Tad Vezner and Mila Koumpilova, Pioneer Press, May 20, 2014 – In a highly unusual step, five St. Paul teachers appealed to the school board Tuesday night to shift the district’s course on discipline and the mainstreaming of special education students into regular classrooms — which they said has led to lower behavioral expectations and an uptick in classroom disruptions.
But numerous district supporters also packed the standing-room-only meeting, stating they had seen impressive results from students who had previously been shut behind “closed doors.”
Many in the audience applauded both sides of the issue, suggesting common ground that appeared to take some by surprise.
Teacher Aaron Benner, the most passionate speaker against the district’s disciplinary strategy to reduce student suspensions, first quoted Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech about wanting his children to be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin.
Benner then added, “Currently in our schools, lack of character is now being excused due to students’ skin color. … The direction of St. Paul Public Schools today makes Dr. King’s wish a distant dream, as bad behavior is attributed to a litany of excuses.”
“I believe we are crippling our black children by not holding them to the same expectations as other students. … It’s already hard for these kids — don’t make excuses for them. The police will not have excuses for them when they lock them up.”
But a majority of speakers spoke in support of the district’s efforts, which they noted mostly affect minority students. St. Paul NAACP president Jeffry Martin said those speaking against the district’s “racial equity” plan were “a small, vocal group,” and he went on to say the district was being “bamboozled” by “hyperbole’ and “propaganda.”
A particularly large contingent of district supporters came from Frost Lake Magnet School: Parents who said they had witnessed a remarkable turnaround in their children, and staff who noted their previous special-education “learning center” came with a separate talent show, separate graduation — and a “seclusion cell that looked like a prison cell.”
Cleo Sykes, a cultural specialist at the school who worked in its now-defunct 40-student learning center, said that since mainstreaming those 40 students, only three were now struggling.
“Our success far outweighs the struggles,” Sykes said. “I heard a (critical) teacher say, ‘I’ve been doing this for 25 years and it works.’ My question is, Works for who?”
One Frost parent told the board her student’s educational plan went from 15 percent “functional in a classroom” to 90 percent, then added, “Please don’t send him back to the learning center.”
But outside the meeting, some 20 English Language Learner parents and students stood with signs in protest, saying they were concerned about mainstreaming kids who had only been in the country for a short time.
Many of the comments inside centered on whether separate classrooms were in any way “equal” — with several noting last week’s 60th anniversary of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, which stated that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
But some of the teachers said one consequence of the district’s effort to reduce suspensions was to encourage a level of permissiveness that affected other students.
“Sometimes as responsible adults, the best for our students requires us to say ‘no’ to inappropriate behavior,” said Chong Thao, who teaches at Como Park Senior High School “The past two years our district has lost its footing regarding our obligation to provide a safe, caring and responsible school classroom environment.”
Immediately after the meeting, Superintendent Valeria Silva angrily berated one of the dissenting teachers for saying a student with consistent behavioral issues had “infected” his classroom.
“You said they are ‘infecting’ other children. I almost fell out of my chair,” Silva said.
“I didn’t mean it …,” Capitol Hill Gifted and Talented Magnet science teacher David McGill began, before Silva cut him off.
“Doesn’t matter. You said it,” Silva said, then walked away. Later, Silva commented, “That, to me … it breaks my heart.”
Silva refused additional comment on the teachers’ proposals, saying only that she had not had time to review them.
During his public comments, McGill described an example at the crux of the debate: an African-American fourth-grader who McGill said bullied and intimidated students, and “significantly compromised an entire year of science instruction for the great majority of his classmates.”
McGill noted that teachers and administrators were reluctant to discipline the student following the new “equity” policy.
“I — we — failed this student and this class,” McGill said.
In a written statement before the meeting, Silva said that “while we have made some progress, the fact remains that overall our students of color are not achieving at the levels necessary to fulfill their aspirations for college and career.”
She added that she has heard “countless success stories,” and that 80 percent of students once kept only in special education classrooms were “now doing incredibly well in typical classrooms.”
In the past, district officials have acknowledged the changes have been difficult and their rollout sometimes flawed. But they say the changes are their best effort at attacking long-standing achievement disparities between students of color and their white peers. An over-reliance on suspensions and a practice of isolating some special education students affected black boys, disproportionately, the district says.
The teachers critical of the district said they strongly support addressing racial disparities; what they object to is the rollout of district efforts without enough training and support for teachers, and input from them and parents.
Ian Keith, another in the group of teachers who voiced concerns, and a former teachers union president, said after hearing from staff and parents at Frost, “I think they made a strong case for the inclusion model — when it’s done well, it works.
“We’re definitely not anti-equity,” Keith added. “We want to close that achievement gap. … We’re in support of alternatives to suspensions.”
In writing, Keith and the other teachers proposed a slew of policy changes to the board, including higher expectations and clear consequences for disruptive behaviors. And they suggested after-school detention and other punishments that, unlike suspensions, keep students in school longer.
They added that while some schools have been successful in easing students with emotional and behavioral disabilities into the mainstream. But at others, the district needs to provide more support for students and teachers.
The teachers also argued the district should sever ties with Pacific Education Group, which has provided racial equity training and guidance since 2011. In total, the district has signed more than $1.2 million worth of contracts with the consultant.
In recent months, the St. Paul district has seen an increasingly vocal group of parents and teachers questioning district decisions and demanding more input into them. Educators and parents critical of the district were a majority at three recent listening sessions the school board hosted.
The board did not take any action related to Tuesday’s 45-minute public comment session, and all board members listened without comment, beyond the occasional nod.