St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS) will have at least three and possibly four new members after the November 2 election. So who are you voting for? And will that make a change?
Caucus for Change-endorsed candidates insist that SPPS problems start with the district and school board’s failure to listen to teachers and parents. The Caucus for Change website lists seven principles, beginning with, “Believe that parents and teachers, working together, must be at the center of decisions about the future of our school district.”
The biggest complaints about SPPS administration and board come from teachers and parents who say the district just doesn’t listen. The biggest complaints about schools focus on the achievement gap that leaves black students behind and discipline problems that affect the whole learning environment.
Failure to communicate, or how not to make changes
Two years ago, SPPS dumped EBD and ELL kids back into regular classrooms without adequate (or any) preparation and support for teachers. The district justified this as a move for equity. Yes — it is absolutely true that EBD (Emotionally and Behaviorally Disabled) diagnosis goes disproportionately to black male students, who are pulled out of regular classrooms and exiled in Alternative Learning Centers. It is also absolutely true that many English Language Learners were held out of mainstream classrooms for too long. SPPS was failing these students.
In addition to this massive mainstreaming move, the district also moved sixth grade to junior high schools in 2013 and rolled out the iPad for every student initiative in 2014.
Disruption — for schools, teachers, and students — was enormous. Some of the now-mainstreamed students benefited, learning more and eventually fitting in to their new classrooms. Others continued to struggle, contributing to what many teachers and parents say is a growing discipline problem.
SPPS says that, despite recent incidents, statistics show no increased discipline problems over the past five years. Many teachers vehemently disagree. Recent news reports focused on a gun found in a Harding High School student’s backpack, fights at Como Park High School, and a disruptive student at Central High School who was tased when he refused to leave the school, and “just lost it.”
School discipline is a hydra-headed monster.
- Students come to school with problems such as poverty, family conflicts, emotional disturbance, and criminal activity in their neighborhoods. Add in the disruptive hormonal flows of adolescence, and you’ve got a recipe for acting out.
- Disruption in classrooms diminishes learning for all kids.
- School discipline in St. Paul, as in Minneapolis, as in public schools across the country, evidences institutional racism. Black male students get suspended and expelled at disproportionately high rates. Black female students and Native American students also suffer disproportionately high rates of school discipline.
- While initiatives such as restorative justice and mediation show success in some schools, funding and support for district-wide adoption, teacher training and implementation are just not there. The district’s Positive Behavioral Intervention Strategies discipline matrix gets mixed reviews, including lack of adequate teacher training and support.
- Some teachers say the district ordered that no students be suspended, as a way of reducing disproportionate suspension of black students. The district says that’s not true.
Anyway….right now, I think, we’ve kind of got the worst of both worlds. Teachers are saying they’re not being allowed to discipline students for major infractions and yet we still have massive racial disparities in discipline approach.
The Achievement Gap — Yes, it’s still there
St. Paul’s achievement gap remains appalling and unjust by any measure. No effort made to date has substantially reduced it. In fact, according to state data, the districtwide achievement level for both black and white students has fallen significantly since 2011, and the achievement gap has widened.
The numbers on the Minnesota Department of Education website indict the district’s education system. No matter that Minneapolis numbers or statewide numbers may show even greater gaps. These numbers are unacceptable. They evidence a systemic failure to educate black students. Statistics for Native American students, Asian students, and Latino students also show wide achievement gaps.
Continuing and intractable achievement gaps provide strong evidence of institutional racism, which exists not only in the schools but in the society-at-large and in the entire state of Minnesota. Beating teachers over the head is not going to make that problem go away. Instead, the district needs to look at places where schools and teachers are succeeding, and focus on replicating those local models of success.
Who to vote for?
In the best Minnesota Nice tradition, the Pioneer Press editorial endorsing the four Caucus for Change candidates had good things to say about every candidate. A Star Tribune article mainly summarized criticisms that the Caucus for Change campaign is supported and funded by the teachers union. St. Paul’s teachers union has piloted and pushed significant initiatives to help students, such as the successful teacher home visit program, and a 2014 contract calling for hiring new social workers, nurses, media specialists and counselors. That makes the Strib article less than convincing to me.
The Caucus for Change candidates each have strengths that the school board needs. I also respect the experience and passionate commitment of Keith Hardy during his tenure on the school board. But on balance, I think that SPPS desperately needs change, and the four candidates of the Caucus for Change — Zuki Ellis, Steve Marchese, Jon Schumacher, and Mary Vanderwert —will get my vote.
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For more on the positions and statements of candidates, see:
- St. Paul school board candidates off and running (News Day)
- Pioneer Press editorial endorsement
- Star Tribune editorial endorsement
- Candidate responses to Caucus for Change questionnaire
- Why the DFL blew up the St. Paul Board of Education (MinnPost)
- Elections 2015: The St. Paul School Board (Naomi Kritzer)
- Union’s chosen four could take majority on St. Paul School Board (Star Tribune)