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In the age of school choice, St. Paul Public Schools must be bold, proactive

Now that we know that the St. Paul Public Schools needs to select a new superintendent, people across the city have begun to propose priorities that they believe the next leader should address. I’d like to add one to the list: He or she needs to much more clearly define the role of the St. Paul school district (and by extension all school districts) in the age of school choice.

Back when I graduated from St. Paul Central High School in the mid-1980s, the district had a clear and compelling purpose: to educate all of the kids in the city who didn’t want to or couldn’t afford to attend a private or parochial school.

But the explosion of educational options over the past two decades has eroded the district’s share of the educational market. Today, more than 5,000 students attend charter schools in St. Paul, and still more are educated through open enrollment in other districts, distance learning, home schooling and studying at a college through the postsecondary options program.

To date, St. Paul — like most districts — has responded to these trends by working harder to market its current schools and by developing a few new schools and programs that are designed to appeal to today’s students and parents. That response may have been sufficient when the number of educational alternatives was relatively small, but a bolder strategy is now needed.

‘Right sizing’ won’t be enough
That strategy may need to include “right sizing” the district by closing schools, but it must also go far beyond that painful step. If the St. Paul Public Schools’ only response to the challenge of charters is to cut its own capacity, then even a district that is the right size today will find itself with too many empty desks tomorrow. 

In contrast, a more powerful and proactive approach could be built upon the following core principles:

Regard the entire city as a single system: The attendance boundaries and other lines that define St. Paul’s school choice system were last redrawn during the early days of desegregation and magnet schools. The district now needs to update attendance areas and transportation routes to reflect the existence of charter schools, and to incentivize students to stay close to home while still giving them the option of attending school in other areas of the city.

Within the district, decentralize authority: At a time when charter school leaders can respond to changing needs without asking anyone outside their school community for permission to act, district schools need the authority and the capacity to shape their educational programs as long as they are rooted in data and research. Toward that end, St. Paul should decentralize decision-making authority within a district-wide system of accountability and support.

Embrace the other options: Car dealerships often choose to locate along the same strip of road because they know that providing consumers with multiple options in one location increases the total number who stop by to shop. Guided by the same logic, the St. Paul Public Schools should rename and reorganize its superb Student Placement Center into the Citywide Choice Center, where families can receive unbiased information on all the educational options in the city, including both district and charter public schools. If the district has a great product to offer (as I know it does), this will help rather than hurt its bottom line. Similarly, St. Paul should begin to invest heavily in distance learning so that students from other districts can choose to take on-line classes taught by St. Paul teachers rather than forcing St. Paul students to take classes taught by teachers based in Houston, Minn., or Houston, Texas.

Emphasize integration: Charter schools that are explicitly intended to meet the needs of students from a single culture have proven very popular in St. Paul and other communities. The district could try to compete with that approach by replicating it, but in the age of President Barack Obama I would instead advise it to invest in programs that bring students from multiple cultures and backgrounds together to learn.

Its role is indispensible
It is important for the school district to make these and other changes — not just for the good of the organization, but for the good of the city. No matter how many new educational options emerge in the years ahead, the St. Paul Public Schools will still have an indispensible role to pay as the only entity that has the responsibility and the capacity to meet the needs of all students in the community. For example, when the city learned in 2004 that 1,000 Hmong students would soon be arriving from a refugee camp in Thailand, it was the school district that marshaled the resources and the expertise to create Transitional Language Centers (TLCs) that quickly and successfully helped students adjust from one culture, language and society to another. No single charter school could have met that need.

A healthy school district must be the backbone of a broader body of school choice in St. Paul and every other community. But if the district is to play that role successfully in the years ahead, it must rethink some policies and practices that linger from the days when it was the only public educational game in town.

Kent Pekel is executive director of the College Readiness Consortium at the University of Minnesota. He was a finalist for the position of Superintendent of Schools in St. Paul in 2006.

Comments (9)

  1. Anonymous Submitted by Anonymous on 03/04/2009 - 07:17 am.

    It seems like the school choice system, on the surface at last, has increased segregation of both poverty and race. School choice is supposed to help our highly mobile population, but we have two schools with 49% mobility rates while the more privileged schools have less than 10% mobility. The most tragic thing seems to be that it costs 20 million in transportation to support a system that reinforces inequity. In our twenty year experiment of school choice, the achievement gap is terrible and our schools are segregated by income. Why are we maintaining a system like this at the cost of 20 million?

  2. Submitted by Billie Tuttle on 03/04/2009 - 10:02 am.

    So, MinnPost has the “hire me” article from Kent Pekel, and the PP has the “hire me” article from Joe Nathan.

