Distrust and Disorder: A Racial Equity Policy Summons Chaos in the St. Paul Schools


A student walks down a Harding High hallway wearing headphones, chanting along to violent rap lyrics. Teacher Erik Brandt taps him on the shoulder. Turn it down, he gestures.

The kid stares at Brandt with chilling intensity. He points at the older man, fingers bent in the shape of a gun, and shoots. Then moves on.

Within Harding's corridors is a turbulent clutter of students who push and cuss and bully their way from one end of the building to another. Brandt, a finalist for Minnesota's Teacher of the Year and a 20-year veteran of the English department, doubles as a hall monitor. It is his job to somehow tame them.

When the bell rings, the majority trickle into classrooms. But 50 or so roamers remain. They come to school for breakfast and lunch and to wander the halls with their friends. He commands them to get to class, but his authority is empty.

Brandt, a bespectacled Shakespeare devotee who leads Harding's International Baccalaureate program, doesn't know the majority of kids in this school of 2,000 on St. Paul's East Side. Calling the principal on dozens of kids each day is impractical. Written requests for disciplinary action are a toothless paper trail of unenforceable consequence.

Harding isn't much different than most big city schools. It squats in St. Paul's most economically depressed zip code, where 83 percent of kids receive free or reduced-price lunch. This is a multi-ethnic, multi-national place, the majority the sons and daughters of Asian immigrants.


By the inverted logic of poverty, some of the lowest-achieving students ironically have the best attendance. Even on snow days, they can still count on free breakfast, heat, and wi-fi.

Every year kids reach the 12th grade with elementary-level reading skills. Still, the teachers here, who share centuries of experience, say they love their students and they love their jobs. That makes it harder to admit that over the last few years, Harding has suffered a breakdown of safety and order.

When the bell sounds the start of class, students remain in the halls. Those who tire of lectures simply stand up and leave. They hammer into rooms where they don't belong, inflicting mischief and malice on their peers. Teachers call it "classroom invasion."

Instructors who break up fights get beaten in the process, thrown into bookcases while trying to bar their doors.

Says Brandt: "There is a sizable chunk of students that — for a variety of very complex reasons — don't know how to behave in a decent, sociable way with other people in a school setting."

St. Paul's "Revolutionary Change"

Harding's tribulations are reflected in schools district-wide, most of which have undergone bold changes. In 2011, St. Paul canceled cross-city busing in order to cut transport costs and boost attendance at neighborhood schools. Sixth-graders were moved to middle schools, which used to house only seventh- and eighth-graders.

Two years ago, kids who'd spent their academic lives in specialized classrooms for behavioral issues and cognitive disabilities were mainstreamed into general classes, along with all the kids who spoke English as a second language. More than 3,000 made the transition.

The district also shifted its thinking on discipline, influenced by data that showed black kids being suspended at alarming rates. Such punishment would now come as a last resort. Instead, disruptive or destructive students would essentially receive a 20-minute timeout, receive counseling by a "behavioral coach," then return to class when they calmed down.

The changes came at the behest of Superintendent Valeria Silva. When she took up the torch of St. Paul's schools in 2009, she inherited an urban district like so many others — one with a dire achievement gap between students of color and their white counterparts.

She charged teachers with the job of fixing this gap, lest they be complicit in the cycle of poverty among black and brown communities.

Silva's solution, called Strong Schools, Strong Communities, was touted as "the most revolutionary changes in achievement, alignment, and sustainability seen within SPPS in the last 40 years." At least according to the district's website.

To kick it off, St. Paul spent more than $1 million on Pacific Educational Group, a San Francisco consulting firm that purports to create "racially conscious and socially just" schools.

Pacific offered racial equity training for teachers and staff, where they practiced talking about race. Teachers were asked to explore their biases, to preface their opinions with "As a white man, I believe..." or "As a black woman, I think...."

"The work begins with people looking at themselves and their own beliefs and implicit biases," says Michelle Bierman, the district's director of racial equity. If teachers could recognize their subconscious racism, everyone would work together to bridge the gap.

The final piece was a tech rollout. Since St. Paul wanted to fit students of widely differing skills into the same classes, teachers needed to customize lessons for individual kids. In 2011, the district invested $4.3 million in Dell for a website that offered videos, homework, and quizzes. But Dell delivered an embarrassingly archaic site, and the deal collapsed within three years. Students received iPads last year instead.

