Commissioner Casselius, Jan. 29, 2013

Remarks as prepared by Commissioner Brenda Cassellius for testimony before Senate Education Committee, January 29, 2013

Madame Chair and Senators,

Thank you for the opportunity to appear before you today to share a little bit about myself.  More importantly, for the opportunity to share some of the great things the great team at the Minnesota Department of Education has been able to accomplish in just two short years.

I believe, more strongly than I did two years ago when I accepted this challenge, that with Governor Dayton’s leadership, Minnesota is positioned to accelerate learning for our children in a way that is unprecedented in the history of this state.

Before I go farther, I would like to introduce some people who mean so much to me and who strengthen and support me every day.

My husband Jason Cassellius, my oldest son, Christian, Ani, and Charlie.

Also here today is Dr. Josie Johnson. She has been an incredible role model who has helped me to persevere and appreciate what it means to be committed to public service. She is a big reason why I am here today.

There are others in the audience who have supported me over the years, who have held me accountable, and pushed me to be my best and take on the big challenges we face today in ensuring every child, regardless of race, gender or circumstance has the opportunities they need to achieve at their highest potential.

As a young girl growing up in the Glendale projects of SE Minneapolis, I learned the value of community, and experienced firsthand the power of education as a great equalizer.

My mother, a single parent in her teens, raised my sister and I with help from an extended family, supportive community, and necessary government assistance that gave us a hand up, not a hand out.  It was the balance of these three support systems that helped me believe a better future for myself was ahead.

I grew up during the Minnesota Miracle and Title 1. I was a Head Start baby who early on had adults who believed in me – and therefore I believed in myself.  I believed that if  I worked hard, and got a good education I could be anything I wanted and do anything I set my sights on.

I realized I might have to work harder than others, but if I stayed determined, I could do anything. I believed that in this great state and this great nation, there was great opportunity.

My favorite book as a child was Harold and the Purple Crayon. I loved this book… I think…. because Harold had the power in his hand to draw his reality. He could imagine his dreams and simply cast his purple crayon and make it happen taking him on grand adventures.

We all know it is not that easy.  Many of you may have a similar story. But I do believe that as leaders working toward a single purpose…we can cast a brighter future for our children and take real steps in making it a reality… truly our democracy depends on us doing so.

Programs like a strong local Park Board with athletics and afterschool activities; summer camp programs; amazing Head Start and high quality early learning opportunities made the difference for me. High quality Pre-k and kindergarten teachers inspired me and expected me to do my best, who instilled early within me a lifelong love of learning…

I was “lucky” to have those opportunities a young girl and that is why you see me champion them now. Because every child deserves the same great start that I got to help them achieve their dreams.  But it should not come down to “luck.”

I was lucky I was born in the right decade.

Lucky that there was enough government t programming to help me.

Lucky that I had the right zip code.

Lucky that the adults in my life held high expectations for me .

These are basic things that should be given to every child, regardless of external factors that should not be left to luck or chance.

As a young adult I volunteered at a camp for underprivileged kids that I attended as a child. While in my senior year of college I worked at St. Joseph’s Home for Abused Neglected Children.   I worked as a paraprofessional at Harrison Secondary School in North Minneapolis with adolescents diagnosed with severe emotional and behavioral challenges.   Through these experiences, I affirmed my love for children and decided to further my education and earn my license to teach.

I continued my education to become a teacher at St. Thomas University where I earned my masters of Teaching and later my Specialist in Administration. I was a middle school social studies teacher and at 27 I became a school administrator for the first time. I was a school administrator for 9 years until I joined Dr. Carol Johnson in Memphis. There she asked me to join her cabinet as Academic Superintendent for middle schools.

In Memphis I lead the reform of 31 middle schools- most of which were 100% poverty and 100% African American. At the time, the middle schools were in crisis and only 4 of the 31 were making AYP. 17 were in Corrective Action.

Memphis was the 17th largest school district in the nation at the time – with 122,000 students and an overall poverty rate of 76% and 90% African American. At the time I arrived, they still used corporal punishment. I knew this new challenge would present an opportunity to do the work I was most passionate about – helping children overcome enormous odds and helping the adults help them.

Memphis was my first chance at big system change. One of my proudest accomplishments is that within 2 years, our middle school team went from 4 of 31 schools making AYP to 22 making AYP.  That success continued after I returned to Minnesota and one year after I left, all but 4 middle schools were making AYP.

That too wasn’t easy. We implemented a variety of reforms that included added parent liaisons, rigorous courses, world language, and reading intervention. We also ensured the highest quality teachers and administrators by reconstituting seven schools.

