Sporting a bright orange Minneapolis Public Schools t-shirt, Interim Superintendent Rochelle Cox wove through a crowd of hundreds of families, pausing often to offer high-fives or try a few dance moves with students.
The district-sponsored celebration for families of young children was one of the first events under Cox's yearlong tenure. Chatting with parents and students marked a step toward her priority of building community trust and reimagining the culture of Minneapolis schools after a couple of tumultuous years.
"When we're out at community events, we're not sitting behind a table," said Cox, who has also recently attended neighborhood get-togethers and visited several schools. "We're initiating those conversations so that we can hear honest feedback."
Many Minneapolis families have long been calling for a reset of district culture. A parent evaluation process launched in 2018 revealed that parents of color wanted to feel more included and better reflected in the city's schools. Pandemic pressures coupled with a three-week teachers' strike last spring added to the challenges the district already faced.
Enrollment has been declining for years, and the latest stats suggest that fewer Black families in particular are choosing Minneapolis Public Schools. From July 2021 to July 2022, the number of students dropped by about 3,300, and the drop was steepest among Black students.
"We've had families who've said to us through different avenues ... that they have not felt welcome in their schools and we need to change that," Cox said. "We are a public education institution that needs to serve everybody."
One of Cox's first priorities is forming relationships and improving communication in the name of building a positive climate — one of the pillars of the district's strategic plan.
"It was about dusting [the framework] off and being really intentional about how we talk about it," she said. "There's a real need to do this right now."
Under the district's newly restructured equity and school climate department, Minneapolis Public Schools now has about a dozen "climate coordinators." Each school will have access to an assigned coordinator, who can offer resources and support as the school builds a welcoming environment among staff and students.
The goal is not to create one standardized feel in every school, but to help the district's 28,000 students and their families feel welcome, and ensure school staff has the support to make that happen, district leaders say. Each of the district's more than 90 schools already has its own distinct feel and community, Cox said.
"That's the beauty of MPS and I would never want to take that away," she said.
That comes as a relief to Melisha "MiMi" Carroll, the family and community liaison at Lucey Laney elementary on the North Side, who's best known as Ms. Mimi. She said the school already has a distinct, supportive culture and credits the school's leadership for setting that tone: They ensure — beginning in the interview process — that each educator in the building cares deeply for children, while also setting high expectations.
She remembered coming in for her first job interview and realizing that the woman wiping a child's nose at the front door was Principal Lisa Pawelak. That showed Carroll that the head of the school was not above the relationship-building she asks of her staff.
"Culture absolutely starts with leadership because leaders set that tone," she said, adding that she's still a little skeptical about receiving culture-building advice from those who aren't in classrooms every day.
"They need to bring that accountability for those who aren't doing it," Carroll said, "and get out of the way for the people who are."
Pawelak said she's happy to hear more conversation about climate and culture in the city's schools. The concepts can be hard to quantify, she said, but there are measurable indications of a welcoming school environment, including staff and student retention and school placement requests.
"In our white American culture, we don't often place enough emphasis on feeling," she said. "It really has a lot of weight."
Maintaining that welcoming family isn't only about the fun relationship-building activities like karaoke over the lunch hour on Fridays. It's also about having tough, respectful conversations with students and staff when they don't aren't meeting expectations, Carroll said.
"It needs to be a balance of that support and accountability," she said.
At Wednesday's event at Mona Moede Early Learning Center, Minneapolis mom Chelsea Sullivan paused near a table where kids were making clay pinch pots. Her 4-year-old will soon start preschool at Marcy elementary and both her children have been involved in the district's early childhood programs.
Before walking back to her car, Sullivan looked back over her shoulder and spotted Cox in her orange shirt. When they'd walked into the event, Cox had greeted them with a smile and danced for a few moments with Sullivan's daughter — although Sullivan hadn't realized then that the dancing woman was the leader of the school district. That was a welcome surprise, she said.
"Many families have a sour taste in our mouths after the last couple years in this school district," Sullivan said. "Hopefully we're charting a new course ... But I'm waiting to hear more. I'm cautiously optimistic."