ST. PAUL NOTES | School board candidates and the achievement gap

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One of the great things about the St. Paul school board race is the passion that all of the candidates share — a passion for educating the children of St. Paul. Beyond that, the October 28 forum sponsored by the Committee on the Achievement Gap revealed differences between the candidates in their approaches to the achievement gap and to the school board.

Eight of the candidates participated in the forum: Anne Carroll, Mary Doran, Keith Hardy, Pat Igo, Devin Miller, Al Oertwig, Lizz Paulson, and Louise Seeba. 

Anne Carroll said she is seeking re-election “because we are on the cusp of most important work district has done for 50-75 years,” with implementation of the Strong Schools, Strong Communities program. “This is the first time we’ve got everybody aligned from community, students, families, board, staff, all buildings – ready to move in same direction in comprehensive, challenging plan,” Carroll said.  As for the achievement gap, “We didn’t just discover what’s going on with the issues, or what’s going wrong. There has been too much national admiring the problem. It’s because of poverty. It’s because of racism. All these things are part of it. But that doesn’t change our responsibility and obligation. We’ve got all this stuff going on, but that doesn’t matter. We’ve got to make sure that kids are prepared for life. Regardless of race, weight, height, gender, background … I’m not going to say that because all this other stuff is bad, our kids can’t get there. They will get there. … All kids can achieve. What kids are suffering from is institutional racism. We are unpacking that with board leadership.”

Mary Doran emphasized the need for early intervention, noting that she benefited from early intervention for a learning disability, and she wants to make sure that kids in St. Paul get intervention when needed, and get it early, as she did. She has been volunteering in her daughters’ school and on the Citizens Budget and Finance Committee, and believes that St. Paul schools are moving in the right direction under Superintendent Valeria Silva. “There’s no silver bullet, no one way,” she said, but she thinks that the focus on addressing teacher and principal attitudes toward race through the Greatest Conversations About Race book is a step in the right direction. She also talked about the Mondo and Map testing for assessments during the school year, that then are used to help teachers provide what each child needs. Doran also emphasized the importance of library programs to “put books in the hands of kids,” and the need for a diverse school staff.

Keith Hardy, seeking re-election to the school board, said “I am the product of one of the keys to eradicating the education equity gap.” His father dropped out in 8th grade, and his mother in 10th grade, “because that’s what African Americans had to do in the deep South when they were growing up. They told my sisters and me, ‘We expect you to graduate from high school and we hope you go to college.’ That is how you begin eradicating the achievement gap.” Hardy said that the question of the achievement gap needs to be reframed — it is really an education equity gap. “The United States is failing to prepare young adults to succeed in 21st century economy. The gap in achievement predicts a gap in earnings, a gap in incarceration, a gap in employment rates.” He called for high expectations for all students, and advocated three steps to success: empowering students to take charge of their education, reminding parents “that they have a big piece in this,” and the need to have high quality teachers, principals, assistant principals, and the need to have them look more like the student population.

Pat Igo said he is a regular St. Paul guy, a Central high graduate, with children who went through St. Paul schools and grandchildren in those schools now. He proposed Finland as a model for school change. “Finland ranks education right up there as we Americans rank the National Football League,” he said. “They don’t have an achievement gap.”  Igo said, “We are all equal,” and asked, “Why does St. Paul Public Schools have six or seven different groups?” He said the answer to the achievement gap is in curriculum.

Al Oertwig has been off the school board for four years, but wants to return. He emphasized that he is running because he believes that the current board is “reacting and responding to the administration when they should be setting the direction for the district.” He noted that he served on the school board for almost 20 years, led a successful referendum campaign in 2002-2003, without the support of the superintendent, and that “We need board members with that kind of skill and gumption.” Oertwig emphasized the need for early childhood education and for changes to No Child Left Behind. He drew a connection between the achievement gap and a high concentration of poverty, and said that we need to “start viewing diversity as a blessing,” and also to find resources to do more. “New York City had programs for kids going 12 hours a day,” he noted. “I don’t know how to finance that.”

Devin Miller is a preacher, and said he has “worked with the school system for the last 21 years in developing programs to deal with problems, specifically with our African American youth. … When you are talking about the achievement gap, you are talking about African American students.” Miller said that “we don’t have an achievement gap, we have a perception gap. If we don’t look at students as being able to achieve, they won’t achieve. … The gap is around how teachers see them and how they feel they can teach them.” He proposed “a simple question,” asking teachers, “‘What do you see when you see an African American?’ If the answer doesn’t match our expectations, we need to fire that teacher.” Miller said the role of the school board is “to set the vision and to set it out far enough that it will take a lifetime to attain. Then hire a superintendent who feels they can meet that vision. Use whatever means necessary to attain the vision.”

Liz Paulsen said she is a lifelong teacher, now teaching as a professional reading tutor at Eastside Learning Center. “With the best teaching methods, we can reduce the achievement gap,” said Paulsen. “This isn’t about potential, but it’s about how we score children. As an American Indian and someone who’s Indian and white, I can tell you what people in my community say. They’re saying that the test measures are discriminatory. You’re using measures that are not going to accurately assess what American Indian children know. … That goes back to the question of what characteristics we feel our children need to have on graduation.” Paulsen said that includes holistic skills, social and emotional skills, habits of mind such as creativity and cooperativeness, as well as basic knowledge and technical knowledge. As for the SPPS goal of being a non-racist institution, Paulsen said the district needs to “move away from focus on skin color. I’m somebody who grew up not looking like half of my heritage. So I know what it’s like to have expectations based on skin color.”

Louise Seeba has two children attending SPPS. She is a lawyer and her husband has been a public school teacher for 20 years. “I can’t think of an institution more important to country’s success, city’s success, community’s success” than schools, she said. “I was a child identified to benefit from Head Start and I strongly support programs like that.” Seeba said that when the statistics are controlled for wealth and poverty, St. Paul schools “are doing well,” and that the achievement gap is actually an equity gap. “We can’t discuss the achievement gap without discussing poverty. … When we are defining or discussing what the gap is, we have to look at means of families and how we can help close it.” She said that SPPS needs resources for programs that work — such as AVID and AP/IB, and talked about advocating for those resources in the community and at the legislature. In terms of addressing racism and white privilege, she said it is important to move away from racially isolated and economically isolated schools: “We have to get behind integrated, racially, socio-economically, every way schools.” She sees the Strong Schools, Strong Communities program as moving in that direction.