In Montessori schools, teachers stay with the same group of kids for two to three years, giving the children a unique chance to feel comfortable in their learning environment.
Fifth grader at J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School, Giavonna Deneen, has grown tremendously because of that model, where she’s developed a long-lasting relationship with her teacher.
“She’s helped me a lot to become more comfortable with school. I used to hate it and not want to go. She’s helped me overcome that,” Deneen said.
While her teacher will still have her position come fall, Deneen and her mom, Sara Semi, feel for the students who won’t have their teacher next year due to budget cuts in the St. Paul Public School District.
In late April, the school’s principal informed parents about budget cuts and staffing changes for the upcoming year – which they learned would cut one of the seven Children’s House classrooms.
That class is combined prekindergarten and kindergarten taught by Shevie Brooks – the only Black teacher at J.J. Hill.
In addition, Brooks’ teaching assistant and another instructor who teaches combined first, second and third-grade classes are also being cut.
The school, located in St. Paul’s Summit-University neighborhood that is part of the historic Rondo neighborhood, has around 400 students in prekindergarten through 5th grade. About half the students are white and a quarter are Black, while the others are either multiracial, Latino, Asian and Native American.
Many parents, like ShaVunda Brown, see this decision to cut Brook’s class as inequitable. Brown is the chair of the PTO’s BIPOC parents group and has a son in Brooks’ class.
Teachers of color are more likely to be relatively new to the district and have less seniority. They are then disproportionately affected by seniority-based retention policies.
“It’s a union contract policy of last to hire first to fire, which just reinforces the racial disparity that exists there for teachers of color,” Brown said. “We’re just bombarded by these policies that then continue and further the disparity of teachers having teachers of color be represented in schools.”
Paola Sanchez Garrett is a parent to two at J.J. Hill. She and Brown are on the BIPOC PTO, which is where they first met Brooks before she became a teacher.
“We (BIPOC PTO) started going deeper into what we need for our kids, kids of color; we thought, well … representation. I mean, J.J. Hill is a very diverse community … So why are we not seeing that reflected in the teachers?” said Sanchez Garrett.
Brooks said all schools need more BIPOC teachers, not just for kids of color but also for white students.
“We can’t have enough (BIPOC teachers),” she said.
Pathway to teaching
In an interview with MinnPost, Brooks said she has been in school settings for some time in various states. She was a case manager in Massachusetts and a teacher’s assistant in Mississippi before moving to St. Paul with her family.
She received her master’s in criminal justice and wanted to work in juvenile probation. But along the way, her goals changed. Once she became a parent at J.J. Hill, she started to desire to return to the teaching world, she said.
She began as a teacher’s assistant in the Children’s House. A job opened up the following year, and she applied to teach the pre-K and kindergarteners.
In the two years she’s taught that class, she’s seen so much growth in the kids. She was able to teach while pursuing an education license because Minnesota gives tier two licenses to those who are enrolled in a university if they already have a degree.
In 2020, Brooks began the process of getting her teaching license. After two years of schooling at St. Catherine University while working at J.J. Hill, she will graduate this year with a degree in early childhood education and a Montessori credential.
“I’m just drawn to the Montessori model. You don’t see a lot of Black and brown teachers in Montessori, in public Montessori schools, let alone private,” Brooks said.
Sanchez Garrett worries about Brooks’ future in teaching with the district and for the BIPOC kids who will lose a teacher of color – especially since it’s rare in Montessori.
Parents and community members wanted to discuss the budget cuts and their decision with the administration.
Parents are gutted by the school board’s decision – both because they are losing a classroom and because they are losing racial diversity within the school, which they say is inequitable.
The district has internal application periods for open positions, but Brooks has missed out on the first two rounds because she was “on a rollercoaster” after finding out about the layoffs.
“If we cut her from this process now, how can we make sure that she’s going to continue working?” Sanchez Garrett said. “Being a teacher of color is difficult, but being a Montessori teacher of color is even more difficult because there’s not a lot (of them). To be a Montessori teacher, you need a special education on that, so the resources are not necessarily there all the time.”
Representation within the Montessori model matters, parents expressed.
“It’s always good to have a teacher that looks like you and understands the struggle that you are going through as a parent of color with kids of color,” Sanchez Garrett said.
Several studies show that children who have a teacher that reflects their ethnic background are more likely to graduate from high school and pursue higher education than those who don’t have teachers of their backgrounds.
“We know statistically that children of color are better off having someone who looks like them. Their educational outcomes are greater when they have somebody in the classroom that looks like them. And I think for the Caucasian students, it’s really important for them too to just see people of color in various positions and get to learn and know somebody from a different culture as well,” Brown said.
What’s behind the district’s decision?
The district referenced enrollment data – specifically retention rates – in emails to Brenna Proczko, a parent of two at J.J. Hill and the communications chair of the PTO. That data shows that retention at the school is in the upper 70th percentile, with a large drop between kindergarten and first grade.
Proczko said that many families transfer to Capitol Hill, which starts in first grade, or to Great River, a charter Montessori, which could be why there’s a drop.
Children’s House, though, has a retention rate of around 93%, according to an internal survey, said Principal Elizabeth Diemer in an email. As of early April, 39 kids were on the waitlist for J.J. Hill’s pre-K and 16 for kindergarten. Proczko wanted to know why they’d cut classrooms when there is a long waitlist.
In a meeting between district administrators and community members in early May, administrators explained that the prekindergarten program relies on state funding, and the district must demonstrate a certain level of need, whether it be free or reduced lunch, second language learners or special education, the Sahan Journal reported.
Based on the state standards, the school needs to demonstrate more needs to fund all seven classrooms fully. While the school is almost a 50/50 split between students of color and white students, compared to the district as a whole, it has lower percentages of English learners, special education students, and students eligible for free and reduced lunch.
A community that shows up
After several back-and-forths with the district, the PTO wanted to ensure the district knew where they stood. So they got the message out for parents and community members to make their voices heard at a school board meeting at the end of May.
More than 85 people have signed a petition, writing messages about Brooks and their disappointment with the district.
“I’ve seen pictures of them holding signs. They probably think they’re just saying they love the school and they love their teacher … I’ve had some kids come up to me at the end of last week and hug me and say, ‘Please don’t go; I love seeing you.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m not going anywhere. I’m here with you.’ Trying to deter or deflect it. But it’s their feelings, and they’re valid,” Brooks said.