Harding High School teachers Erik Brandt, Rebecca McQueen, and Lee Stagg

Harding High School teachers Erik Brandt, Rebecca McQueen, and Lee Stagg

Teachers Were Blindsided

Teachers were expected to rally to Silva's call. They were to aggressively accelerate the skills of students who'd struggled for years while simultaneously challenging middle-of-the-road learners. And they had to do it while spanning languages from Hmoob to Espanol, Karen, and Soomaali.

The special ed and foreign language students began arriving in the middle of the 2013 school year. They were thrust into classes far too rigorous for their skills, prompting them to act out and flee.

Meanwhile, the new discipline plan wasn't working. If a child threw a tantrum, behavioral coaches would intervene with short-term counseling, which often failed to prevent kids from acting out time and time again.

Becky McQueen, who comes across as a five-foot-three mother hen, heads Harding's college prep program for middle and low-income kids. She says the percentage of kids causing problems at Harding is very small, and they're not all special ed. Last spring, when she stepped into a fight between two basketball players, one grabbed her shoulder and head, throwing her aside.

The kid was only sent home for a couple of days.

In March, when a student barged into her class, McQueen happened to be standing in the doorway and got crushed into a shelf. The following week, two boys came storming in, hit a girl in the head, then skipped back out. One of them had already been written up more than 30 times.

Ramsey Middle School parents Sara Duvre Wudali, Leah Logan, Jill Curran, and Janine Pingel

Ramsey Middle School parents Sara Duvre Wudali, Leah Logan, Jill Curran, and Janine Pingel

Yet another student who repeatedly drops into her class has hit kids and cursed at an aide, once telling McQueen he would "fry" her ass. She tried to make a joke of it — "Ooh, I could use a little weight loss."

Her students interjected: "No, that means he's gonna kill you."

Now, to know who to let in, she tells her students to use a secret knock at the door.

"There are those that believe that by suspending kids we are building a pipeline to prison. I think that by not, we are," McQueen says. "I think we're telling these kids you don't have to be on time for anything, we're just going to talk to you. You can assault somebody and we're gonna let you come back here."

Harding teachers are terrified the district is sending kids into the world with distorted expectations of reality. They're unprepared for college. They're taught to disrespect authority. Sooner or later, they'll realize they were cheated, Brandt says.

But most teachers are afraid to speak out. Tenure, after all, doesn't come until after three years on the job. And even those with tenure fear transfers and endless performance evaluations.

At John A. Johnson Elementary on the East Side, several teachers, who asked to remain anonymous, describe anything but a learning environment. Students run up and down the hallways, slamming lockers and tearing posters off the walls. They hit and swear at each other, upend garbage cans under teachers' noses.

"We have students who will spend an hour in the hallway just running and hiding from people, like it's a game for them," says one despondent teacher. "A lot of them know no one is going to stop them, so they just continue."

Nine teachers at Ramsey Middle School have quit since the beginning of this school year. Some left for other districts. Others couldn't withstand the escalating anarchy.

In mid-April, staff at Battle Creek Elementary penned a letter to their principal over "concerns about building wide safety, both physical and emotional, as well as the deteriorating learning environment."

A week later, the principal announced that he would be transferred next year.

"It's still just as crazy, with kids slamming doors and yelling and not listening to any teachers, running up and down the halls," says one Battle Creek Elementary teacher. "We had two behavior aides who come to the room if there's an issue or if a kid's left the class. They try to calm the kids down, and then they just put them right back in class after 5-10 minutes. It's not working. You know how kids are. If one gets away with it, then they're all gonna do it."

That discontent came to head this spring. The Caucus for Change, a teachers' movement backed by the DFL, vowed to oust all four school board members who are up for re-election this fall. They blame the board for backing Silva's changes despite teacher outcry.

Complaints to the board are routinely dismissed, says Roy Magnuson, a social science teacher at Como Park High. And those who speak out are race-shamed into silence.

"There is an intense digging in of heels to say there is no mistake," says Magnuson. "For the people who are saying there has been a mistake, the practice deflection is that people like me have issues with racial equity and that is the reason we are challenging them. That makes for a very convenient way of barring the reality of the situation."

