School superintendents commit to racial equity

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On the morning of Saturday, September 17, at St. Alphonsus Catholic Church in Brooklyn Center, schools across the Twin Cities metro area were asked the following questions: “Are you willing to publicly declare a commitment to racial equity and working to increase achievement for students of color? And are you willing to continue to engage in dialogue with ISAIAH and the other members of the equity organizing collaborative to discuss ways to promote equity, close achieve gaps, and [explore] ways to measure and report publicly on your progress?

ISAIAH, “a coalition of 100 congregations across the state working together for racial economic justice,” according to their literature, is concentrating its efforts on closing the achievement gap. The first step in this process was securing commitments from Minnesota’s largest public school districts that serve children of color.

Anoka/Hennepin, Bloomington, Edina, St. Cloud, Minneapolis, Eden Prairie, Brooklyn Center, Robbinsdale, Osseo, Minnetonka, Hopkins, Richfield, Roseville, St. Louis Park and St. Paul Public School superintendents and/or their representatives pledged allegiance to this initiative alongside Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius.

Katie Stennes, a teacher, and Tony Hudson, a principal, both co-chairs of the ISAIAH education committee, began the event by asking school representatives what was at stake for them in taking on the challenge of becoming “equity champions.”

“As professionals, the stakes are very high for us in St. Cloud,” said Dr. Julia Espe, assistant superintendent of St. Cloud Area School District. “Our demographics are changing rapidly from a predominately White upper-middle-class community 10 years ago to a community with rich diversity.”

Currently, 50 percent of the school district Espe represents is sufficiently low-income to qualify for free-and-reduced lunch. According to hospital officials, the birthrate for children of color in St. Cloud surpassed that of Whites over the past year. “What does that mean to our district?” she asked. “It means game on.”

Mary Cathryn Ricker is president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, but she began her career in the classroom both in St. Cloud and then in the St. Paul Public School system. In 2004, she became a national board-certified teacher in middle-school English. Hers was the model classroom for English language arts in her district.

“I had absolutely no reason to ever want to leave my classroom. I loved every minute of it, except —” Ricker paused as she began to cry — “I would stand in front of a classroom with the same standards posted on my wall, knowing I’m teaching the same students at the same time the same thing. And for those of you who don’t know, in St. Paul Public Schools we have the most gorgeous cross section of the world you could ever imagine.”

After receiving her students’ test scores back, she didn’t understand what she was doing to cause some students to score high and other to score low based on race or ethnicity. These experiences were the basis for her decision to run for president of her union.

“What are you doing with our children’s lives?” Kyung Chun Kye, youth director of Church of All Nations in Columbia Heights, asked the audience. “Why are you wasting these little ones’ brains, their smarts? Why didn’t you try this hard to change what was happening earlier?”

Kye told how his experience in the public school system was different from that of many other people of color. Because of his Korean heritage, his teachers viewed him as a “model minority student.” And though he was not, his teachers still believed in him.

“We have to take responsibility for the achievement gap, because education is faith in our youth,” Kye said. “And we have shown in a very clear way that we have little faith.”

Co-chair Tony Hudson said that as a teen he was a gang member and had access to weapons. While seeing his friends and classmates placed in basement special-education classes in Omaha, Nebraska, it was his mother, who he described as a very tough, five-foot-nothing supportive parent — not a teacher or administrator — who had faith in him.

Hudson is now in his second year as principal of Edinbrook Elementary School in Brooklyn Park. The education committee was just beginning to form when he joined ISAIAH one year ago, after their success with securing equity dollars from MnDOT to ensure that people of color are both hired and trained for transportation projects. ISAIAH had also been influential in persuading Governor Dayton to hire an education commissioner who was a person of color with a commitment to equity.

Hudson said he knows what it’s like when people are resistant to making necessary changes in schools. “I joined ISAIAH because I know it’s going to take more than myself,” Hudson said during an interview with MSR.

During his first year as principal, Hudson went to a Triple 90 conference, a conference highlighting schools across the country that are working with a student population made up of 90 percent students of color at 90 percent poverty levels, yet 90 percent of their students are proficient in reading and math according to state testing results. Montgomery County Schools in Maryland and Frasier International Magnet Schools in Chicago were among them.

Dayton’s Bluff Achievement Plus Elementary in St. Paul, was Hudson’s local model for success. Fifty percent of their student body is made up of transient students; still, 80 percent of their students are proficient in reading and math. Armed with the knowledge of what schools across the country are doing, Edinbrook has implemented changes in how they educate their students.

While the achievement gap persists, Hudson says he looks at the young men and boys of the congregation after church every Sunday and wonders, if only half of Black youth are graduating, which side of the gap each of them will fall on.

“If you and I are in a room and you were sick and I had the medication, would I be waiting, or would I give it to you?” Hudson asks in response to school administrators who maintain an ineffective model for meeting the needs of students of color. “As Martin [Luther King] says, what we get told is to wait. What are we waiting for?”

Hudson believes that informed community members have the power to tip the scales toward racial equity in education. “We really need the community to know about those examples [of high-performing schools] so that they can go in informed to their superintendents and board meetings and say, ‘Look, I know you got a lot of stuff to consider, but you said this is number one — the gap. So find out what they’re doing over there and replicate it.

“‘And I’m going to get educated about it, and I’m not going to let you not do it.’”

He says that the community can do its part by learning about the Harvest Preparatories (see adjoining story), the Dayton’s Bluffs and Triple 90 schools (go to www.sjboces.org/nisl.htm and click on the “High Performance 90 90 90 and Beyond” link).

While community members and parents inform themselves and hold their schools accountable, Hudson said that ISAIAH will be building on the relationships forged with superintendents during the initial event and holding them accountable as well. He said they will also be forming relationships with congregations and community members to “move racial equity forward to be centered in the practice of [Minnesota] school districts.”

Vickie Evans-Nash welcomes reader responses to vnash@spokesman-recorder.com.