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St. Paul Schools' Teachers and School Board Can't Agree on Racial Equity Policy

A St. Paul teachers group says Superintendent Valeria Silva's Strong Schools, Strong Communities plan is an unrealistic way to achieve racial equity for students.

A St. Paul teachers group says Superintendent Valeria Silva's Strong Schools, Strong Communities plan is an unrealistic way to achieve racial equity for students.

The St. Paul school board renewed Superintendent Valeria Silva's contract for three more years Tuesday night, but district teachers are not happy about it.

St. Paul has become a battleground of bickering between rank-and-file faculty and the members of the board of education. The union-backed teachers group, Caucus for Change, has launched an aggressive campaign to unseat three incumbent board members in favor of fresh challengers.

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At the eye of the conflict: Silva's Strong Schools, Strong Communities strategic plan, which was set in motion in 2011 to promote racial equity in public schools.

Racial equity is something that folks on both sides of the fight want, but teachers disagree with the board on how to achieve it. Caucus for Change believes the Strong Schools, Strong Communities plan was an overhanded approach that caused major unintended complications for classroom discipline.

First, there is the problem of suspensions. Teachers with Caucus for Change say that they've received implicit top-down directives to not suspend kids, which sends a message to students that there are no consequences for acting out.

Roy Magnuson, a 60-year-old social science teacher at Como Park Senior High, says he still has a bump on his foot from last year when he hauled one belligerent student off another. The victim had been curled up on the floor, trying to defend against vicious pummeling to the head.

"We have had an increasing number of assaults on teachers," Magnuson says. "There's also verbal bullying that goes on, student on student." He blames the violence in schools on the superintendent's efforts to overhaul special ed programs.

In 2011, nearly 1,000 out of 39,000 St. Paul students formerly enrolled in classes for those with cognitive disabilities or behavioral issues transitioned into general education programs. It was an effort to give all St. Paul students an equal opportunity at graduation and success after high school.

"Plenty of students are studying in settings where they are not academically on the same level. Rather than showing that they are incapable of doing the work, they will act out," Magnuson says.

The school board says if teachers think they have no recourse to remove rowdy students from their classes, there must have been some misunderstanding.

Keith Hardy, school board incumbent and a parent of public school children, says the racial equity policy is an attempt to create deep-seated change. It's messy, imperfect work, he says, but it's work that the district must not backpedal on.

"What we need right now are people on the school board who want to help our students. It is a waste of time, and it is very angering to me, to focus on bickering about other issues," Hardy says. "It is still racially predictable that black and Latino students are underperforming and not graduating in comparison to other students."

Another contentious aspect of the Strong Schools, Strong Communities plan was that the district in 2011 cancelled busing for St. Paul students in order to bolster attendance at neighborhood schools. After years of complaints about how much it cost to bus students from one end of the city to another to attend the school of their choice, the board decided to do away with the system altogether.

Caucus for Change fears that the measure will re-segregate schools. The NAACP in January predicted that neighborhood schools located in St. Paul's pockets of poverty will draw a higher concentration of strictly low-income kids.

But then in early February, St. Paul Public Schools' Department of Research, Evaluation and Assessment released an analysis of schools' racial makeup to discredit that claim. The REA found that in the years since the new strategic plan was put in place, the number of white and black majority schools decreased by one each while Hispanic majority schools remained the same and Asian majority schools increased by two.

Only time will tell if the new emphasis on community schools will result in a long-term trend toward segregating students. In the short term, Hardy says it has encouraged parents to become more involved in their kids' education because of the pride that comes with taking ownership of a neighborhood institution.

"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 Schools District and know they're going to get a high-quality education," Hardy says.

While teachers and school board members alike want what's best for students, Caucus for Change says it's highly discouraging when teachers' concerns that kids who need extra help aren't getting the customized education necessary aren't heard, Magnuson says.

"Very much the first couple of years when people pushed back, they were told that by pushing back they were not in favor of racial equity," Magnuson says. "That ended up creating a tension that was absolutely no good for morale."

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