Standing Tall on Cultural Relevance

Type: Member Spotlight
Topics: Early Learning, School Administrator Magazine

May 01, 2024


a bald white man with a gray beard and black mustache


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.

That visibility works to his advantage. Gothard, who was selected in February as the 2024 National Superintendent of the Year, wants people to know he’s in their midst — to listen, engage and make a difference.

It’s a distinctive quality that those around him appreciate and has brought him wide acclaim. This summer, Gothard will move into the superintendency in Madison, Wis., his hometown.

In St. Paul, Jeanelle Foster, a former member of the 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,” Foster says.

With 69 schools and more than 30,000 students, Saint Paul is Minnesota’s second-largest district. It is rich in diversity, with at least 110 languages spoken by its students. As a biracial educator, 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. Under his leadership, Saint Paul instituted a required Critical Ethnic Studies course for 10th graders during the 2022-23 school year.

Another prime example is the opening last fall of the East African Elementary Magnet School, which mostly serves about 240 students from nine East African counties. For years, a group of Somali parents had advocated for the school, leading the superintendent to convene a special task force.

“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 Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts for the Twin Cities.

Croonquist calls the magnet school “a wild success. … I think they beat all expectations in terms of enrollment.”

Gothard does not shy away from responding to public concerns about youth violence in the community. He organized a series of daylong student conferences last spring for all eight high schools to discuss issues of safety called “How Are the Children?” Gothard, along with equity office staff, participated in each to listen to students’ concerns about safety, but the conversations went far beyond that.

“We realized that safety isn’t the absence of fear,” Gothard says. “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.”

Under Gothard’s leadership, the district is reducing disparities in learning outcomes.

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 growth, although 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 gains, in part, to revamping and streamlining the credit recovery process and to merging the district’s summer school with its career pathway program. The Summer Experiential Learning program gives students the chance to learn new skills that open their eyes to new possibilities.

Says Foster, “He is a thoughtful, engaged leader. That’s him, bottom line.”

Jennifer Larson is a freelance writer in Nashville, Tenn.


Currently: superintendent, Saint Paul, Minn.

Previously: superintendent, Burnsville, Minn.

Age: 52

Greatest influence on professional career: My middle school teacher Delores Bell was my first and only Black teacher. She helped me embrace my biracial identity and remains a person who inspires me daily.

Best professional day: As a new superintendent in Saint Paul, I was invited to join a group of American Indian staff and students for a canoe ride on the Mississippi River. We stopped at Fort Snelling, an historic landmark where I heard painful stories about the history of the Dakota people. Today, it serves as a model for culturally responsive instruction.

Books at bedside: The Unteachables: Disability Rights and the Invention of Black Special Education by Keith A. Mayes; and The Color of Emotional Intelligence: Elevating Our Self and Social Awareness to Address Inequities by Farah Harris

Why I’m an AASA member: With its unwavering commitment to public schools, AASA offers leadership support and provides an excellent professional network.