Creating the Maxfield-Jackson Children’s Zone in St. Paul

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“Opportunity” is a word Nancy Stachel repeats often when talking about her assignment as principal at Maxfield Magnet School in St. Paul. 

Stachel’s first day on the job was January 18, two months after principal Belinda Green was placed on administrative leave. Stachel had been chief of schools for St. Paul Public Schools and was a semi-finalist for the superintendent position last fall. Her position was one of three executive posts cut by new Superintendent Valeria Silva in January in an effort to address a $28 million deficit.

She admits she didn’t choose her new position, but she’s optimistic: “I’m excited. I feel like there is a higher power and things happen for a reason.”

Maxfield is one of 34 schools in the state identified as Minnesota’s “persistently low-achieving schools.” Less than a third of the students were deemed proficient on the 2009 Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment-II tests. Ninety-eight percent of the 333 students qualify for free or reduced lunch. The school’s student population is highly transient. Last year, 34 percent of the students left the school during the year. That number was 66 percent the year before.

 

Teacher of the year!

On May 2, Maxfield sixth grade teacher Ryan Vernosh was named 2010 Minnesota Teacher of the Year. Vernosh is the second ever SPPS teacher to be named Teacher of the Year. He has been with the District since 2004 and has taught at Maxfield since 2006.

The Teacher of the Year program is underwritten by Education Minnesota, the statewide educators union. This marks the 46th anniversary of  the program. As Minnesota’s Teacher of the Year, Vernosh will be the state’s nominee for National Teacher of the Year 2011.

The school has been a revolving door for principals, too. Stachel says she’s either the seventh or eighth principal to lead the school in the last ten years.

Green’s short tenure (she came in the fall of 2008 and was placed on administrative leave the day Silva was named superintendent) was steeped in controversy. No one will go on record-including Stachel, who was chief of schools when Green left-to say exactly what happened at the school while she was there or why she isn’t there anymore, but local news media were flooded with anonymous emails and letters alleging Green was abusive to teachers and children and that she fired half the staff last year.

It is true that 50 percent of the staff at the school is new this year, and 15 of the teachers are within their first three years of teaching. Even the office staff is new.

A Turnaround School

Stachel’s office is filled with unpacked boxes and artwork that she hasn’t had a chance to hang on the walls in the less than four months she’s been here.

“A lot is happening,” she says. “The bottom line is a whole lot of great things are going on here.” She draws a line on the white board in her office and points to the left side. “Over here, the school meets the requirements of a ‘turnaround school,'” which means it’s eligible to receive federal School Improvement Grant money. In early April, the state had an outside consultant perform a school quality review. The results will be available around May 12.

“On the other end is Melvin Carter’s work with the Harlem Children’s Zone,” Stachel says. She’s referring to the efforts of St. Paul City Council member Melvin Carter III to unite the city, Ramsey County and the school district to combine resources to help improve the physical and social communities surrounding both Maxfield and Jackson elementary schools, which are located in the Summit-University and Frogtown neighborhoods, respectively.

Carter’s brainchild is rooted in the Harlem Children’s Zone, a 97-block area of New York City where schools and community come together to support families and children.

It began in 1970 as a truancy prevention program and expanded in the 1990s with a pilot project that brought support services to one single block in the area. The idea was to help poor families address all the problems they were facing: crime, health issues, poor living conditions and failing schools.

In 1991, the project began using a public school as a place to offer a range of community services and activities on nights, weekends and summers.

That’s what Stachel sees happening at Maxfield. “What needs to be addressed is family and community support,” Stachel says.

The school board passed a resolution supporting the program in November. In March, Stachel, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman, Carter, Jackson Principal Patrick Bryan, Ramsey County Commissioner Toni Carter and representatives of the Wilder Foundation visited the Harlem Children’s Zone.

 “They’ve gotten where they are by really supporting parents not just supporting individual children, by giving the families the resources to be successful as well as a neighborhood that is moving in a positive direction,” Carter says.

Stachel lists three ingredients to a successful learning environment: solid academics during the day, after-school programs that address social and emotional needs, and family support. “My goal for next year would be to have every one of the kids in quality after-school programs,” she says.

“School is one-third of their day,” she says. “The other two-thirds have to help provide stability for families: tutoring, healthcare, employment services. When we talk about the achievement gap, this is where we need to start. There is a poverty piece to the achievement gap. We have to address it.”

Some of that community and family bonding began last week when Maxfield and Jackson hosted a family night at the Minnesota Science Museum. Stachel says she expected about 100 people to attend the outing, but 300 signed up.

“The quality of a child’s out-of-school experiences is important. Our families are not typical Science Museum families. Their kids might go to the Science Museum on a field trip, but the families don’t. We want to create opportunities to experience these things as families,” she says. In May, the two schools will host a family night at a Saints game.

Next year, Maxfield plans to host family dinners once a month and tie those in with educational programs. Stachel says the school will open a food pantry for families in partnership with Second Harvest food bank. That project will kick off this month at an information night with the University of Minnesota Extension Office, Target and Second Harvest on hand to give recipes and offer nutritional education.

Creating Connections

Carter says that traditionally, the city took no part in the schools. “We have for quite a while seen education as the school district’s role and community issues as the city’s role,” he says. “Now the mayor’s been saying the city does have a stake in the schools.”

He sees the city as a facilitator. “We started with the question, ‘What does Maxfield need from the community around it?’ Volunteer tutors, helping make sure kids have access to high-quality facilities, making sure the neighborhood around the school has a high aesthetic and safety quality, making sure it’s a secure place in a secure neighborhood and recognize the interplay that all of that has.

“Much of what we are doing is creating connections,” he says. “We helped craft that partnership with the Science Museum. We’ve asked our directors and our city staff to be creative in what the city can do. We’ll be out there repainting crosswalks, fixing up vacant houses across the street, making sure the program focuses on families and helps connect them to resources that they need.”

Maxfield has been a part of the Rondo community since 1890. The original building was in the middle of what is now I-94. Stachel says a number of parents at the school say they attended the school, or their mom did, or their grandmother. Even the students who bus in from other neighborhoods say they had family who attended the school or live nearby.

Carter says the school has been the center of the community for a long time. “We are really focused on convening people around that.”

The Missing Piece

As Stachel takes a visitor on a tour of the building she stops in a hallway: “Listen,” she says. “You don’t hear wild crazy kids.” She’s right. It’s around lunch time and the school is quiet. Children who are in the hallways look up at her and greet her by name.

“The piece that was missing is consistency,” she says. “They’ve been through so many principals.”

Stachel says her work as chief of schools-the point person for the district’s efforts to restructure troubled schools-has given her the skills needed to help Maxfield turn around. “My goal is to get the school turned around and to train the next leader,” she says, and estimates that’s probably a six-year project.

Though Stachel-who was principal at Como Park Elementary for seven years and assistant principal at Capitol Hill before that-wasn’t looking to go back to work as a principal again, if she had been, she says, “This would have been the school I would have chosen. Maxfield is a school where there is so much potential.”