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

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.

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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Comments (13)

  1. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 04/28/2016 - 09:10 am.

    It is not groups of students…

    It is individual students, whether special ed or not. I was a step father to a special ed student that needed lots of classroom help. and totally supported that. I also have a son who from time to time is disruptive in his classes and I support the teacher’s need to remove him if necessary so that the rest of the class can have a positive learning environment.

    I guess I don’t see that school is an absolute right that can never be lost. Classrooms were a lot better controlled when I grew up in the 50s and 60s: no cell phones, cause enough trouble and you could get expelled. Tough but it keeps the classroom environment safe and productive. I hear of kids in class with their ear buds in during lectures, kids pushing and assaulting teachers. Seems like there is way too much tolerance for disruptive behavior and the ones that suffer are the other kids who are there to learn. I think the schools have evolved and adapted way too far in trying to accommodate kids who don’t care.

    I support giving extra help to kids who need it, whatever the help, but I also support removing kids who disrupt the classroom with behavior that demonstrates that they don’t care about their or anyone else’s education. It seems to me, from what I have read, that St Paul removed any firm disciplinary guidelines to keep kids in at all costs at the expense of the teachers and other kids. I disagree with that approach for the sake of your kids and all the other kids and educators that are in the schools for the right reasons.

    • Submitted by Kelly Kausel on 04/29/2016 - 04:32 am.

      I think the schools have

      I think the schools have evolved and adapted way too far in trying to accommodate kids who don’t care. This is a comment that you wrote, I think we need to take a step back. When kids don’t have the right accommodations they get frustrated and then it spirals downwards. Kids need to have the proper supports, if you don’t have the proper support which is part of the IDEA. Indivdual of Disabilities education act, then your child might not want to go to school or just feel overwhelmed at school because of lack of supports. Some children have lack of motivation in life, it can be a number of reason’s but one can be a mental health issue or issue’s. Kid’s come to school with all types of trauma’s it is actually more common that one might think. We need kids to feel safe, cared for and have supports from a school cousler or psychologist to be able to talk there feelings out. We need more staff in schools so more and more these kinds of things can be accommodated at school. I think we have many individual’s as an adult who don’t care and it goes back to childhood. It goes back to a disconnect in school that they didn’t get the proper supports there for they just shut down in life.

  2. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 04/28/2016 - 09:19 am.

    It’s Called Scapegoating

    Those who are unwilling to provide the resources necessary for our public schools to function as well as possible,..

    use it ALL the time.

    They scapegoat “those students” (name your differently-abled or disadvantaged group).

    They scapegoat the teachers,…

    making the most outrageously illogical claims possible about how taking away job security and reasonable levels of compensation,…

    the things that would get they, themselves to change jobs or careers in a heartbeat,…

    will somehow make teachers (who are already underpaid and overworked) work harder.

    Some of them shamelessly (and they SHOULD, if they were decent, honest people be ashamed),…

    scapegoat the entire underfunded, overstressed public school system,…

    because they hope to suck a large portion of the taxpayer money that goes to support public schools into voucherized or otherwise privatized, unaccountable to the taxpayers, FOR PROFIT, private schools.

    Another term for what they’re doing is “victim blaming,”

    as in blaming those who end up being the victims of their own unwillingness to pay a reasonable portion,…

    of the cost of the civilization which surrounds them,…

    upon which they, themselves,…

    and the enterprises which have brought them their wealth,…

    depend.

    These scapegoaters and victim blamers all need to be healed,…

    of the dysfunctions which cause them to be so deeply addicted to money as a security blanket,…

    which they wrongly believe will protect them from “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

    In reality there is NO protection,

    and impoverishing the society which surrounds you makes blessedly well sure,…

    that there will be far MORE “slings and arrows” than there would otherwise be.

    Students with special needs are NOT “the problem” with the public schools.

    Lack of sufficient resources to provide staffing levels to assist the students who have those needs IS the problem.

