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

Susan Du, City Pages, May 27, 2015

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.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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