Education Commissioner Cassellius traces growing up years

Making a point before a Minnesota Legislature committee, Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius is not short of innovative ideas. (Photo by T.W. Budig, ECM Capitol Reporter)

Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius has a copy of a photo from the old Minneapolis Star in her office showing a young girl peddling flowers on the streets of Minneapolis.

“That’s me,” said Cassellius, glancing at the copy.

The first person of color to lead the Department of Education, Cassellius grew up in public housing in Minneapolis.

Long hours peddling flowers earned some money.

But there were also food stamps.

And homelessness.

Cassellius’ mother, who never graduated from high school, was 16-years-old when she gave birth to her first daughter and only few years older when daughter Brenda was born.

“I grew up poor, but I never felt a poverty of love,” Cassellius once wrote.

Although her father and mother at times were separated, her father remained a presence in his daughter’s life.

And he instilled the belief that cycles of poverty can be broken.

“You know, Peanuts,” Cassellius remembers her father saying to her.

“You can be anything you want to be. You might have to work harder at it, but you can be anything you want to be – and don’t let anybody tell you you can’t be,” he said.

Something sunk in.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan styled Cassellius  “an overachiever.”

Other depictions of Cassellius include that of workhorse.

Cassellius had other guiding lights.

Her grandfather, Melvin Alston, was president of the black teachers’ union in Norfolk, Va., in the late 1930s.

At that time in Norfolk, black teachers were paid less than white teachers.

With the assistance of the National Association for the Advancement of Color People (NAACP), Alston successfully sued the city for equal pay.

Serving as his attorney was future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.

Cassellius tempers her own personal achievement — hard work, a bit of luck — by speaking of uplifting hands.

Her mother enrolled her in Head Start as a small child, and Cassellius remembers community assets from bookmobiles to summer camp buoying her along.

“It was quite amazing to get into books and learn to read,” she recently told a group of educators.

There was an ongoing theme — you can be whatever you want.

And there were teachers.

Cassellius recalls with a smile the “magic wand” her kindergarten teacher waved to reward and encourage. The teacher would extend the wand over deserving kindergartners, lightly tapping their heads, and the tip would light up.

Of course, the wand had a battery and an on/off switch, probably hidden in the teacher’s hand.

But they didn’t think of that, Cassellius explained.

It seemed magical.

Debate at the State Capitol might lend a sense teachers en masse are closely watching, hanging on developments.

That’s not true, Cassellius explained.

They’re too busy.

Cassellius, 45, originally thought of pursuing a career in medicine.

She briefly attended Gustavus Adolphus College, but racial slurs prompted her to transfer to the University of Minnesota.

There she earned her first degree, taking a semester off to give birth to her first child.

Two years ago her son graduated from college.

“That was my greatest accomplishment,” Cassellius said.

“To be a single mom, to go to school full time, to be a teacher full time and, then, to see him walk across that stage has truly been my greatest accomplishment.”

Cassellius began her teaching career in St. Paul and Burnsville, eventually becoming associate superintendent in the Minneapolis Public Schools.

Her last post, before being named education commissioner in 2010 by Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton  — a governor Cassellius credits with a keenness for innovation, good judgment, but one she personally knew so little about she researched his background before applying — was as superintendent of the East Metro Integration District.

Other than for several years in Memphis, Tenn. as Academic Superintendent of Middle Schools, a brief stint in Oklahoma City, Okla., Cassellius has lived and worked in Minnesota.

A hockey fan — she attended Dayton’s inaugural wearing a hockey shirt — Cassellius plays forward on a team in the Women’s Hockey Association of Minnesota.

She diagnoses herself a better skater than stick handler, but speaks of her time on the ice to girls to encourage them to try.

Highlights of her tenure as commissioner include applying for and winning a federal No Child Left Behind waiver. The education department won a $45 million federal Race to the Top early learning challenge grant, plus a $28 million federal charter school grant.

Alternative teacher licensure legislation was successfully negotiated with the Republican-controlled legislature and signed into law.

Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Gen Olson, R-Minnetrista, who has witnessed some dozen education commissioners over her service in the Senate, said although her dealings with Cassellius have been limited, the commissioner is someone she can talk to.

But whatever the commissioner’s other strengths, an ability to deal with the legislature is not uppermost, Olson said.

“Often she steps in with guns loaded,” said Olson.

Admittedly, these are challenging times, Olson said.

But Cassellius could be more open to the give and take, Olson suggested.

Cassellius’ public voice, like her skates, can have an edge.

During the recent “Last In, First Out” (LIFO) debate over teacher seniority and rehiring, in an opinion piece Cassellius bore in.

“Quick fixes, silver bullets, or ‘policies du jour’ won’t move the achievement needle for kids. And trying to bulldoze change by enacting bad policy or targeting teachers as the sole source of our problems minimizes our challenges,” she wrote.

Former House K-12 Finance Committee Chairwoman Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, said Cassellius’ first appearance at the State Capitol was like a breath of fresh air.

The word about Cassellius from a lawmaker who knew her was that Cassellius spoke passionately about education — something Greiling likes to hear.

But Greiling views Cassellius receding into the background.

She cited several possible reasons why.

To those unaccustomed to politics, the State Capitol can be shock, Greiling explained.

Greiling hopes the commissioner, if she’s been troubled by the politics, finds her “sea legs.”

Beyond this, Dayton’s approach to negotiating is that he — not a commissioner — makes the final decision, Greiling explained.

If Cassellius feels a need for wariness because the Senate has not yet acted on her confirmation, Greiling suggests the commissioner shrug it off.

It’s unlikely, given Cassellius’ background, given she is a person of color, the Senate would reject her confirmation, Greiling said.

“She should just follow her heart, and not worry about the Republicans,” Greiling said.

Cassellius drew a distinction to the suggestion that her early life serves as an example of the state’s commitment to education.

She grew up in the days of the Minnesota Miracle, Cassellius explained.

She questions whether such an unifying spirit still pervades Minnesota.

But Cassellius does see a lesson in a photo of a nine-year-old flower peddler.

“So I always ask teachers to think about those stories that you maybe don’t know about those children who are right in front of you … because always, always, always, it’s going to be a story you don’t expect,” Cassellius said.