    Usual suspects, and exactly the reason why we need a regional search. Not national, regional.

    While both offer SOME good ideas while saying in their respective articles “the SPPS need to move in the direction of my professional expertise”, I want to have a search that doesn’t rely exclusively on the locals, or is as broad and expensive as a national search.

    I believe de-centralization is a key to the “large scale system re-organization” or whatever Carstarphen is calling it today. As is shuttering some schools/buildings for good & selling the land.

    I agree we need to do a city-wide (not just district wide, as Carstarphen did) survey of schools, programs, buildings, etc. to be sure we aren’t duplicating the charters & private schools’ programs and locations.

    I agree we need to redraw the district attendance areas, and end the race and class segregation once and for all, and it can be done in ways that makes the schools BETTER, not worse.

    We need to turn the focus away from racial achievement gaps, and work through special education to eliminate ALL the achievement gaps.

    Special education is the one program charters and private schools can’t offer, and our District parents are fleeing to other districts through open enrollment & PSEO to see their students’ special needs get met.

    We need a superintendent who has expertise in special education, and we need to make a commitment to level the playing field between regular and special education students in the St. Paul Public Schools.

    We need to be the innovators in this area, NOT the apologizers, like the District is now.

    Special needs students and their families cut across all races, income groups, etc. It isn’t just poor kids/families who need these services.

    We need to renew our commitment to educating EVERY child, regardless of their need in St Paul, and the way to do that is by using cutting edge research and innovation on ways to do that.

    I also agree, move away from race/cultural niche schools. The charters do really well with that. Make St Paul Public Schools the place where families send their kids to get a truly diverse education, not a racially/culturally segregated one. That has long been one of the things the St Paul Public Schools does best, and it is time we get back to those basics.

    There is truly only one education community we don’t welcome in the St Paul Public Schools, and that is the Special Education school community. Hire a super who can fix that, and we will once again be the District of excellence we once were.

  3. Submitted by Kent Pekel on 03/04/2009 - 01:42 pm.

    Just for the record, this piece absolutely wasn’t intended as a “hire me” article, but as an effort to surface some issues that I think are critical and may get lost in the shuffle at a moment when people are thinking about the future of the distict. I’m very happy in my current work at the University of Minnesota. Great point about the need to think clearly and creatively about special education services.

    Kent Pekel

  4. Submitted by Mary Beth Blegen on 03/04/2009 - 07:01 pm.

    I am hoping in my lifetime that we see the end of the competition era in education and the beginning of a focus on what works best for each kid. Obviously, I agree with you.

    I would like to go a step farther with ‘decentralization’. I truly believe that when teachers understand the power of their work and they work in synch with good school leaders, we will be able to do more for students. I look forward to the day when the work in individual schools by teachers and leaders is where we focus our energy. The classroom needs to be the center of our work in education. That classroom has to have a quality teacher who works in collaboration with others, who is not afraid to be a leaders for change and who works eye to eye with a school leader who respects and honors the developing capacity of teacher leaders.

    As long as teachers wait for the next new idea to come down from the District and do not have ownership of that idea, we will not do what we must do with kids.

    Mary Beth

  5. Submitted by Joe Nathan on 03/04/2009 - 09:37 pm.

    Thanks to Kent for sharing his thoughts. Can’t and won’t speak for him. But I’m not a candidate for the supt job in St Paul as one poster suggests.

    Some posters suggest seem to think that charters are focusing on students of just one race. Not true of many charters in Mpls St. Paul. True for some, but not for others. And incidentally, St. Paul charters now enroll more than 7000 students, not the 5000 one person mentioned.

    For example, the St. Paul Conservatory brings togther kids of different races, about 200 kids from suburbs, about 100 each from Mpls and st. Paul. Great River Charter,Yinghua Academy and Avalon bring together kids of different races. So does the national award winning Community of Peace charter. There are other examples.

    One poster thinks charters don’t deal with special ed kids. That will be news to
    * parents of deaf kids who helped found and send their kids to Metro Deaf and Minnesota North Star Academy – both in St. Paul
    * parents of kids at New Visions School, which has received national recognition and funding for its work with students with special needs

    Variety of other examples available.

    I do agree with Mary Beth Blegen that it would be good to give educators a chance to create strong, research based options. That’s what we tried to do with several million dollars of Gate funds in S.t Paul public schools, between 2000 and 2007. Long, complicated story.

    Glad to see people thinking/talking about what would help more students and educators.