He cites an incident at Como Park this spring. A special ed student had a meltdown, attacking a lunch lady in her 60s. Still, this is a modest improvement over last year, when a student with a history of aggression pummeled a kid so viciously that staff thought they had a fatality on their hands.


Just Believe It

School board member Keith Hardy believes it's all a misunderstanding. Teachers still have the right to kick students out of class. There is no district directive to cancel suspensions.

The key, he says, is just to make sure suspensions aren't "racially predictable."

"The bottom line is, I wanna have conversations about how we're going to lift up our babies, how we're going to lift up our students so they can walk into any school in the St. Paul Public School District and know they're going to get a high-quality education. I want the racist structure of public education that the United States is created on to be eradicated. This is work that you can't go back on, and it's work I do not apologize for."

But as more and more teachers speak out, the district's response has been to tell them to fix their relationships with the kids.

Before becoming the director of racial equity, Bierman taught at Gordon Parks High in Midway. She too dealt with difficult behavior, but found it easily managed by building trust. She would have never described Gordon Parks as "out of control," as teachers are wont to complain in recent years.

Kristy Pierce, a "cultural specialist" at Battle Creek Middle School, says training teachers to believe in kids will solve the discipline problems. "For many people in education now, it's about the punitive justice, consequences," Pierce says.

If students cuss them out, teachers should evaluate their own failures to earn a child's respect and trust. "It should be more than just kids apologizing. When you use the word 'black' versus 'African American' and the student flips out, understand where that might be coming from."

Pierce pitches a theory known as "restorative justice," the idea that mediation to repair harm is superior to punishment. Yet she believes most teachers don't understand it — or won't take the time to practice it, even if it takes but a few minutes.

She recounts the case of a Somali girl "who was feeling really disrespected, so I brought the student and teacher together and said, 'Student, this teacher really wants to hear your voice as a Somali girl.' That literally took 10 minutes."

But while it sounds good in doctrine, behavioral coach Michael Palmer of Battle Creek Elementary admits it's not a cure-all. Removing kids for short talks is hit or miss, he says. Sometimes kids won't open up, and their problems often deal with disarray at home, not school. But routinely rowdy kids receive ongoing counseling.

"From the teacher's point of view, it could look like this child's being taken out and coming back, and nothing's happening," Palmer says. "I do realize that would make my job really bad, if everybody started acting out."

In his eyes, it's far too early to give up on Silva's plan. "The racial equity thing is still new, and a lot of people aren't giving it a chance to settle yet."

The Failing Faith of Parents

Nicole Zambory, a mother of two at the Heights Community School, was sitting in her car in March, waiting to pick up her kindergartener. A teacher leaned in through the window to say that her boy had been punched in the face that day. The school was going to handle it.

Zambory was stuck in a queue of cars. She couldn't stop to have a full conversation.

When she got home, she called the Heights principal, anxious for information, wanting to know why she wasn't notified immediately. The principal bumped her to the assistant principal, who said the school would have a talk with the assailant after the weekend.

The next Monday, Zambory accompanied her son through the breakfast line. She saw the student who'd punched him, seated at his assigned table.

Her son is "not like one of those kids who would be terrified and start crying or anything, but I'm sure it was uncomfortable and he did look like he was kind of nervous," Zambory says. She believes it's because he's used to bullying as a special ed child with dyslexia and ADHD.

Zambory's fourth-grade son has experienced bullying at Heights too. Once he was standing in line behind the teacher when another student tied a pair of gloves together, put them around his neck, and started choking him.

She never knew if the school addressed the incident. She wasn't invited to a sit-down with the principal or the other student's parents. When she called the superintendent's office, no one called back.

On the days she sits in class with her sons, she tallies the instances of kids throwing tantrums, flipping desks, and making threats. It all adds up to a single option, she says: pulling her boys from Heights next year.

Daeona Griffin has the same idea. She has second- and fourth-grade sons at Battle Creek Elementary. In the last six months, her second-grader has been hit three or four times, she says, and he hits back.

