The Northside Polars and Greater Minneapolis community lost a precious treasure and righteous warrior whose life’s work touched more hearts and futures than he probably ever imagined or knew. While educator Birch Jones was not born and raised in Minneapolis, he would find himself teaching there after graduating from Eastern Illinois University, and eventually serving for more than a decade as principal at Franklin Middle and North High Schools in the heart of the Northside community.
As former principals at the Northside’s Hall Elementary and later Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) superintendents, we both had the good fortune to know and work side by side with Birch. We saw firsthand his deep commitment to students and a community often beset with tremendous economic and social challenges not always of their own making. We both benefitted from his efforts to build a seamless pathway for Hall’s elementary students to Franklin to North and beyond.
During his tenure at North High School, Birch Jones recruited and retained talented educators and created the then-flourishing SUMMATECH and Arts and Communications Programs that attracted students from across the city. He supported student finalists at nearly every state athletic competition and student scholars beyond the classroom. Because of Birch, MPS’ radio station (KBEM-88.5) exposed students to career experiences in broadcast journalism and television. History and world language departments were encouraged to support international student trips and close-up trips to the nation’s capital so students could see for themselves government policy created. Birch imagined and dreamed for his students’ leadership roles beyond 55411.
Birch came to work early and stayed late, engaging in every student activity, never delegating supervision and safety, and knowing every student and family by name. While he was no-nonsense, modeling for students the professional presence necessary to navigate the post-secondary competition he knew they would face, his sense of humor helped ease the stress and strain around him, reassuring people it was okay to relax.
During a more turbulent time, an already retired Birch answered the call to return to MPS to take on a leadership role, always gravitating to his passion for supporting students and families.
Birch not only served and educated thousands of students in North Minneapolis, he and his family chose to live there and invest in the Northside. He became a chief ambassador and champion for all the assets the community offered. He wanted to be close to students’ daily experiences so his knowledge and support would be authentic and timely. He rescued many students, some who had made poor choices, and skillfully guided them through the difficult and turbulent waters of adolescence – often simultaneously coaching their parents. His dear wife of more than four decades, also an educator, describes Birch as her “very best friend,” saying their life’s work together made a difference to their children and planted seeds for a better future for all of us.
A man of deep faith and courage, Birch Jones represented all that is asked of us: to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly (Micah 6:8). Birch was a true statesman to our profession and his legacy will live eternally in the hearts and minds of all those he touched – students, families and staff.
Dr. Carol R. Johnson-Dean
Bernadeia Johnson, Ed.D.
Former MPS Superintendents