Facing the race issue: St. Paul schools use California-based group in effort to reduce achievement gap
Mila Koumpilova, Pioneer Press, October 28, 2013 – St. Paul’s Frost Lake Elementary has focused intensely on its black students lately.
Administrators and teachers pore over data and ask: If black students make up 20 percent of the student body, why do they account for 65 percent of the suspensions? Why do they lag behind peers in reading and math?
The school’s “equity team” is an offshoot of the district’s three-year relationship with San Francisco-based consultant Pacific Educational Group, or PEG. The premise: Educators can only chip away at achievement disparities if they confront their own racial biases and the ways racism permeates schools.
“We are asking our staff to change rather than expect kids to change to fit our comfort level — and that’s huge,” said Frost Lake Principal Stacey Kadrmas.
PEG’s input has spurred districtwide changes in St. Paul, from a push to reduce suspensions to a bid to integrate students with intensive special needs into mainstream classrooms. Districts such as Edina examined reading selections, hallway posters and curriculums to ensure they include faces and voices with whom students of color can identify.
Critics say PEG’s work has alienated some educators and, in recasting certain discipline issues as cultural misunderstandings, let disruptive students and their families off the hook. Some point to the cost of PEG’s services and the scarcity of solid evidence they boost achievement.
PEG has provided training and guidance to more than a dozen Minnesota districts in recent years, from Lakeville to Osseo. Amid halting efforts to narrow one of the country’s widest achievement gaps between white and minority students, Minnesota districts have enlisted a slew of other equity consultants, as well.
TRAINING FOR ALL
At a two-day training called “Beyond Diversity,” PEG facilitator Devon Alexander instructed about 90 St. Paul staff members how to have “courageous conversations” about race. He urged them to embrace the discomfort the topic spurs and accept disagreement.
He spoke about his experiences — as one of few black students in an elite private school and as a teacher who shows a predominantly white honors class that “The Great Gatsby” is “a perfect example of how whiteness is lived in America.” St. Paul staffers talked about their own experiences with race in small groups.
The second day offered a primer on race theory, from Thomas Jefferson’s views on white superiority to the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. Alexander stressed that though the words “white privilege” and “whiteness” came up often, he was not out to blame white people for achievement disparities.
PEG was founded in 1992 by Glenn Singleton, a Stanford-educated former college admissions director. The group has provided “Beyond Diversity” to employees at Applebee’s and, more recently, at the city of St. Paul and Ramsey County. But its main clientele are schools nationwide. There, Singleton believes a key first step to serving students of color better is talking more openly about how race might shape their school experience.
“St. Paul Public Schools and schools across the Twin Cities are doing a dreadful job of educating all students,” Singleton said, adding, “We have partnered with the district to make sure race matters.”
St. Paul wants each of its roughly 6,000 employees — from the superintendent to janitors and bus drivers — to take the seminar by 2015.
PEG also provides more intensive training for district and school leaders. Among other things, it encourages them to select new hires based on a track record of working effectively with students of color. There’s also training for members of “equity teams” and for teams that examine curriculums and teaching practices.
St. Paul has signed more than $1.2 million worth of contracts with PEG the past three years. In Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan, which limited training to leaders and some educators, the price tag was $124,000 over four years.
This week, dozens of local educators, including 11 from Lakeville, are in St. Louis for PEG’s annual Summit for Courageous Conversation. St. Paul is sending 36 staff members for about $67,000.
In a recent meeting, the equity team at Frost Lake discussed making the most of two teacher training days later this school year.
The team is planning a session on writing racial autobiographies and a guest speaker, a Washington University expert on serving black boys. The training also should include more guidance for classroom teachers who struggle with easing in special education students from the now shuttered Learning Center, Kadrmas said.
Across the district, students identified with emotional and behavioral disabilities — disproportionately black children — have migrated from learning centers to mainstream classrooms this fall. Kadrmas and teachers on the team say they believe passionately in the changes.
“There is nothing harder than looking at yourself and saying, ‘I am part of the issue,’ ” said Cleo Sykes, a behavior specialist at the school.
It has been a difficult transition at times. Kadrmas was struck by something an assistant superintendent told her recently: Courageous conversations are important, but educators also need practical, day-to-day tools and support.
St. Paul codified its commitment to attack disparities in a new racial equity policy this summer. The district replaced a middle school social studies curriculum that did not include minority perspective. It has set out to reduce office referrals and suspensions, which schools have disproportionally meted out to black students.