One year into my tenure, Dr. Johnson asked me to lead the district-wide elimination of corporal punishment. This was huge given 70% of the community surveyed wanted to keep it and so did most of the school staff.  We replaced it with Positive Behavior and Intervention Systems (PBIS). This too was no easy task and it required a lot of shared effort, but it had to be done in order to shift the school cultures present in the hallways and classrooms.  And after the first year we saw dramatic decreases in suspension and expulsions and most importantly, increases in student learning.

I returned home to Minneapolis Public Schools and led their secondary redesign and oversaw middle and high schools. There too, I led the difficult work of redesigning the high schools. Every year Minneapolis saw an overall increase in achievement for reading, math, and AYP graduation rates for its high schoolers. They also saw increases in student access to rigor across all high schools.

I left Minneapolis to lead the East Metro Integration District, an incredible opportunity to work with 10 East Metro Districts around an agenda of equity. It was a job I loved and would not have thought I would leave, because what I saw wasn’t a district of two schools, but an opportunity to again have big impact – touching children’s lives through shared leadership – 122,000 students in the East Metro.  Through this shared vision of equity, I had the awesome opportunity of working with 10 incredible school superintendents on integrated, high quality learning communities within and among our districts.

Which brings us to today.  I have been thinking a lot this past week about what Marian Wright Edelman said at the Martin Luther King Breakfast. She reminded us all that, “a child has only one childhood…and that childhood is now.”

Children don’t get a second chance. There are no do-overs, because time does not wait for adults to get it right.

So we have to do our part now.  That is why I made the difficult decision to step aside from the superintendency to serve with Governor Dayton.

I stepped aside from the job I loved so I could do my part in making a difference for nearly a million children and over 70,000 teachers and school leaders. I couldn’t say no – especially after talking with Dr. Josie Johnson and realizing the sacrifices of others who have come before me.

Public service is not easy and I must admit that at times it can be quite overwhelming. However, I am a stronger and better person for it, and I am humbled daily to have this opportunity to serve with Governor Mark Dayton.

I have been in this appointed position since the day our Governor took the oath of office. And in the past two years I have learned a great deal about the value of government and the service it provides to the Minnesota people.  As I’ve grown into this position, I gained a new perspective of the role the Legislature and Governor play in shaping this great state. I am honored to be here today.

These past two years we have successfully debated and enacted bipartisan reforms that have moved us closer to ensuring every student in every classroom has a high quality teacher.

We have provided the first steps in securing more stable funding for our classrooms and created a sound set of policies that eliminated unfunded mandates and restored a better balance between local school autonomy and stronger accountability.

Last week, I presented a high level summary of the agency, our work, and accomplishments over the past two years.  Those highlights include a bipartisan alternative certification law, new teacher and principal evaluation systems, and a new 3rd grade literacy initiative that saw gains in our third graders reading and gap closure for every subgroup.

In a 5 billion dollar deficit we worked together with Governor Dayton’s leadership to secure additional funding for PK scholarships and an overall increase in funding our schools by $132 million.

We also won several highly competitive grants from the USDOE totaling over 120 million dollars. Including the federal RTTT Early Learning Challenge Grant for 45 million, the Charter Replication Grant for 28 million, our School Improvement Grants, local Promise Neighborhood grant and Minnesota was among the first 10 states to secure better school accountability under the No Child Left Behind Flexibility / Waiver.

Just as important, the whole team at the Minnesota Department of Education has focused on changing the way we work, moving from an agency focused on monitoring and compliance to one that provides strategic supports and assistance. This way we deliver better service to students, teachers and schools and better government for Minnesotans – a top priority of the Governors.

The Governor set forth in the first few months of his administration his vision for education – the 7-Point Plan. We have stuck to that vision. We have resisted the “shiny” reforms of the day– and have stayed strategically focused on what research says works. There hasn’t been a lot of new money, so we intentionally invested in a smaller number of reforms to get the greatest return on our investment.

Together, we have much to be proud of over these past two years… and together we can achieve the vision of better schools for a better Minnesota, if we stay the course.

Let me close with some early results, because in the end, results are what matters.

Although not good enough, we are bending the curve. Over the past year, we have seen math score go up, reading scores are up, and graduation rates are up. We are seeing a narrowing of achievement gaps among some groups of students.

But this much is also true; there is so much more we need to do before we achieve the ultimate goal of making sure every student has what he or she uniquely needs to be successful and all barriers to opportunity are removed.

I look forward to continuing our work together.

One of my favorite quotes is by John Maxwell: “One is too small a number for greatness.”

The successes we’ve achieved over the past two years are not mine alone, nor are they Governor Dayton’s or the Legislature’s alone.  They belong to all of us.  Together, we are stronger and united we are remarkable. We will accomplish great things for our children and in doing so, ensure a better future Minnesota for all of us.

Thank you.