about the new literacy programs that are starting– and I've got some notes written down about it, but some things like every middle school has a reading teacher now. A full time reading teacher, although, I'm sure that some schools need it more than others. That's another instance where it's like, this is across the board, but does every middle school need it? Does every middle school need a full time [reading teacher]? Some [might need] one-and-a-half time. There are some things that are being done as far as curriculum– a new literacy curriculum that they’re adopting, they have adopted a new math curriculum because what's been happening in the last few years it's been an outdated curriculum and educators are piecing it together.
Resources to make the curriculum culturally relevant, to make it more engaging.
MW: I was really shocked. I think I read that up until this year, the elementary math curriculum had last been replaced in 2007.
LN: I taught middle school math, and I taught a high school level course. I spent a ton of time pulling together other resources and organizing things by learning targets, sharing them out across the district. When you're a new teacher, you're just trying to get your feet under you and trying to keep your classroom running. You don't have time to do all that stuff. It's a lot of extra work. A lot of unpaid labor that we're asking educators to do because they care about their kids and they want to make sure that they're learning.
MW: People that I've talked to – I think they may replace the literacy curriculum next – are making sure that it's something that is not overwhelming for educators to use. I think that was in a survey that they did with the current curriculum and educators said there are so many components to this. And it's so time-consuming to sift through all of the components that it becomes unusable versus having something that perhaps is more streamlined, perhaps has fewer bells and whistles, is actually in some ways better for educators and students because it's more usable and easier to implement. I thought that was really fascinating.
LN: Right. It needs to be people who are going to have to implement the curriculum so they know. If you're in a classroom and that's what you're teaching, you can look at it and be like, there is no way of doing that. Yes, this is a great idea and I can't wait to try this. But they need to have a voice on that. And I know that they do invite people to sit on the curriculum committee. They do invite educators to do that.
MW: Following up on the MCA data. One of the narratives that I have heard in response to the data is that the achievement gap just reflects the poverty that some students experience or the racism that students experience, outside of school. These are external things and this data just reflects these external systems. Until those external systems are fixed, we can't expect academic outcomes to change. I'm just wondering what you think about that narrative.
LN: There is definitely some truth there. When you think about kids coming to school, if they're coming to school tired because they didn't get a good night's sleep. They're not going to be able to learn if they're coming to school [hungry] and we're not providing breakfast and lunch free of charge without any stigma attached. They're not going to learn. We've got kids coming to school that are homeless, highly mobile. They don't know where they're going to sleep that night after they leave school. Or they don't have a place to do homework. We do need some resources for that.
Some of us have been talking about full service community school and what that looks like. Schools are sitting empty for how many hours of the day? Could there be some sort of health care clinic or food and clothing pantry? Most schools do have younger kids aftercare or Minneapolis Kids, something like that where kids can get homework [help]. In most places that it is free or on a sliding scale. But how do we increase those resources for families that need those?
How do we do it in a way that we're working with the community and it's not here, let me do this for you. We need to be working together, and not like I need to help you, or I feel like I need to do this for you. It needs to be a partnership so that everyone feels valued in it and no one feels like they have to owe somebody something.
MW: As a board member are there things that you would specifically advocate for to address the existing academic disparities?
LN: One thing that I've seen in particular is the way students are tracked with advanced academics. I taught math and that drives it at the middle school level and starting later elementary. When you look at those classes and you see that those are the least diverse classes. And that's a problem. So how can we provide more– and I'm not trying to say we should take away the advanced academics by any means– but how can we provide support and provide more entry points onto those pathways for all students? Bilingual students, are we providing opportunities to access advanced mathematics without a language barrier?
That is something I think we really do need to work on because I've seen it first hand in the middle school, how it tracks the classes and it filters out into all the other classes. It's not just math. Every other class is impacted. How students are tracked into those math classes, right?
I don't have an answer, a cut and dry, this is what we should do. But I do see that it is an issue and it's something we've got to figure out what to do about it because it is, I think it is one thing that is driving, widening that gap, not helping us for sure.
MW: My last question is really simple. My last question is, why should voters pick you?
LN: I think they should pick me because I have experience in a school, in a Minneapolis Public School. I'm committed to strong public education. I know how important strong public education is for the community. It's the backbone of our community and I don't know that everyone feels that way. I think people think that it's good and yes, we should have it. But I don't know that everyone else feels that strongly about it.
I have seen what happens in communities that do not prioritize public education. I have seen private and charter schools come into communities, other places where I've lived. I've seen how that impacts the community and impacts local businesses, it impacts community involvement. I don't want to see that happen here.
Thinking about our achievement gap and looking at some of these other cities where that happens and if the disparity is even greater and not everyone has the opportunity or the time to research which school, if they're looking for a private or a charter school. We have got to have strong quality public schools in every single neighborhood, for every single child, no matter where they live. And that is something I will fight for. I will not back down on that.