Joe Nathan

The sudden resignation on March 8 of Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker made me sad and hopeful. Sad, because she modeled truly inclusive, student-focused leadership. Hopeful, because at least part of what she brought to education in Minnesota is continuing and because she still has much to contribute.

In her resignation letter, Ricker, who grew up on the Iron Range, wrote in part: “The strongest teaching and learning conditions meet the academic needs and social and emotional needs of students in a safe and welcoming environment, whether in-person or through distance learning. Those elements work together the way iron ore,  heat and carbon make steel. Each needs the other to be their strongest self.”

Ricker and I first met more than a decade ago, when she contacted me. She’d read a column in which I urged that educators learn from the most effective schools, whether district or chartered. She agreed. That surprised me, because at the time, she was the president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers. While some union leaders and members fiercely opposed the charter idea and chartered public schools, Ricker’s focus, then as now, was on what would help many more students achieve their potential. That wasn’t just a theory for her. Together, we convened district and charter educators to work on several projects. That included expanding opportunities for district educators to create new within-district options and efforts, well before it became a priority for many, to increase the diversity of teachers in St. Paul and Minnesota. With her leadership, the Legislature listened and supported both efforts.

When Gov. Tim Walz appointed Ricker as commissioner of education, some in the charter community worried that she, as former local president and national American Federation of Teachers executive vice president, would “come down hard” on them. I wasn’t concerned because I knew her to be open and inclusive.

She did what I expected. For example, when the pandemic struck, she immediately arranged for MDE to sponsor webinars where experienced “online” district and charter educators shared what they had learned. When she discovered that some districts and charters weren’t providing information to students and families that Minnesota PSEO law requires, she wrote to every superintendent and charter director. She explained what information is required and asked them to follow the law.

Many Minnesota leaders admire her.

Deb Henton, former superintendent of North Branch Area Public Schools, and now executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, told me that Ricker “will be remembered for maintaining a positive outlook, and the gratitude she often expressed for all that school districts have done for their students during these challenging times.”

Eugene Piccolo, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools, wrote: “From day one of her appointment as commissioner, she engaged the chartered public school community, and has recognized charter schools as a part of the state’s system of public education in all her communications and work. We are most grateful to Commissioner Ricker for creating an atmosphere of cooperation and respect for the work being undertaken by all educators in traditional and chartered public schools.”

Aaliyah Hodge, board chair of People for PSEO, who also serves on a statewide committee reviewing/revising social studies standards, described Ricker as “an amazing woman and a true leader.”

Education Minnesota described Ricker in part as “an advocate for students and a trusted voice for educators during the pandemic.”

Steve Massey, superintendent of Forest Lake Area Schools, described Ricker as “a visionary leader who is fiercely devoted to ensuring equitable learning opportunities for all students.”

Lee-Ann Stephens, High Achievement Program coordinator for St. Louis Park Schools, explained that Ricker “connected with me many times throughout her tenure as commissioner of education to discuss her vision for a more racially equitable education system.”

I learned that the incoming MDE Commissioner Heather Mueller already has contacted many education leaders, pledging continued collaboration. That’s in part a tribute to the modeling Ricker offered.

Ricker and I didn’t always agree. But she was always fair, open and focused on what will help students succeed. Whatever she does next, she’ll bring the best qualities of an educator.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school educator and PTA president directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome at joe@centerforschoolchange.org.

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