Gender-separate school proposal sparks controversy in St. Paul

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Big changes are coming to North End elementary school in St. Paul, according to school district officials. Plans include separate classes for boys and girls in kindergarten through third grade, beginning in September. Beyond that, details are less clear.

About two weeks ago, early reports said that a “University Academy of Excellence for Boys” at North End would focus on increasing achievement for African-American boys through culturally specific curriculum and teaching practices. North End has low enrollment, and the district hoped to attract more students to the new, gender-separated “academy.”

St. Paul’s e-democracy forum erupted with a debate over allegations of segregation. Others in the community also asked for clarification. Would this be a boys-only program? Would it be primarily for African-American boys? What would happen to the other students already enrolled at North End, where the mix currently includes large numbers of Hmong and Latino students?

Why North End?

North End elementary school was selected for the new program because it is a strong school with declining enrollment, according to the school district. Though more than 90 percent of its students are eligible for free or reduced price lunches, and more than 40 percent are classified as Limited English Proficiency, achievement remains strong. Every single subgroup made “adequate yearly progress” on federal reading tests last year. Math scores were not as high, and the school now has a math tutor to help bring those scores up.

According to district executive director for elementary education Nancy Stachel, the district’s goal is increasing the number of families who choose North End, while maintaining it as a neighborhood school. She says they are “working with community organizations to increase programming, and make this building a center for the community.”

North End principal Hamilton Bell is emphatic in his commitment to strengthening ties between the school and neighborhood, including development of partnerships with the North End Block Club, with Rice Street businesses and with St. Paul Park and Recreation. North End has an in-school dental clinic, and plans to develop other services for students and the community. Before the school day begins, early arrivals can attend morning tutoring programs.

Bell calls North End students “future leaders,” and insists that North End will remain a community school. He says that North End has “the best staff in the city of St. Paul.”

Success for African-American boys

Parents at a December 5 informational meeting asked whether students would be separated by race, and whether the boys’ academy would have an Afrocentric focus. Valeria Silva, chief academic officer for St. Paul schools, said that there will be no separation by race and that the focus will be on academic achievement, particularly in math and the sciences. She said that this focus will make North End a feeder school for the BioSmart math and science programs at Washington middle school and Arlington high school.

Part of the confusion over the proposal stems from the connection of the “academy” plan for North End with a district initiative called Students of African Heritage Achieving Now (Sahan). In an e-mail interview, District Superintendent Meria Carstarphen explained that the district is seeking funding from Robins, Kaplan, Miller & Ceresi Foundation for part of the gender specific programming at North End.

“We applied for resources to target the achievement gap for African immigrant and African American male students,” Carstarphen wrote. “As part of our SAHAN initiative, we plan to have targeted resources for the African immigrant and African American male students who go to North End.” She noted that the district is working hard to close the achievement gap for African immigrant and African-American middle school males, who currently have the lowest proficiency rates in the district.

Carstarphen reiterated that the program at North End will be open to all. “To be clear, North End will not be a school exclusive to our African and African American students. If any of our students want to take part in the rigorous academic programming that will take place there, we would be excited to have them take part.”

Some at the December 5 meeting took a wait-and-see attitude. Others were positive. A Latina grandmother said she likes the idea of separating boys and girls. If the plan goes through, she thinks her daughter may move her children back to North End from the charter school they now attend. That’s the kind of movement that the school district wants to see.

Demographics

Initial school district communications said the plan was based on attracting more African American students. Information sheets from the District said that North End was located in a community that was 70 percent African-American but had less than 40 percent African-American enrollment. However, those figures proved erroneous. A City of St. Paul analysis of 2000 census figures, showed 15 percent African-American population in the North End community. According to the city’s figures, 18 percent of the North End population was Asian and seven percent was Latino. District spokespersons acknowledged over the weekend that the 70 percent figure is not accurate, and said the district plans to issue updated information in the week ahead.

Long-time North End resident Linda Jungwirth said that it would be difficult to characterize the community’s demographics, because the neighborhood changes so much from year to year. “The nature of the neighborhood is that it’s diverse,” Jungwirth said. She points out that North End offers a lot of affordable housing and rental housing.

North End elementary school has a current enrollment of 327, according to principal Hamilton Bell. The most recent district analysis of North End school demographics, from October 2006, shows enrollment of 38 percent African American students, 33 percent Asian students, 12 percent Latino students, 13 percent Caucasian students, and four percent American Indian students.

About 50 adults attended the December 5 community information meeting. Sizable Hmong and Latino groups were present.

Rush to Approval

The school district has pushed for quick approval of its proposed programming changes, which include creation of a Hmong Magnet School at Phalen Lake elementary, as well as changes at Linwood, Monroe, Farnsworth, Cleveland Junior High, Homecroft and Humboldt Junior High. Driving the approval process is the deadline for publication of the School Selection Guide, which parents will use in selecting schools for the 2008-09 school year. The school board is set to vote on the proposals at its December 18 meeting.

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