St. Paul superintendent interviewed by Hmong Today


Since being hired as superintendent to the St. Paul Public Schools, Meria Carstarphen has been both praised and criticized for her decisions.

As part of her recent restructuring, Superintendent Carstarphen hand-selected a team of 7 top administrators who directly reports to her on a regular basis.

Concerned that she did not appoint a Hmong individual to this leadership team, members from the community have expressed their disappointment and their feelings of frustration.

Materialized in a petition which has collected more than 700 signatures and is still being circulated, the concerned community members are asking for leadership that reflects the student population.

Affecting the school district with the most amount of Hmong students in the United States, many consider this topic to be one of the most important issues facing the Hmong community this year.

Hmong Today sat down with Superintendent Carstarphen to discuss her job and her vision for the school district’s future. For the sake of space and clarity, this interview has been truncated and edited.

HMONG TODAY: How would you describe your Hmong / Asian students in terms of their performance?

Meria Carstarphen: One of the first schools I toured was Harding High School, and along the hallways there were pictures of the highest performing students over the last five years. And I’m going to tell you, it was overwhelming. I’m going to say at minimum, it was 85% Asian-American females. They are highest performers, they come to school, graduate on time, take the most rigorous courses. And are definitely taking the lead on changing the face of our leaders in education in our high schools.

HT: You could say, then, that Hmong / Asian students in St. Paul are decent students? What areas of concern do you see?

MC: Oh, I think the performance of our Asian-American students meets or exceeds what we would expect. There are different ways to compare, but I call it ‘apples-to-apples’. We compare Hmong students in St. Paul to other Hmong students across the state. They either perform as well or better than their peers across the state. That’s fact one. Fact two is when we look at what we call our internal students, and that’s comparing Hmong students to other students across individual schools, we find that our kids still compared to Caucasian students, are performing very well.

The only area where I have concerns are that Hmong students are not taking advantage of the gateways to college access and gateways to college success, or we’re not giving them the right support. So I’d like to see us focus on college access and preparation for Hmong students. I want to see them take AP (advanced placement) courses, I want to see them become successful in those AP courses. And here’s the other thing. When our Hmong students take those college gateway exams such as the ACT and SAT, the performance doesn’t meet national standards and when I look at seven years of data, the percentage point gain has actually declined over the years.

The other area that we need to focus on is attendance. At the elementary level, Hmong parents get their kids to school. That’s not true for all ethnic groups. Very few kids miss school, even through the middle grades, attendance is very good. Eleventh and twelfth grade years, there’s a huge dip. And the numbers of days absent from school really starts increasing.

There’s got to be a way for us to target the attendance issue because those are the critical years if a student is hoping to get access to college and hope to succeed in college.

Having attended the community work sessions with community leaders, parents, staff and we’ve already started working on strategies for access. One thing I plan on doing this fall is to offer the PSAT for free, to all students in the tenth grade. When colleges begin looking at students, it’s usually with this very critical test.

HT: You come from an eclectic background and have experienced educational systems from the South, the East Coast and the Midwest. What educational model do you see fit for St. Paul and what are your plans to implement that model?

MC: Here’s what I think I’ve learned about St. Paul and this is where my goals come from. We value high academic achievement and that has happened, but not for all the students. We also know that not everyone has been accountable for student learning. There’s been a disconnect across programs, there’s been some silo work, and those sorts of things. And that’s why I did that big reorganization. I had 25 direct reports. We had to clean things up, we had to get people in the right areas of the organization to bring more support for our schools.

So I’ve done a paradigm shift. Instead of having this big, central administration, we’ve gone to cleaner, smaller more direct lines for services to schools. And schools are on top.

HT: There are members from the community who are upset that you didn’t choose a Hmong person to be in your leadership committee, to be a direct reporter. Let me just ask, why didn’t you appoint a Hmong person?

MC: Let me just start with a couple of facts and then let me explain how I view diversity and how I see my leadership in changing what has been a historical problem at the St. Paul Schools.

When I look across all ethnic groups for staffing, every minority group has experienced what I think is a system that is broken. And it is that there is no leadership pathway for people of color or for any kind of minority group. It’s not just about ethnic or cultural, it’s also about age.

There are things I can’t work around, such as seniority. It’s negotiated in their union contracts. So even if I had the best, young talent, and if I needed to make budget cuts, they are the first to go because seniority matters.

