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Countering a narrative about St. Paul’s schools: Our students are not the problem

What saddens me most are the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle suggestions I’ve seen that schools are struggling because of a certain subset of students.

As a parent of two children who attend St. Paul Public Schools, I have been saddened by the ongoing and sensationalized narrative about our city’s schools — and children — being in chaos. While there are certainly real challenges in school climate, the current narrative is adding fuel to the fire, instead of helping us find solutions to ensure that all students and educators thrive in safe and engaging learning environments.

Melissa Davis

What saddens me most are the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle suggestions I’ve seen that schools are struggling because of a certain subset of students. Depending on the conversation, “those” kids might be black or low-income, Native American or recent immigrants. Whatever they are, “those” kids are somehow different — the “other.” And it is their otherness that is bringing down “our” schools.

While it breaks my heart to see any child or group of children cast aside as the “other” or problem, the most concerning conversations I’ve witnessed are about special education students. If only “those” kids weren’t mainstreamed into general education classrooms, some suggest, St. Paul schools would be just fine.

Some seen as a drain on school

This line of reasoning is most upsetting to me because my child is one of “those” special education students. It is painful to see some community members imply that she is a drain on her school, not an asset who has helped teachers and students gain friendships, knowledge of diverse populations and so much more.

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I believe a lot of the hurtful things I hear today stem from a decision a few years ago to transition about 200 students with special needs into general education environments; the majority of these students had been assessed to have emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD).

I am sure this decision was not made lightly. The district was (and still is) facing racial disparities in EBD identification, and also knew that the centers where many of these students had previously been — some of which had academic proficiency rates in the single digits — weren’t working.

Of course, transitioning students into new settings can come with challenges. While research shows that students with special needs are fully capable of thriving in general education environments, their success depends on the system and educators being prepared to support them. Teachers need a combination of academic instruction and classroom management strategies to establish an environment conducive to learning for students with special needs, as well as their general education classmates.

It’s not the students’ fault

Perhaps SPPS educators need more support in order to help these students, and all students, excel. But if we’re going to correct this issue, and strive to close our schools’ disparities — in discipline, achievement, special education identification, etc. — we can’t get there by just saying, “Let’s just kick those kids out.”

It is not the students’ fault. I repeat: It is not the students’ fault.

In addition to being unhelpful, claims of any student group wreaking havoc on SPPS are also incredibly harmful to children. Just imagine what my daughter has gone through, starting in a small, special education classroom and transitioning into a big, general education class of 28 kids. This was a terrifying change for her, but I’m proud to report that she is doing very well.

The last thing she needs is to hear that some people don’t want her in this classroom, that they don’t think she could positively contribute to the educational experience of her classmates. Hearing this would not help my daughter, her peers or her school — it would just make her feel like the “other,” a feeling that could very well have a negative impact on her behavior and ability to learn.

For the sake of my children and all children, for my city and our entire state, I am asking that we put a stop to the narrative that “those” kids — whoever they might be — are the problem. The problem is an education system that is failing to adapt and evolve to meet the needs of all students.

Let��s talk about how we fix that, not about how we fix or push out students. Let’s work together to make Minnesota a place where we celebrate our differences, and where, as our student demographics and needs change, our education system changes with them.

Melissa Davis is a parent in St. Paul Public Schools and a member of the district’s Special Education Advisory Council.

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