St. Paul Public Schools “large scale system change” sparks excitement, “a lot of angst”

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A gym in St Paul’s Neighborhood House echoed with parents’ and teachers’ shouts on Monday night. In part, adults raised their voices make themselves heard over the din from young people in the adjoining gym. Some voices were also raised in anger and frustration.

Around 100 parents and teachers from the St Paul Public Schools (SPPS) had converged for a community meeting, the first in a series of six called by the district to discuss “Large Scale System Change,” a vague phrase that is shaping up to be the biggest thing to hit SPPS since sliced bread.

Your chance for input

Rice, refried beans, tacos and enchiladas were served at the first meeting. A light dinner will be served at each meeting. Interpreters are also present at each meeting.

The rest of the first series of meetings will be held at:

• November 13, 2008 — 5:30 – 7 p.m. – Jimmy Lee Rec Center, 270 Lexington Pkwy.

• November 17, 2008 – 5:30 – 7 p.m. – Como Park Senior High, 740 W. Rose Ave.

• December 3, 2008 – 5:30 – 7 p.m. – Phalen Lake Elementary, 1089 Cypress St. (presentation in Hmong and English)

• December 4, 2008 – 5:30 – 7 p.m. – Gloria Dei Church, 700 Snelling Ave.

• December 12, 2008 – 5:30 – 7 p.m. – Highwood Hills Elementary, 2188 Londin Lane (Presentation in Somali and English)

This series of meetings also sees the rollout of what SPPS Board of Education member Anne Carroll described as a brand-new community engagement strategy that tries to gather input from residents and other “stakeholders,” from complaints to suggestions, and use those to shape the decision-making process. This public engagement period will last through the winter, and the School Board will make its decisions sometime in the spring of 2009, according to an outline handed out by SPPS officials.

Skeptical parents and teachers milled around the gym before the meeting got underway.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if [the outcome] was already inked,” said David Mergens, the Athletic Director at Humboldt Senior High School.

The constant refrain last night from District officials was that “business as usual” – from magnet programs through the current number of facilities – could not continue in the face of declining numbers of children living in St Paul, a corresponding budget decline, and other demographic shifts in the city. Change, they said, has to be thorough-going and district-wide – thus, “Large-Scale System Change.”

Some parents left the meeting not wholly convinced that the process will produce any results. “I don’t know what generation will receive a proper education,” said Tiffany Smith, a parent of students at Como Park and Humboldt Senior High schools.

Other parents were excited by the school district’s new approach. “I heard great dialogue tonight,” said Lynne Schellenberger, a parent with children in 9th grade at Highland and in kindergarten at Adams Spanish Immersion School. “With the district having [parents’] questions and concerns, they can take that input and act on it.”

Parents rotated through five “stations” manned by high-level SPPS administrators, focused on various areas where the District sought input. Several parents took the sessions as an opportunity to vent their frustrations with the district and its policies, and get responses from officials, and many more took active part in the discussions. “There was definitely a lot of angst,” said Michelle Walker, SPPS’s Chief Accountability Officer, “but people were willing to stick with us and have the conversation.”

Each station also had an SPPS staff member taking notes on a huge pad of paper, and by nights’ end, these were filled with suggestions, comments, and questions. Many parents at different stations asked why the district could not spread popular programs like Spanish immersion or intensive arts programs to more schools, so they would not have to send their children to school outside of their neighborhoods. Others called for busing to be provided for students who lived closer than one mile from their school, the current minimum distance.