We would see more diversity if we had a system or a pathway that begins with a recruitment pool that is very rich to choose from. We don’t have that here. So we would need to start with a recruitment pool. We would need to be able to hire from that recruitment pool, and then we need to support people so that we can retain them in the job. And then, we have a pathway for promotion.

Of all the places I’ve worked, that system I’ve described, does not exist here.

That’s one piece. The other piece comes more directly from the community and the way in which people have talked to me about this issue is about appointing a Hmong person to the senior staff. I’ll just be candid with you: Legally, I can’t do that. And I haven’t done that for any ethnic group, ever, in my leadership for any district I’ve worked for. It’s against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Minnesota Human Rights Act, and even St. Paul City Ordinance. My lawyer reminds me all the time about how this has to work.

So I can’t appoint someone based on race. I can’t appoint a Hmong person because that person is Hmong.

But here’s what I can do. I want to change the system so that I have the kind of pool that we need to bring this voice forward. I can’t fix more than ten years of legacy around this issue in six months. But what you can hold me accountable for, and I’m ready to take this on–and I’m asking you to judge me, about how I’m increasing the diversity of staff. And help me benchmark it in a way that is legal, that allows me to do all that I need do as a leader and that I treat all staff with the same standards.

Do I think there are really talented people out there of all ethnic groups who can come in here and do some of these jobs? Absolutely. And I want to look for them, I want to recruit them, I want to hire them, and I want to match them in the best jobs in the district so that they can be successful. And because they are successful, get the promotions. Otherwise we’ll be nickeling and diming this issue for generations to come.

HT: You yourself know how it feels to get the door slammed in your face because of race. It would be my assumption that you would be even more sensitive and conscious of the issue of race.

MC: Very conscious. So conscious that I have seen how the past has addressed the issue of diversity and I can tell you we haven’t fixed the problem. But I am a problem solver and after all the extra work we put into solving this issue, I want the system to be so good that when it has been solved, people wont have to look back and ask why there aren’t administrators who are African-American, Latino, Hmong, young, older.

So if people are willing to continue having this conversation with me, work with me to build clarity around the issue of diversity, and to keep kids first, then I absolutely believe that we will solve this issue for the St. Paul Schools. But it’s systemically broken and we need to be able to talk about that in a way that doesn’t come down to, ‘if you do this’ that will solve it. We’ve seen that done in the past and then we have one voice speaking on behalf of the entire community. We’ve got to go beyond that.

HT: But don’t you need that figurehead in a leadership role who can talk the language, who knows the culture, who understands the needs of a particular group? The students are saying they need to see somebody who looks like them in those roles.

MC: I talk to students. I mentor a Hmong girl at Como Park Senior High. I talk to a lot of students and I do a lot of research. And what they’re saying is that diversity is important, but what concerns them more is to have teachers who know their content and that they care enough about me to teach me their knowledge. And then, it would be nice to have diversity.

And you’re right, parents do want to have somebody here who understands them. But I want you to know that I’ve transitioned all parts of the community work that Mo Chang used to do over to Bee Lee and others who I trust can do a good job for the community.

Bee Lee directly reports to me as the Hmong community liaison. We have a formal meeting twice a month with others who directly report to me on issues in the community. And, I have an open door policy. If he or any staff member has any concerns, he can walk right into my office and we talk.

After the meeting, the question was asked on how Superintendent Carstarphen appointed her leadership team and what process was taken to select those who were chosen. Christine Wroblewski, Chief Community Relations Officer responded:

Ultimately, the Board of Education is the only body with the authority to appoint, promote or terminate staff based on recommendations from the Superintendent. For recent appointments made as part of the administrative re-organization, the superintendent created a new administrative structure to replace the previous broad-based structure in order to reduce the number of direct reports to the superintendent and organize for greater efficiency and clarity. Most importantly, the structure is designed to better support schools.

For the majority of the chief officer appointments, the superintendent carefully evaluated who was already in similar leadership roles to determine whether the individuals had the experience, expertise and qualifications to assume a similar position in the new administrative structure. By hiring from within the district, the superintendent was able to maintain stability of leadership and program management during a time of extended transition. The superintendent also interviewed individuals for their existing positions prior to making her final recommendations. For positions that the superintendent felt could not be filled internally, she has recruited and interviewed, or will recruit external candidates. For example, the Chief Accountability Officer position is expected to be posted in the near future and candidates will be recruited locally and nationally.