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NSOY Honoree Joe Gothard Discovers Personal Connections and Cultural Relevance as Central to Student Success in a Diverse School Community

Joe Gothard accepts award during the General Session at the 2024 AASA Conference on Thursday, February 15, 2024 in San Diego, CA. Photo by Sandy Huffaker for AASA.

Joe Gothard stands out in the crowd. Literally. The superintendent of Saint Paul Public Schools in Minnesota, is six feet, six inches tall and bald. He’s hard to miss.

But that works to his advantage. Gothard, 52, who was selected as the 2024 National Superintendent of the Year award on Thursday afternoon at AASA’s National Conference on Education, prides himself on being open and present. He wants people to know he’s in their midst — and that he’s here to listen to them and engage with them.

It’s a distinctive quality that those around him appreciate. Jeanelle Foster, a former member of the St. Paul board of education, praises Gothard for being intentional about making space to listen to and learn from students, as well as parents and staff.

“It speaks to his character, in putting our kids first and always wanting to put our kids first, leading with what they need,” says Foster, who was on the board when Gothard was hired in 2017.

Embracing Cultural Relevance

With 69 schools and more than 33,000 students, Saint Paul Public Schools is the second-largest school district in Minnesota. It’s a district rich in diversity with at least 110 languages spoken by its students. As an educator who is biracial himself (his mother was Black, and his father was white), Gothard is deeply committed to respecting that diversity.

“We want to be culturally relevant in this district,” he says.

With that mindset, he has championed initiatives that allow diversity to flourish. About 7.5 percent of the school district’s students are part of East African families. For years, a group of Somali parents advocated for a school for their children. Gothard’s belief in the importance of engaging with the community and empowering them to make decisions led him to open the door.

He identified a veteran school district administrator who was also a leader in the local Somali community to head up a task force of parents, staff and community members. They determined that a vacant school building that had closed due to enrollment declines would make the perfect place.

The East African Elementary Magnet School, which serves students from nine countries in East Africa, opened its doors at the beginning of the 2023-24 school year with more than 240 students who speak a half dozen different languages. Those students readily see themselves and their cultures reflected in their school environment.

“It’s been a wild success,” says Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts (Twin Cities Metro). “I think they beat all expectations in terms of enrollment.”

Additionally, under Gothard’s leadership, the district instituted a required Critical Ethnic Studies course for 10th graders, starting with the class of 2025.

Committed to Better Results

Under Gothard’s leadership, the district also is finding innovative opportunities for struggling students to improve. He used federal relief funds to create the What I Need Now strategy, which meant hiring more than 80 new reading teachers to spread out across the district, where they work with small groups of students.

A native of Madison, Wis., he also has been focused on addressing racial disparities, such as students from certain groups graduating at much lower rates.

In 2021, the graduation rate for all students was 83 percent but only 59 percent for American Indian students, 70 percent for Black students and 76 percent for students of two or more races. The superintendent admits there’s still plenty of room for improvement, though four-year graduation rates are on the rise. In 2022, they had risen between 2 and 4 percentage points for each subgroup.

Gothard credits the increase, in part, to revamping the credit recovery process, so students can start right away, rather than waiting until the summer—and to merging the district’s summer school with its career pathway program. The Summer Experiential Learning program launched in 2022, giving students the chance to learn new skills, such as sustainable local agriculture, that prepare them for high-demand and high-wage career opportunities.

“That could be the difference in their entire life. If we are able to re-engage a student and get them back on a track where they feel good about themselves, where they’re able to get a plan for graduation,” he says.

Listening and Relating

Croonquist notes that Gothard does not shy from making tough calls. At the same time, Gothard is dedicated to each student’s growth, to making sure all communities are represented in the education system and that everyone’s voice is heard.

“He’s a very collaborative leader who really wants to hear from all of his staff, from his students, from his community members, to get the best ideas from everyone,” says Croonquist.

In response to concerns about growing youth violence in the community, Gothard organized a conference last spring to discuss their experience with school, including issues of safety. The district bused 431 studentsfrom eight district high schools to a local community center to participate in a day-long event called “How Are the Children?”

Gothard rotated through each small group of students to listen to their safety concerns, but the conversations went far beyond that.

“We realized that safety isn’t the absence of fear,” says Gothard. “Safety is the presence of connection. And that word ‘connection’ really changed my framing for how I see so many things in our school district. …  It was a powerful experience, and it has led to some amazing relationships.”

One student named Bobby particularly impressed him. Gothard invited the high school senior to join him at the Minnesota State Fair in August for live media roundtables to promote the upcoming school year. Gothard continues to invest in that relationship with Bobby.

“I have written a couple of letters for college and scholarships for him and will be excited to see his ultimate choice,” says Gothard. “Of course, I asked him to strongly consider education.”

Foster, the former school board member, says the superintendent’s engagement with a student typifies his distinctive nature. “He is a thoughtful, engaged leader. That’s him, bottom line.”

(Jennifer Larson is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tenn.)

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