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Why the upcoming St. Paul School Board election will be a referendum on Valeria Silva’s leadership

Large-scale change has caused enough discomfort that tensions within the district are at a flashpoint.

Superintendent Valeria Silva

MinnPost file photo by Craig Lassig
Superintendent Valeria Silva

In October of 2013, Valeria Silva stood before her peers, the superintendents of the urban districts that belong to the Council of the Great City Schools, and challenged them to think differently about their achievement gaps.

Combing through data after she took the helm at St. Paul Public Schools, Silva had a startling realization: Impoverished white students did better academically than children of color from wealthy families.

When educators talk about the kids schools are failing, the conversation typically centers on poverty — with sharp division whether schools can overcome its challenges. But the data told Silva there would be no closing of the 45 point gap between the city’s children of color and white children without talking about race — and frankly.

Her colleagues were listening. In part because she revolutionized the way her schools approach English-language learners, Silva is something of a rock star in national circles. Shortly before her remarks, Education Week named her a “Leader to Learn From.”

Growing up in Chile, Silva told the superintendents [PDF], her light brown skin and Latina ethnicity made her part of the majority: “I didn’t understand the privileges I had — and the skin-color privileges I would lose — when coming to America.”

It wasn’t until Silva began to challenge her own bedrock assumptions — that native English speakers were somehow superior, for instance — that she really began to understand the influence of mindset in the classroom. Beliefs had to change.

“Poverty has been our focus because it is much easier — and less scary — than to talk about race,” she said. “Please, I challenge you. Go home from this conference and look at your own data.”

Large-scale change — and tensions

Two years later those conversations have driven large-scale change, yet have caused enough discomfort that tensions within St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS) — long a place where the children of vocal parents of means could count on great educations — are at a flashpoint. The upcoming November election is seen as a referendum on Silva’s policies — and perhaps her superintendency.

A teacher union-led effort to oust several incumbent board members has gained traction with parents galvanized by what they say are behavior issues that have spiraled out of control. Administrators, they say, aren’t listening.

And the unhappy voices can’t be neatly dismissed as entitled parents impatient with calls for equity. Hmong and Karen families are increasingly taking the unusual step of expressing frustration publicly.

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The number of St. Paul children of color attending school outside the district has risen from 9,149 in 2010 to 12,201 in 2014, according to the Center for School Change’s Joe Nathan, who has been involved in some of the campaigns to replace board incumbents. The number of white students leaving is up just 475 over the same time period, to 3,537.

In June, as political tensions came to a head, fourth-grade teacher Aaron Benner — who has since filed to run for a board seat — appeared on Bill O’Reilly’s Fox program under the headline “Chaos in Public Schools.”

If there was a district campaign to combat the negative headlines that preceded O’Reilly’s rant, it flew under the radar. Indeed SPPS communications staff have not reached out to this publication in several years and seemed confused by requests for interviews for this story, which was largely reported via conversations with insiders on both sides of the issue, many of whom asked not to be named.

St. Paul charged ahead; others moved incrementally

St. Paul is hardly the only community where the combined pressures of confronting racial disparities and the exodus of families of color leaving for charters and suburbs have opened painful fissures. But where other districts have taken years to make incremental steps that get incremental gains, St. Paul has charged in.

At the core of the eruptions are two separate but related changes. Soon after being appointed in 2010, Silva decided it was time for the district to confront racial inequities. Three years later she moved to change one of the most inequitable practices by returning special-education students — many of them children of color who had acted out — to mainstream classrooms.

Almost immediately rifts appeared. Many complain that the district hasn’t provided overwhelmed teachers with promised supports for dealing with the increased challenges — a claim advanced even by some staunch supporters of the changes.

At the same time, many of the adults in the system are resistant to the idea that a different belief system will have the greatest impact on classroom culture, others say.

Disproportionate discipline in many districts

As in many districts, children of color and Native American students in St. Paul are much more likely than their white peers to be subjected to punitive discipline. African-American boys, for instance, are twice as likely to be suspended as white children.

Students of color are also disproportionately tracked into special education for nonviolent behavior that is perceived as defiant. Because Minnesota’s teacher corps is 85 percent white, the teacher interpreting the behavior does so across a cultural chasm.

The effects of exclusion from the regular classroom are devastating. A student who has been suspended three or more times by ninth grade is almost guaranteed not to graduate. Isolated from their peers, children whose behavior masked a challenge at home or a learning deficit just become angrier.

Historically many schools and teachers have relied on the ability to send a child who is acting up and who does not respond to “redirection” — requests to quiet down or get back on task — out of the classroom.

Even a very young child intent on, say, competing with the teacher for a class’ attention can bring everyone to a halt. When Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) last year announced an initiative to curb suspensions in kindergarten through second grade, teachers protested.

At the same time, districts and individual schools here and elsewhere have dramatically curtailed “behavior referrals.” Strategies vary, but almost all rely to some degree on a teacher’s ability to be warm and demanding — to insist that every student can and will be engaged.

A tectonic shift

If it sounds semantic, the shift Silva hoped to get the entire district to make — from talking about poverty as the obstacle to race as a constant presence in schools — is tectonic. Among other things it prompts the question: Will proven gap-closing strategies work in schools where students of color are seen as less likely to succeed?

In 2010 Silva contracted with the Pacific Educational Group to begin staging “courageous conversations” among district staff. The intensive trainings focus on helping individuals understand and challenge their beliefs.

