So I’m going to note something up front: I am a parent, and I live in St. Paul, but my kids don’t go to St. Paul public schools. They both attend a charter school. They used to attend a Minneapolis public school; I pulled them out to attend this charter, and then we moved to St. Paul, so in fact they have never attended St. Paul public schools (although Kiera might do so in the future). So the bulk of my stories about the various ways in which the current Board has made a mess of things are all stories from friends and acquaintances, like the St. Paul teacher who vented a long list of frustrated complaints about her work environment while pressing apple cider at the back yard party we both attended over the weekend.
I’ve been working on this post for several days now and it just keeps getting longer and longer and longer and harder to organize, so I think I’m going to make this one focused on the backstory, with the caveat that (a) there’s a lot, (b) it’s confusing, (c) I may get some of it wrong, and (d) I guarantee I’m missing stuff. (Let me take this opportunity to remind everyone that I’m not a journalist: I’m a citizen whose main research tool is Google, and I’m just sharing my research and opinions with the rest of you, often as I’m coming up with them.)
SO. The current board (and the superintendent, Valeria Silva) have done a bunch of things that seriously pissed off a lot of SPPS (St. Paul Public Schools) parents. Some highlights:
1. They moved a lot of kids with emotional and behavioral disorder diagnoses into mainstream classrooms full time. Whether this was a good idea or a bad idea — SPPS just moving into compliance with existing laws about least-restrictive environments or SPPS going out on a limb with an approach no one else would use in a million years — not to mention whether these kids were dumped into classrooms with no supports, or given EAs and other help so they could succeed? This depends entirely on who you ask. This reasonably balanced article discusses all those angles and also notes that the kids who were being dumped off in “learning centers” instead of being re-integrated were overwhelmingly black kids. The Bruce Vento elementary special ed coordinator is quoted saying, “We felt that the students had to be perfect before we would let them go [from the LC back to a regular classroom],” and … yeah, you know, that’s not okay, either.
2. The same year, they moved a lot of kids who are English-language learners into mainstream classrooms. Again, whether this was a good idea or a bad idea depends on who you ask. Previously, the kids with limited English proficiency were in sheltered classrooms that focused heavily on learning English and a lot less on content. Board Member Chue Vue (himself a former ELL student) endorses the push-them-into-the-mainstream approach: “Among families of Hmong descent, including his own, the concern has traditionally been that kids ready to tackle mainstream content are lingering in sheltered classes.” (Chue is not up for re-election this year.)
The article I linked to mentioned a cooperative model, where both a regular subject teacher and an ELL teacher work together. The teacher who vented to me over the weekend is teaching such a class, but her bilingual assistant finds the subject matter difficult and is basically refusing to do her job. Both the ELL and the EBD mainstreaming is heavily contingent on having good EAs available, and there is also a chronic shortage of EAs, which is not surprising considering that in the last few years they’ve beefed up the educational requirements but haven’t raised the pay.
3. They rolled out iPads to every student, spending $5.5 million the first year and dedicating $8 million in future years. Most of the St. Paul students, at least, are reasonably enthusiastic about this one.
4. They also restructured all their schools to move the 6th graders in with the middle schoolers. This wasn’t actually that bad an idea, they just did a crap-ass job preparing for it (like, there were schools where none of the teachers had the right licensure to teach the kids that were arriving.)
5. I think they also did the EBD mainstreaming, ELL mainstreaming, iPad rollout, and 6th grade reshuffle all in the same very busy year. I guess you could argue that you might as well maximize the disruption in a single year and get it over with. That seems to be St. Paul’s approach to road maintenance.
6. Then there’s the discipline policy. I don’t even know what to say about this. Over in Minneapolis, they implemented a policy that said that elementary schoolers can no longer be suspended for non-violent infractions. (Why are elementary school kids ever suspended for non-violent infractions, seriously? I’m sure you’ll all be shocked to hear that you are approximately 8 gazillion times more likely to be suspended for non-violent infractions if you’re a black kid than if you’re a white kid.) Anyway, here in St. Paul….there are a ton of teachers saying that they’re no longer allowed to suspend kids due to the district policy, but the Board and Silva have insisted stone-faced that there is no such policy and teachers are totally allowed to suspend kids. Aaron Anthony Benner, formerly outspoken SPPS teacher, then (briefly) active candidate for the Saint Paul School Board, and now Behavior Coach at an area charter school, has a long list of hair-raising stories including one about being punched by a student who was returned to his classroom ten minutes later. 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.
