You could feel the pain in the room at more than ten hours of St. Paul Board of Education meetings over the past two nights. Students stood at the podium, voices shaking, speaking through tears about their schools and teachers. Teachers and community members begged the board to keep their schools open. Board members also seemed frustrated in the face of budget shortfalls that left little room to respond. The room was filled with people who care deeply about schools in St. Paul, and no one was happy with what is happening.
LEAP students offered the most dramatic testimony on June 16. LEAP International Academy enrolls high school students who are new arrivals in the United States with limited English skills. LEAP helps students — even those older than 18 — to earn their high school diplomas.
“Most people call me P.K.,” said one LEAP student. “I am from Burma. I live in a refugee camp 10 years. I did not get a high school diploma. I came alone to US. When I came to US, I was 20. When I came to US, I have to go to school in morning and work in evening.” P.K. said she is only six credits short of graduation, and would graduate with another year. She wants to get a diploma, she said, because a diploma means more than a GED degree. She wants to become a teacher.
But she is 21, and will not be allowed to continue. In past years, these young refugee students were able to continue to graduation. Now, because of legal concerns, SPPS has decided that no students can continue past the age of 21. District legal counsel invoked equal protection and offer of benefits and a host of other legal reasons that these older refugee students could not be allowed to continue in a high school program. Instead, district officials said, the students could transfer to a GED program.
Legalities and budgets mean little to the students who have survived so much to get to this point in their lives.
When we escaped the Burmese soldiers, we had to hide in the jungle. When we were hiding in the jungle, we were in deep trouble. We did not even dare to sleep really. We did not dare to light a fire at night because we did not know where the Burmese soldiers were. …
I came here when I was 19 years old. I came to LEAP school for two years, almost three years. But now I am 21 years old.
A few weeks ago, I saw my friends at LEAP school graduate. And I thought that I would graduate, too. When I heard the principal say that students over 21 could not go to LEAP any more, I was crying. My hope was gone.
The students do more than study. A young man explained:
I come to this country in 2004, when I was 19 year old. When I lived in camp from Thailand, I didn’t know any English. I didn’t go to school. …
I have been at LEAP almost two years. LEAP helps us a lot to learn English. I passed my math and reading. I still have to pass writing. I come to school during the day. After that I go to work. I work at 3 p.m. to 2 a.m. In the morning, I study.
Teachers stand firmly behind their students. The whole staff voted unanimously to increase class sizes in order to keep the students in levels three and four (ready to graduate within two years) in school.
On the preceding night, board members heard from students at Longfellow, Roosevelt and Sheridan, three schools slated for closing in 2010-11.
West Siders were especially forceful in advocacy for Roosevelt. “We have supported and partnered with merger of Humboldt junior and senior high schools,” said Carlos Garcia-Velasco. “We hoped the district would work with us,” but instead the decision was to close Roosevelt.
Another West Side resident charged that the “process of dialogue and discussion is broken down. Misinformation has been messaged to community and intentional strategies to withhold information from St. Paul and the community. … It wasn’t handled transparently. Somebody dropped the ball on telling the truth on a lot of issues.”
A school employee, Veu Thor, concurred: ” Our district is a mess … we have a corruption going on here. We have tenured assistant principals losing their jobs. We have non-tenured teachers being laid off …schools that should be closed remaining open, other schools closing that should be kept open. … My question to the board is have you been doing your homework lately? Why don’t you get more opinions from teachers about which schools should be closed and should remain open?”
Sheridan, too, had strong defenders. Kristin, speaking through tears, said:
Three years ago my husband and I moved to St. Paul. We looked at schools in Woodbury, Maplewood, Oakdale. We looked at reading scores, test scores, racial makeup.
We found Sheridan Elementary and that was one of the best decisions we could have made. My son is in second grade and he has been assessed at a 5.4 math level. My beautiful, beautiful African American little boy – and you will take that away …
The recommendation to close the three schools came from the district administration to the board as part of the budget process. The decision on closure of the three schools was scheduled for June 16, but the vote was postponed. On July 14, the Committee of the Board will discuss the closings, taking a vote at the July 21 Board of Education meeting.
Board members also asked the administration to find more information on possible alternatives for LEAP students.
At the end of the night, the budget came up for a vote. Board member Anne Carroll moved to approve the budget, but said she was making the motion because it was legally necessary to pass a balanced budget, not because she approved:
This is appalling. We’ve never cut this many people before. … It’s unacceptable. … We are not preventing harm. We are doing harm. … The legislature has failed to do its job. …
It is our legal responsibility and our moral obligation to make the decisions that have to be made. And I’m sorry. I’m sorry we have to do this.
Board member Keith Hardy thanked administration members who put together the difficult recommendations to cut the $25 million to balance the budget. “My final statement is about the direction we’re going. Because of these cuts … we’re also having to make cuts about employees with special talents, employees with lots of years in the district, who have or will be losing their jobs because of this budget. … I’m sorry that we will be losing people who have given so much to the district.” Hardy cast the sole vote against the budget.
“This is a product of what happens when a state decides to fund education on the cheap,” said board member Tom Goldstein. “Kids deserve better. … I’m not proud of the work we have to do tonight. I’m not proud of the decisions. … I know whatever pain I feel is infinitesimal compared to the people who are going to lose their jobs and not be part of a school district and a profession that they love.”
Mary Turck is the editor of the TC Daily Planet.