"When I ask my son, he just says, 'Well, they hit me first,' and I don't know what they're doing about children hitting each other," Griffin says. "I have to explain to the principal that I don't teach my children to fight, but if someone's laying hands, what option do they have?"

Griffin started sitting in class to assist the teachers. She wanted to keep her kids from fighting and give them a sense of security.

"My second-grader's class is the most dysfunctional classroom I have ever witnessed with my own two eyes," she says. "I have never even heard of classrooms like Ms. [Tina] Woods'. She has maybe six extreme behavior students in one class. I've seen them punch her. I've seen them walk around the halls. I've seen her try to read to the class and it took her an hour and a half to read two pages. It's too much."

Woods did not respond to interview requests. But Griffin thinks she's in hell. All the teacher can do is repeat herself, telling the same kids to sit down and show respect, over and over. Griffin believes it would take two or three more adults in the class just to accomplish anything.

Griffin's younger son has been suspended in the past, and that's all right by her. "He's a behavior kid too," she says. "I'm not ever gonna deny my child needs reinforcement. He's not a perfect kid by far, and I'm not the perfect parent, but I'm there to help him get over these stepping stones."

The problem with suspending kids is not that it takes them out of the classroom, Griffin says. Rather, she takes issue with the way students are thrown back into school after serving their time without clear evidence they've digested their lessons.

It doesn't help that her children are struggling academically. When her kids come home, she tries to help them with homework, but they don't understand half of it. "They don't have anything to push him or make him better at the subjects where he's inadequate," Griffin says. "I'm serious. They just pass the kids on. They just go to the next grade."

She's hoping to move them to Maplewood or Woodbury.


Flight of the Hmong

For the district's Hmong, whispers of leaving St. Paul are rippling across networks of family and friends. When these parents get a whiff of academic disruption, they start to quietly pull their kids, says Harding history teacher Koua Yang. He's lost about 20 students in the Hmong drain over the past few years.

As they make up St. Paul's largest ethnic group, Hmong families' wavering commitment to the district warns of greater problems to come. News travels quickly in insular communities, and losing one child means losing a pipeline of little brothers, sisters, and cousins. As families look toward Roseville and Woodbury, the entire group shifts to a migratory mindset.

At the heart of their concerns: Why are Southeast Asians an afterthought in all this talk of racial equity?

St. Paul's Asian students are floundering academically, state test scores show. They're about 30 percent behind the state average in math and reading proficiency. They score lower on the ACT and are less likely to enroll in college.

"I met with a Karen group, the district parent group, and they had no clue the Asian population was struggling academically," Yang says. "They assumed that everything was going well because our cultural belief is that our schools would take care of what needs to be done. They respect authority, educators, principals, and teachers. They think it's almost rude to question what is going on, so they don't."

Historically, schools have been notorious for lumping all Asians together. But grouping the needs of Hmong, Karen, and Cambodian students with those of Koreans, Chinese, and Japanese doesn't help, says Yang. Southeast Asians arrived in the country much later, often as political refugees. They haven't spent generations honing their navigational skills.

Yet St. Paul has largely fixated on contrasts between white and black, ignoring its largest minority group. "Part of the frustration for the Hmong community is all we hear is the academic disparity between the whites and the blacks," says Yang. "This racial equity policy, it's not equitable to all races. It isn't."

If the district kept Asians in mind, it wouldn't have mainstreamed kids new to English. Yang recalls teaching a unit on imperialism, where "mercantilism" was part of the vocabulary. He spent a half-hour explaining the concept to a group of Hmong. After class, they admitted to struggling with the notion because they had no frame of reference from their own culture.

Later, another teacher attempted to relay the same lesson. Yang overheard Hmong kids whispering among themselves: "'OK, who's going to go up to the teacher and tell her that we don't have a clue?' 'You ask her.' 'No, you ask her.' 'Well, what should we ask her then?'"

Meanwhile, that same teacher had other fires to extinguish. Her job was to scaffold the curriculum to meet a sweeping cross-section of students with emotional needs, learning disabilities, and trouble with English — all while still challenging the rest of the class. Asian students who waited silently were falling through the cracks.

Chai Lee, host of an education show on KPNP, a Hmong radio station, has three children in the St. Paul schools. He says Southeast Asian parents may struggle with language, but they can see the disruption with their own eyes. He blames a lack of Asian faces within the district hierarchy. The superintendent's executive team is roughly half white and half black.