  3. Submitted by Pat Terry on 04/28/2016 - 10:52 am.

    It actually is the students

    Having followed my child through 10 years of SPPS education, I will say that there are certain students that are violent and/or chronically disruptive. Those students are not learning and are preventing others from learning as well.

    This isn’t about student groups. “Those kids” isn’t about minority kids or kids with behavioral disorders. “Those kids” are the individual kids who can’t or won’t learn in a traditional classroom setting.

  4. Submitted by Mark Pfeifer on 04/28/2016 - 02:18 pm.

    Great piece!

    Minnesota Post, thank you very much for running this!

    It is so refreshing and enlightening to hear another more positive perspective on the recent changes in SPPS policies to promote equity and inclusion. All of the negativity from the other side has become quite tiring. Systemic change is not supposed to be easy.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 04/28/2016 - 03:09 pm.

      Negativity

      For those who actually attend SPPS, that negativity stems from students and teachers being put in phyisical danger by the failed policies. It stems from classes being disrupted by the same kids day after day by the same kids, with the teachers having no power to remove them.

      The suspension numbers go down, but at the cost of disrupting everyone’s learning. And the disruptive students learn that there is no accountability for their behavior, so its no surprise teachers keep getting assaulted.

      There is no racial equity being achieved. The policy was an abject failure, which is why its on the way out. The author of this piece doesn’t have to worry because SPPS is not singling out groups (contrary to her claims). It will be actually punishing the students who deserve punishment.

  5. Submitted by Beth-Ann Bloom on 04/28/2016 - 03:45 pm.

    Amazing

    Melissa Davis is a fantastic advocate not only for her child but for children in school! Any child would be blessed to have her as a parent and every school would be a better place with her involvement!

  6. Submitted by Bob Spaulding on 05/09/2016 - 02:14 pm.

    On HOW we disagree

    The very center of what Melissa Davis so elegantly wrote isn’t about policy disagreements, per se. It’s about HOW we disagree.

    My gut says the district’s shared challenges will only be solved when we move beyond the overly-simple solutions that blame one group or another, and instead meet one another where we are and move toward constructive responses that we know work.

    I can’t accept what’s unfolded in our public conversation. The Minnesota in which I grew up offered the promise of a far different kind of community, and different kinds of cultural relationships than the one I’ve seen play out in St. Paul recently. We can do better.

  7. Submitted by joe smith on 04/28/2016 - 06:44 pm.

    How about rules for every child no matter what color? Starting in kindergarten teachers need to set up parameters that all students adhere to so the classroom can become an area for learning. There is certain behavior that is not acceptable in school and that needs to be taught to kids beginning at 5 & 6. Discipline is part of life, it is how we learn right from wrong. Bad behavior is punished by a set standard and good behavior is rewarded, not really that hard.

  8. Submitted by Leslie Sieleni on 04/28/2016 - 08:32 pm.

    40 + years of research

    Perfectly stated Melissa Davis!

    When kids hear that they shouldn’t be in a classroom, that not only affects them and how they view themselves, but also how their peers view them.

    Kids deserve to learn in a classroom alongside their peers. Years and years of research shows the benefit to both those with and without disabilities. Behaviors are caused by the environment and lack of proper supports.

    • Submitted by Pat Terry on 04/29/2016 - 08:24 am.

      Nope

      Kids deserve to be in a classroom until they demonstrate that they can’t. Keeping violent and disruptive kids in the classroom doesn’t help those kids and it hurts the learning (and safety) of everyone else.

      And if you think the school environment is the cause of violent and disruptive behavior, you have no idea what is going on in schools.

      Davis’s whole piece is based on a false narrative. SPPS is not suspending or removing groups of kids because of race or background. They are doing based on the individual behaviors of the problem students.