In much the same way that the district hoped to shift the narrative from poverty to race, leaders wanted staff to think less about managing students and more about relating to them. The resulting shift in mindset would have an impact on everything from encouraging teachers to design lessons that are relevant to students’ cultures to the well-researched correlation between teacher expectations of students’ potential and their performance.

The process started with district and school leaders, with increasing numbers of classroom teachers included in recent years. Meanwhile, each school was asked to form an equity team that would work on the issue.

In many schools, the return of students with behavior challenges to regular classrooms left staff feeling underequipped. Many complained they didn’t understand how a greater awareness of race would result in more engaged students.

Seeking understanding rather than control

For the last five years, Kristy Pierce has been a behavior and culture specialist at Battle Creek Middle School, where the mostly impoverished student body is racially diverse. A black woman, she is a fierce proponent of the approach.

“It breaks the ground a little for people who know things just aren’t right,” says Pierce. “That being able to be vulnerable is tough, that ability to give up control.”

Over the last two years she has co-taught creative expression to eighth-grade classes in which half the students qualify for special-ed services. Sometimes students get so anxious they need to leave for a little while, but Pierce has never sent one out of class.

One reason: Pierce says she doesn’t focus on control so much as understanding.

“Many times adults want kids to come in and sit down and be quiet,” she explains. “I might not be able to be quiet. In the quiet it’s so loud. So what if I create an environment in which it’s OK that [a student] stands up? What if you don’t lose control? What if they just stand up?”

Pierce acknowledges that many of her colleagues would prefer specific strategies, something district leaders say they are providing in the form of training in culturally responsive teaching methods, among other things.

But Pierce does think a shift in perception can make a crucial difference. Educators routinely move mountains to reach children they believe in, she notes. Those who are able to live with tough racial truths are likely to figure out how to reach their kids, she says.

The former superintendent in Eden Prairie, Melissa Krull, also contracted with the Pacific Educational Group after wrestling with many of the same questions as Silva. Without a belief that all children can and want to learn, even the best strategies won’t work for all students, she says.

“I believe that once we believe that all children can learn we will, in fact, act on our beliefs,” she says. “This means we will read, discuss, learn, take courses and even build relationships so that we find ourselves acting in accordance with our beliefs. If we believe in all children we will be sure our behaviors follow.”

And what of the painful interval in which students possibly long isolated from other children are absorbing educators’ energy?

Too little attention to practical issues?

A onetime SPPS teacher and administrator, Nathan doesn’t believe the district has taken the concerns to heart. Families at Ramsey Middle School spent last year trying to convey the severity of the behavior disruptions to little end, he said. Nine teachers quit.

“Information … has been theoretical vs. practical,” says Nathan. “Teachers don’t know what the district wants them to do when confronted with, say, a student calling them a motherfucker.”

As part of a federally funded collaboration with the district, Nathan’s Center for School Change asked Eli Kramer, leader of the high-performing charter school network Hiawatha Academies (and full disclosure: son of MinnPost founders Joel and Laurie Kramer) to conduct a workshop on the engagement strategies in the popular book “Teach Like a Champion.”

“Many SPPS teachers either wrote on their evaluators or told me that they had previously attended workshops about ‘courageous conversations’ that focused on teacher attitudes but did not give them specific, practical strategies to improve classrooms,” says Nathan. “They really liked Eli because he was very practical about what they could do the next day to help students achieve more.”

Michelle Bierman, SPPS’ director of race equity, has laid out a schedule for the coming school year in which classroom-level training is intensified and teachers are given a variety of options for bridging the gap from theory to practice. And there are schools where shifts in culture are well under way, she and others say.

Concerns about disruptions

Still, dinner-table talk of disruptions in class are hard to counter. Sia Her, executive director of the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans, says she is frequently approached by Southeast Asian parents who fear their concerns are being lost in the fray.

Many aren’t well informed about the racial-equity policy, which can seem indifferent to their values, such as deference to teachers and other adults. In contrast to “model minority” stereotypes, their children may struggle with learning gaps nearly as large as those confronting African-American and Latino students.

“The conversation has mostly been about African-American children relative to white children,” says Her. “When you push it, Latinos come into the picture. But Asian students don’t come into the discussion.

“Just because my child is sitting silently watching this interchange play out between a teacher and a disruptive student doesn’t mean my child is going to score well.”

Her wishes that there were an organized effort to bring together “a well-rounded group of stakeholders from the Asian Pacific Islander community” in the hope of preventing families from either suffering or leaving quietly.

“Children don’t just carry a backpack with pens and pencils, but the expectations and dreams not just of a family but of a people,” she says. “My family would not be where we are without St. Paul Public Schools. St. Paul has done a whole lot of good for a whole lot of students of color.”

And what of its ability to continue doing good? Unknown is whether the coalition seeking to change the composition of the school board will hold, much less attempt to alter either the race-equity policy or the practice of including all special ed students in regular classrooms.

What does seem certain is that whatever the district’s future leadership, the data that propelled Silva to call for courageous conversations is not going to change without a collective willingness to confront the role that race plays in the classroom.

“This racial-equity work made me uncomfortable, and that’s how I knew I was doing the right work,” Silva told the superintendents two years ago. “I often operate outside my comfort zone. I choose to go to the ‘race place’ and stay there.”

Time, then, will tell whether the SPPS can stay there with her.