Lori Norvell at Field Elementary School. Sahan Journal asked each candidate to choose a school for their portrait. Norvell chose Field, which her children attended, and which she credits with inspiring her to get back into teaching. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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Lori Norvell, 50, is running to represent District 5 on the Minneapolis school board. District 5 represents parts of south Minneapolis including Bancroft, Lake Nokomis, and Longfellow. Norvell faces Laurelle Myhra in the race for the District 5 seat.

Name: Lori Norvell

Age: 50

Day job: Executive assistant at Hennepin Theatre Trust

Kids: One 11th grader who goes to Washburn High School, and two children who have graduated from Minneapolis Public Schools.

Neighborhood: Hale Page Diamond Lake

Lori Norvell hopes to bring the voice of a recent former educator to the Minneapolis school board. She left her job as a math teacher at Anthony Middle School last December, citing burnout and a lack of support.

“I felt like I was banging my head against the wall, to be honest with you,” she said.

On the school board, she hopes she can help more educators and parents feel heard.

“I decided to run for school board because I am seeing what’s happening with privatization of schools, with districts, and it worries me,” she said. “It’s really important that we have quality public schools for all of our kids. It’s the cornerstone of our community and having strong public schools impacts every other part of our community. It’s just vital. I’m very concerned about organizations that are coming in and trying to privatize education and then we don’t have quality education for everyone.”

Here’s how Norvell would approach the job on the school board.

In one sentence, why should people in Minneapolis vote for you?

I’m a recent former educator, and also I’m a parent, so I can see this from different lenses: We need the voice of someone who is going to be able to share concerns about what is happening in schools, someone who’s taught through the pandemic, and someone who is still in close contact with educators, ESPs [education support professionals] and teachers and nurses and social workers and counselors, all of the people who make the school run.

What do you love about Minneapolis Public Schools? Can you give your answer in two to three bullet points?

  • I love the diversity that we have within the district. 
  • I love the programs that are offered for students. 
  • It really has some of the best educators I’ve ever known. They are so dedicated.

After a tumultuous term, superintendent Ed Graff left the district at the end of June. Selecting a new superintendent will be one of the next school board’s most important duties. Briefly, what do you think are the three most important criteria for Minneapolis’ next superintendent? 

First, I think we need somebody who is invested in our community, lives in our community and is in our community with us. We need someone who has a collaborative nature. What we’ve seen in the past is a top-down authoritarian type model. That doesn’t work. We need someone who is going to seek input from all different departments at all different levels, including community members, families, and students. And we need someone who has a business-savvy mind as well. So we really need someone who’s very well-rounded in those three areas.

In March, teachers and education support professionals held a 14-day strike, which made many staff frustrations public and kept kids home for three weeks. What are the two or three most important lessons you learned from the educator strike?

I went out on the line with the teachers. They’re my friends and former colleagues. I’m a very strong supporter of what they did. The biggest win that they got was increased pay for the education support professionals, which was so important. I spoke with an ESP yesterday about how that extra pay is positively impacting her life right now. And I think the solidarity of the union. I was always a union member as a teacher. I know that they’ve come under a lot of criticism, but it is important to have that structure so that they can stand up for all of the workers.

How would you apply those lessons as a school board member?

Listening to people, hearing what their concerns are, being with them. I think that’s really important: that community involvement, listening to what the needs are of the community, of the educators, students, the staff. It’s also working together to compromise, keeping students at the center always in every single decision. Student achievement, student needs, what is best for students: that has got to be at the center of every single decision, and that includes negotiations for contracts.

People have to realize that when you’re taking care of your educators—your teachers, ESPs, nurses, school counselors, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, everybody—when you’re taking care of all of those people, they’re the ones taking care of the students. So if they’re doing well, the students are doing well. And it’s not one or the other. We’ve got to make sure that we’re showing our educators that they’re valued for the work that they’re doing. 

Over the last few years, Minneapolis Public Schools has struggled with steady enrollment declines. How would you help Minneapolis Public Schools reverse enrollment declines and attract and retain students? Please give your answer in bullet points/action steps.

  • We need to increase stability in the district: with staffing, with programs, across the board. By increasing that stability then I think we’re going to get families to come back.
  • The first thing we’ve got to do is, we’ve got to talk to families and ask why they’re leaving, and what are they leaving for? Then try to put those things in place to bring them back. 
  • Part of that stability means that we have to practice careful research in advance of making decisions and then allowing time for feedback from the community. 
  • We have a huge wealth of resources within the district. We need to increase the effective use of resources that we have, that expertise within Minneapolis Public Schools, the community partnerships that we have too.

Over the last year, the school board has sometimes appeared sharply divided—not just in split votes, but in dynamics at school board meetings. That includes one board meeting where the superintendent, then some school board members, walked out. Do you think the current school board dynamic is working? If you think it isn’t, how do you propose to make this a more effective governance body?

I can’t really speak for what they’re doing, as far as what their working relationships are like. I do know that you’ve got to work with people. You get two people in a room and you’re never going to get 100 percent agreement every single time, especially not if you’re being true to your own convictions and your own values. So you’ve got to find a way to meet with each other. You’ve got to find a way to be able to hear. We’ve got to work on practicing open-mindedness. We’ve got to practice mutual respect for each other and seeing each other as people who are coming together to do what is best for students. 

I was a teacher. I couldn’t just walk out of a class. We’ve got to be able to say, ‘I’m here for the tough conversations, and I might not want to hear what you have to say or I might not agree with the way that you’re saying it.’ But there are ways to defuse situations and there are ways to talk to people.

Pandemic disruptions exacerbated racial academic disparities, in Minneapolis and around the country. What investments do you think the district needs to make now to help accelerate student learning and close gaps?

I think a couple of things they’re doing that are on the right track is, they’re looking at some curriculum that’s going to be across the board as far as literacy and math. I taught math, and I know quite a bit about the secondary math curriculum. It sounds like the literacy curriculum was quite similar. We had a couple of programs kind of pieced together. What ended up happening was, the teachers who were really invested in it, or had the time or had the resources, were putting more together and piecing things together and supplementing. So then what ends up happening is, you have greater disparity because some people have more time than others or more resources.

So I’m excited that they’ve adopted this new curriculum, and that it’s going to be something that’s implemented across the board at every single school.

Another investment: working towards retaining and recruiting educators of color. Studies have shown that all students benefit from diverse teaching staff. The work that MPS has started on that, I think the contract language around anti-bias, anti-racist practices, I think all of those are things that we need to continue to work on. 

Statewide, students have reported higher levels of mental health needs than before the pandemic. How do you think the district can better meet student mental health needs?

We really need to look at the ratios that we have of students to staff, particularly those mental health staff professionals. It really needs to be across the board in the schools looking at those student-to-staff ratios. What ends up happening in a school is if a school is short-staffed, and they don’t have someone to cover class, a counselor or social worker will get pulled to go cover a class. I’ve talked with social workers who have shared with me: I can’t do my job that I’m getting paid to do because we don’t have someone to answer the phones in the office. Or we don’t have someone to do lunch duty. We’ve really got to work on that overall staffing issue, so the people who are in these positions can actually do their jobs, and looking at that ratio with them as well, to make sure that their caseloads are not unmanageable.

In two sentences, what’s another issue facing Minneapolis Public Schools we haven’t talked about, and what’s your plan to tackle it?

Bilingual education for more students: I think that’s a direction that we need to be looking into doing more, whether that is our immersion programs or providing resources and opportunities for native Spanish-speaking students or native Somali-speaking students so that they’re still getting their language in school and the culture too.

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Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...