The idea is that educators and administrators tend to be harder on students of color, misinterpreting as defiance behaviors rooted in culture — say, speaking loudly or without raising their hand. The district is trying to take the subjectivity out of discipline and keep students learning in their classrooms, said Michelle Bierman, the district’s director of equity.
“What might be enthusiasm to one teacher might seem like defiance to another teacher,” said Bierman.
In Edina, which worked with PEG until last year, principals learned how to gauge if educators were engaging students of color in their classrooms, said Gwen Jackson, human resources and operations director: For instance, were teachers only calling on white students who raise their hands? The district broadened high school literature selections to include more black authors such as James Baldwin and Alice Walker.
So is it working?
St. Paul has seen some test score gains over the past three years, but by most measures, achievement disparities have persisted. Those include a 45 percentage point difference between black and white students in math proficiency.
PEG’s Singleton is proud of an almost 30 percent reduction in suspensions last year in St. Paul. But he balked at offering examples of achievement gains in Minnesota districts. Changes in test scores, graduation rates, attendance and other measures take time, he says. And it is hard to isolate a consultant’s role from other district efforts and from challenges such as budget cuts.
Singleton said in some districts such as Eden Prairie, which did see growth in minority student test scores, the media have been known to “validate insanity in print.”
There, a collaboration with PEG set the stage for boundary changes to spread low-income students more evenly among schools. Some parents vocally opposed the changes and elected new school board members, who parted ways with Superintendent Melissa Krull.
Last summer, St. Paul teacher Chong Thao read an open letter to the school board by Ian Keith, a Randolph Heights Elementary teacher and former head of the district’s teachers union.
In it, Keith voiced concern that as the district has reined in suspensions, it hasn’t always replaced them with other, meaningful consequences for disruptive behavior, such as afterschool detention with school work. In the name of honoring cultural differences, it has condoned behaviors that can make it harder for other students to learn.
Even as it celebrates cultural differences, he wrote, the district must rally around teaching hard work, respect for teachers, following directions — “the common values that bind us together as people and help our kids succeed in school and life.”
The letter resonated with Thao, a teacher, a graduate and the mother of a graduate at Como Park High School. She believes that institutional racism plays some part in holding minority students back — but in a tangle of factors, including parent involvement and what she calls an “effort gap.”
She says PEG training focused too narrowly on black students. In one session, the presenter shared national data that showed Asian children achieving on par with whites; that’s not the case in St. Paul, where most Asian students come from refugee and recent immigrant families.
Thao rejects the idea that the reasons a teacher might send a student to the principal’s office — tardiness, getting into a fight, acting out during a lesson — are tied up in students’ racial identities.
“I think punctuality is not a cultural trait; I think respect is not a cultural trait,” said Thao, now part of a multiracial group of teachers who have met with school board members. “The teacher is scapegoated for much larger, more complex societal problems.”
Aaron Benner, a teacher at Johnson Elementary and a member of the group, said he feels teachers are more reluctant to speak openly about race these days for fear of being called racist.
“As a black man, I think it is so detrimental to kids to blame their behavior on white teachers,” he said.
School board member John Brodrick, a retired St. Paul teacher, alone voted against a new PEG contract this past summer. He argued that after three years of working with the company, the district is ready to continue on its own.
Other members argued for the contract, noting the cost to society when students of color struggle. The district has an obligation to try to stick with promising approaches to closing the achievement gap, board member Keith Hardy said.
Some former clients in the Twin Cities — such as Edina — have sought to continue the work they started with PEG on their own or with other consultants. In Rosemount, Stacy Wells, the educational equity coordinator, says mounting costs are the main reason the district now provides this type of training internally.
“Beyond Diversity” helped the district lay the groundwork by getting employees to examine their attitudes, she said. But, “People weren’t sure how what they learned applies in the classroom.”
Minneapolis, which worked with PEG in the mid-2000s, has partnered with Oakland-based consultant National Equity Project since 2011, at a cost of about $600,000. District leadership, principals and educators at some schools went through the company’s seminars.
The district recently passed an equity and diversity policy; it’s looking closely at disparities in suspension, and clearer discipline guidelines will go before the board next month.
James Burroughs II, the Minneapolis executive director of equity and diversity, says the district likes National Equity’s ability to address racism in professional development without antagonizing employees.
“We understand there will be some level of discomfort and angst when we talk about race,” he said. “But what we didn’t want to do is blame people. That’s a fine line you walk in this work.”