7. The board approved a new three-year contract for SPPS Superintendant Valeria Silva, who has been controversial, to put it mildly. Shortly after they approved the contract she flirted with taking off for some other district, then a day later said that she was staying in St. Paul. There were a lot of people who were pissed off that they renewed it right before an election, though, thus taking the decision out of the new board’s hands.
Back in February when I went to my precinct caucus, one of the groups there was the “Caucus for Change,” which had a pretty straightforward “throw the incumbents out” agenda. They did not-exactly-an-endorsement: they gave a general stamp of approval to a bunch of people running, rather than picking their four favorites. There was then a minor drama at the City Convention in April, where after we’d voted on the second ballot a flier was circulated where they’d done an on-the-fly endorsement of Rafael Espinosa and Pa Chua Vang. (It was clear that Zuki Ellis and Steve Marchese were going to get endorsed on the 2nd ballot, and it looked like Mary Vanderwert and Jon Schumacher were on their way to endorsement as well.) It was completely unclear who in the Caucus for Change made this decision or was calling the shots. A few minutes later, another hastily-printed flier went around objecting to the first flier. (“Behind closed doors, a few members of the Caucus for Change made the unilateral decision to encourage support for candidates who are not leading in the delegate voting process. Caucus for Change originally committed to not endorsing candidates. Some members of the group have decided to change this strategy.”) Anyway, as far as I can tell, no one paid much attention to either flier.
Caucus for Change is basically the local teacher’s union standing behind a curtain. I mean, if you look at their website, they will tell you that they are “a group of parents, educators, students, and community members working together to create stronger schools here in Saint Paul.” But scroll down to the bottom and you’ll see, “Prepared and paid for by the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers Committee on Political Education.” I had a door-knocker last week who was a Minneapolis teacher who’d been recruited by the union to come over to volunteer to campaign for the DFL-endorsed candidates.
I do kind of get why they WANT a curtain. I’m not anti-MFT. (MFT = Minnesota Federation of Teachers.) Teachers deserve to have their interests represented. But I think it’s worth remembering that the job of a teacher’s union is to represent teachers, not students. Often, the interests of teachers and students are solidly in alignment (that’s a link to a news story about the Seattle teachers demanding daily recess for their students). Sometimes, though, they are not. (That’s a link to a news story about NYC’s “rubber rooms.”) There are a decent number of people who are pro-unions as a general thing but nonetheless have some reservations about union-endorsed school board candidates — one of the things the board does is negotiate the contract.
In this case, I think that when huge numbers of teachers are incensed about the repeated massive clusterfucks created by the current board, this is something that everyone should be paying attention to.
But there’s also this, from the candidate questionnaire on the Caucus for Change site: “Caucus for Change is a group of parents, educators and community members who believe that our voices must be at the center of decision making around educational policy. Despite the belief that local parents and educators know best what our children need in order to learn, there has been an increase of money, often from out of state millionaires, with vested interest in pursuing a corporate education reform agenda. Will you and your campaign reject contributions and independent expenditures from out of state millionaires and corporate education reform organizations?” — that’s actually a question about the groups that backed Don Samuels when he ran for the Minneapolis School Board last year. This is the very first question on their questionnaire — not anything about the safety of teachers, or the education of students, but “will you side with us against the groups we consider our enemies,” which particularly makes me raise my eyebrow given that these groups have shown no interest yet in St. Paul. I’m not pointing this out because I’m a fan of these corporate reformers, but if you’re a union-funded group running the union agenda and you’re calling yourself “TOTALLY NOT THE TEACHERS’ UNION, NO NEED TO LOOK BEHIND THE CURTAIN” then I will be honest: that bugs me.
One more bit of background before I post this. There are nine people running for four seats, but only five of them have any realistic chance of getting on the board: the four DFL (and Caucus for Change) endorsed candidates, and Keith Hardy, the one incumbent who decided to run without endorsement. There are also three people on the current board who are not up for election, which means that if the challengers win, they’ll control the board; if Keith Hardy defeats one of them, the current board will still control the majority of votes. I am not sure on what issues they can be considered a monolith.