"I encourage the Hmong families not to move, but to advocate for change, for their needs, because St. Paul is our city," says Lee. "Why do we have to leave?"

Efe Agbamu, the district's head of multilingual learning, says all is not as bad as it sounds. In 2013, after consulting principals and parents, the district routed students new to English into classrooms with multiple teachers.

"Our students who are in co-taught classes are doing very, very well because they get the content more than once," Agbamu says. "It is not a perfect thing, but we continue to work with it, and if there is a reason to believe a child should be held back, there's nothing to prevent a teacher from communicating with a parent. We have not thrown them to the sharks."

Parents Ride to the Rescue

When Silva visited Harding in March, she emphasized building relationships with students as the key to harmony. McQueen agrees — to a certain extent.

"All of them have my phone number," she says of the kids in her college prep program. "I get calls, texts any time of the day. I have a graduation party for them at my house because some of them, their parents don't know or can't afford a graduation party. I love these kids with my entire being, and they know it."

Her kids aren't invading classrooms or attacking people, she says. But she usually doesn't know the ones she writes up. How can you blame teachers for not having a relationship with every kid in a 2,000-student building?

Teacher Lee Stagg also attended the Harding meeting with Silva, where parents and students relished the chance to air frustrations over drug dealing and safety. Now he's looking to the district leadership to listen — really listen — to what teachers have been saying all along.

It has, to some degree.

After the nine Ramsey teachers quit last fall, the district realized it was time for an intervention. Assistant Superintendent Lisa Sayles-Adams admits the climate was "rough."

Ramsey gained one behavioral staffer per grade. The Jeopardy! theme song now tinkles over the intercom between classes as kids flood to their rooms to earn points for field trips and school dances.

"Now when you walk in, it looks like any middle school," Sayles-Adams says. "You have kids going where they need to go, they're hustling and bustling, they're talking to their buddies, interacting positively with staff. The kids feel happy there."

Sayles-Adams calls it a triumph of collaboration between the district, the school, and parents. Ramsey mom Elaine Blevins-Gillespie would agree, though it took parent pressure to make it happen. This year teachers took advantage of a clause in their contracts to create parent-teacher committees to find their own solutions.

Hallway sweeps were born. So was the idea to throw a school dance where kids with few tardies were admitted free, while those with too many were denied entrance.

Blevins-Gillespie proudly chaperoned that dance. The vast majority of kids received free tickets.

It wasn't so long ago that parents were wringing their hands over what to do about Ramsey. Blevins-Gillespie says she had a nephew who used to cuss out teachers, but his mom had to find out through word of mouth. No one bothered to call home.

"From what I saw, it was ridiculous. That's when I got a bunch of parents who were all in agreement: This was unacceptable," Blevins-Gillespie says. "Before, it was hard to tell if school was actually in session. Now when you go, it's clean and quiet. It looks like the kids are learning."

After the hallway rapper mock shot him, Brandt asked around about the kid. He didn't want it to be their only interaction, so he asked the student's teachers to arrange a chat.

The boy and Brandt sat down together face to face. Brandt expressed how he'd felt disrespected. The student explained his own perception of "respect" — he doesn't like being touched.

"It was structured as a conversation, not a blame session," Brandt says. "The student learned to acknowledge me as a human being who cares for him and who will hold him accountable for negative behavior. It was quite productive, and so far it has made things slightly better."

But with thousands of kids who have thousands of needs, teachers remain at a loss to control their schools, and they're unsure if district officials hear their plight.

Stuck in the middle are principals like Doug Revsbeck of Harding, whose burden is an urgent moral imperative to do better by underserved students in the face of yawning budget cuts. Major changes made last year haven't yielded substantial upticks in student achievement, he says.

"Accelerating learning is really challenging," Revsbeck says."You can't just say it, it deserves a lot more attention and deliberate effort on the part of everybody."

When Silva arrived at Harding in March, McQueen tearfully told the superintendent of being beaten and besieged in her classroom. If there was no other recourse, Silva said, schools had every right to suspend. But the message came with an unsettling warning.

We'll be looking at your numbers at the end of the year, she added.