  9. Submitted by Kelly Kausel on 04/29/2016 - 05:16 am.

    We need more Melissa Davis’s on School Boards

    I think the key word here is involvement. We have to remember that we are ALL part of a community. The best way to help all individual’s is by making the individual the best person that they can be which to me is a proper balance of education, medical and community supports which includes parent or guardian involvement. Many kids go to the doctor and the doctor is not seeing the whole picture there for just getting overlooked and or just passing the buck to the next person. I think it is a ethical responsibilty that if you are seeing some red flags in a child we get all parties involved to get the collaboration started. I am just going to talk about autism for now. Autism for many children is still getting diagnosed at an average age of 5 or 6 years old. In many cases these children have had signs in very tiny little signs that a doctor has just let go. The issue becomes early intervention we can work through a lot of this at a very early age. Now kids that don’t have a diagnosis at a early age and now have a full day of school and don’t have the proper supports. What do you think it going to happen? Another area I want to bring up is FAS. We need to help families that have children with FAS because in my eyes we need to accommodate and find a way to support these children. It is not there fault that they have FAS. The other issue that I see is a majority of parents not stepping up and volunteering or getting involved in your child’s school. I think it starts with the parents or guardian’s and the actions that you show your children. When parents volunteer, go to school board meetings, SEAC meetings, write to their local legislators on issue’s that they care about it sets a great example to our children. I understand parents have to work, but we need to take a look at priorities in life. That goes into the next area which is communication. When parents show up to these types of things it shows your kids how your dealing with conflicts. At a very young age we need to have good sportsmanship, and know how to deal with conflicts. Many kids don’t know how to do this and behaviors explode very quickly. Another area your elected officials. Politics is a huge one. A community votes their legislators, school board members, city councils into office. What happens if someone gets in that you didn’t vote for. You need to show them respect. You might not agree with everything, but somethings you might be surprised you will agree on. If you don’t agree with them there is time and room for educating them because they should be meeting with their constituents on issue’s not just down in St. Paul but be available in their own communities. If you didn’t vote for the person watch your language and actions. I might not like the issue’s that someone stands for but there are ways to do it and way NOT to do it. Be an example for your own children, and children in your community. Each child that comes into the world needs to have proper supports. Right now many, many families are struggling with Mental Health issue’s and disability type issue’s and parents get worn down quickly. But we need to have funding both in schools and health and human services to help support these individuals who are children for just a short amount of time and adults the majority of their life. Everyone’s life should matter and if you are fortunate to have a child who has a good head on their shoulders be grateful. If your a parent who has a child who is well liked in school be grateful. Some children never get invited to one birthday party, but they hear about birthday parties or other social events all the time. Imagine being that child who shows up to school and has to hear about someone’s great experience over the weekend. I think inclusion is the key to many things. How do we do inclusion, how to we get co-teaching happening, how do we get a couple of para’s in the classroom and the class does not know who they are for because they are helping the whole class. We need to get more supports by the way of more adults in the classroom that share the passion to helping students learn, and have a heart of gold like so many of our teachers do. Para’s play a huge role in schools and we need more of them. One person can make such a huge impact on one child’s life. Everyone learn’s and grows in different ways. Everyone is important and we must think outside of the box, We have a huge population that will need Personal care attendants, nurses, and doctors and then let’s add the community members with disabilities. We need people doing these jobs and getting training and education in these fields. We need people to continue to want to become teachers, para’s work in the lunch room. So it is time to educate communities what inclusion look like and to talk more about the Olmstead Act and what that means for people and their communities.

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 04/29/2016 - 07:47 am.

      Education

      In an article about the educational system, followed by comments on the educational system, supposedly written by educated people, it never ceases to amaze me that people have apparently forgotten what they were taught in the educational system about the art of the paragraph.

      It’s unrealistic of the comment writer to expect readers to dig through the dense slog of text above. And most won’t. Which is a shame, as the writer obviously spent quite a while composing it.

      Paragraphs, people. If you want your comments to be read, it’s really not that hard.

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