    Joe Nathan
    parent of 3 students who attended SPPS k-12
    former PTA president at Horace Mann and site council member at Expo
    now at Humphrey Institute
    Univ of Mn

  6. Submitted by Andrew Kearney on 03/06/2009 - 09:01 pm.

    Kent Pekel raises very good questions about the future of the SPPS. Anyone familiar with Mr. Pekel’s previous work in SPPS schools can see the themes he worked with then raised now. I do believe he is just plain interested in the fate of SPPS regardless of his interest in considering the superintendency.
    I find the poster commenting on special education quite mystifying. He sounds like another disgruntled special ed parent wanting another $50,000 spent on his child or perhaps an overburdened staff member. St. Paul is doing just fine with providing services to its special education students. At one time one quarter of the MN occupational therapists working in schools did so for SPPS. This hardly sounds like inadequate service. The leadership in SPPS in special education is excellent and readers should be careful to interpret any criticisms of that area of SPPS operation.

    Speaking of special education Mr. Nathan is being disingenuous. No charter school in Minnesota pays for its special education services. They bill out all extra costs to the resident district. Because neither the federal nor state government pay the full cost of special education the charter school is free to spend freely and send the bill to (ex) SPPS. The SPPS must then pay that bill out of funds intended for (ex) first grade or World History at Central etc.

    The problem with this is it is human nature that when someone else is paying the bill less care is taken in managing resources. This needs to be changed so that charters pay at least some of the special ed costs just as other sites do.

    I can envision a day when the SPPS Board merely rents out space to charters, organizes athletics they don’t care to organize and pays special education bills the charters generate. Then we will have publicly funded education but no public education in which the classes races and residents come together to learn together. Caveat emptor!

  7. Submitted by Joe Nathan on 03/07/2009 - 05:09 pm.

    Not sure what Mr. Kearney’s interest or knowledge of special ed law is. I was responding to a previous poster’s assertion that

    “Special education is the one program charters and private schools can’t offer, and our District parents are fleeing to other districts through open enrollment & PSEO to see their students’ special needs get met.”

    As I noted, charters DO serve students with special needs. Mr. Kearney doesn’t deny this.

    He does discuss how special ed at charters is funded. Special education for charters is funded the way that it is funded when special education students from, for example, Mounds View, come into St. Paul or Roseville, come into St. Paul (as a St. Paul school administrator, I watched a variety of suburban students with various special education labels) moved into St. Paul. St. Paul willingly accepted these students.

    St. Paul bills back the cost of these students to the resident district.

    Professor Jim Ysseldyke of the University of Minnnesota found that some students who had been labeled “special ed” did far better and did not need special ed services when they attended smaller schools.

    This corresponds to other studies that found over identification of students, esp male students of color in categories such as “emotionally disturbed” (ED) or emotionally/behaviorally disturbed (EBD).

    Charters actually have saved taxpayers dollars by taking some students who were receiving special ed services in large traditional schools.

    Joe Nathan

  8. Submitted by Steve Rose on 03/10/2009 - 07:53 am.

    “but in the age of President Barack Obama I would instead advise it to invest in programs that bring students from multiple cultures and backgrounds together to learn.”



    Is this an age? Had Hillary Clinton been elected, what then? Divide by culture and educate?

  9. Submitted by Kent Pekel on 03/12/2009 - 12:21 pm.

    Steve: Good point — I initially wrote “Age of Obama” because it sounded a bit catchy, but they added the words “President Barak” for reasons I understand. I agree that the president’s record doesn’t yet merit naming an age after him (though unlike Rush Limbaugh I hope it ultimately will). I was actually referring to the fact that he is a symbol of the hopeful degree to which old lines of race and culture are blurring today, which I think presents an opportunity for organizations and institutions that are good at bringing people together to achieve a common purpose, as the U.S. military has become since WWII. So my point was that the trends that Obama symbolizes present an opportunity for SPPS to position itself as another such integrative institution.

    I wanted to add a brief word for integration in my hasitly-written piece about the future of the district because that doesn’t seem to be the direction that schools in our city are moving toward, either charter or district. Off the top of my head, the city’s charter schools now include Academia Cesar Chavez, Dugsi Academy, Higher Ground Academy, Hmong Academy and HOPE Academy. And the district has the American Indian magnate, the new Hmong-focused program at Phalen Lake Elementary and the African-American focused program and North End. Please note that this list doesn’t include charter or district schools that are mostly made up of students from one background but that don’t formally position themselves as such. In any event, my point is just that it’s a big trend and I think the district needs to have a strategy for dealing with it.

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