Three St. Paul principals weigh in on discipline and disparities


As part of our series on discipline and disparities in St. Paul Public Schools, we talked to three SPPS principals whose schools are at various stages of implementation of PBIS and the racial equity work. Daniel Mesick, principal of Como Park High School, Doug Revsbeck, principal of Harding Senior High, and Dr. Mike McCollor, principal at Washington Technology Magnet, talked about what their schools are doing to address suspension disparities, what’s working, and what challenges lie ahead.

When it comes to discipline, what strategies succeed?  The picture is as complicated as a Hmong paj ndau story cloth. Pull on the discipline thread, and other threads follow — not only PBIS, but also mainstreaming students, racial equity training for teachers, focusing on suspensions, and even principal bonuses. Additional articles are linked to our School Discipline page. We are still looking for more stories — your stories, from your perspective as a student, parent, teacher, principal, or district administrator.

What is working in terms of getting at the issue of too many African American boys being suspended?

Daniel Mesick, Como: We are working on support groups — not specifically for African American boys — trying to get them to talk about their involvement at school, talk about their planning for what’s coming next.…. My whole idea of PBIS and I might be wrong… but positive behavior. How do we teach positive behavior to kids? Sometimes we assume that kids know everything that they need to know. And so what we’re saying is – they might not know, so we teach it to them. Let’s take some time at the beginning of the school year and say, wait, these are our expectations so they know what we’re doing.

Are you also doing racial equity training for the teachers as well?

Daniel Mesick, Como: …We’re just on the beginning phases of that. We have an Equity Team at my school, and we’ve been struggling with it, trying to figure out how do we roll this out to the entire school. Right now there’s been probably a handful of staff that have gone through some of the trainings, the Beyond Diversity trainings that are a part of the Courageous Conversations, but we’re still trying to figure out how to get all our staff together on this…   


SPPS: Discipline and disparities

When it comes to discipline, what strategies succeed? As part of its equity agenda to address pronounced disparities between white students and students of color — especially African American boys — in Saint Paul Public Schools, the district has implemented a number of strategies in the past few years. These include:

Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), an approach to school discipline, which began in 2009 in select schools, with more schools being added each year;

• Mainstreaming ELL and EBD students who previously had been separated from regular classrooms, which was implemented in 2013-2014;

• Racial equity training from a group called Pacific Education Group (PEG), which started in 2010.

• Principal bonuses for the 2012-13 school year, with part of the bonus package targeted at reducing suspensions for students of color. According to school board member Mary Doran, that practice was discontinued this year. The bonuses were up to $3,000 but Doran said the average payout was $1,000.

The changes come at the same time as an enormous shift in populations of some schools as a result of the Strong Schools, Strong Communities Strategic Plan that began in 2011.

So what would you say is the hold up of getting all the staff trained?

Daniel Mesick, Como: It’s time, because it’s not the only thing we’re working on right now. We’re working on making sure our staff are working on all the other things the teachers need to do.

Okay, so how about for Harding: what are you guys doing, what’s going well?

Doug Revsbeck, Harding: …We’re shifting focus more and more towards college and career readiness. The focus is not just saying college and career readiness- really it’s about acceleration. When you look at inclusion, it’s about helping our students accelerate rather than remediate…

…The work — no matter how challenging it is —  is about our conversations. That’s what I can do as a principal is to try to help the teachers have more and more conversations, to look for what’s best to have solutions…

And how about for Washington Tech?

Mike McCollor, Washington Tech: … We see both academic and behavioral interventions as kind of a tier approach… We call it the pyramid of interventions, so that attendance, academics and behavioral — and those are the three sides of the pyramid. 80 percent — and that’s kind of the PBIS model — 80 percent of the interventions happen in the classroom. So it’s really key to have all of the teachers on board…

Then an additional 15 percent are tier two interventions, and that would be a little bit more support for students in order to be academically successful. We have a partnership with St. Paul Youth Services, we have four full time behavioral specialists, and so they’re doing that tier two support. Something the teacher gets frustrated with and can’t handle in the regular classroom, or the kid just needs a quick break, a quick redirection, or somebody else in the classroom to help support that student to get back focused on the learning…

Then that tier three is stuff that’s pretty egregious, stuff that according to the district rights and responsibilities handbook we’re forced to dismiss or suspend a student or remove them from the building — assault, fights, weapons, drugs, things like that…. Consequences don’t change behavior, consequences interrupt behavior. It’s only about positive relationships with kids that you can change behavior…

For the teachers that are not on board, how have you been working to get them on board — with PBIS, racial equity and mainstreaming?

Mike McCollor, Washington Tech: The trick is — it’s all about professional development. And everybody’s on board, whether they think they are or not. All teachers work with kids academically, behaviorally and attendance-wise. Teachers are just looking for tools to help them be successful with kids….

Specifically, to talk about the racial equity work a little bit… one of the tenets from PEG is making it personal, local and immediate. So having teachers share their racial autobiography with one another. Whether it’s teachers from a racial minority or teachers from the majority… We’ve got teachers who are African American that have grown up in St. Paul, graduated from Central High School, or live in the neighborhood, graduated from Como, and what is their experience? … We have African American staff members- professional staff members that are driving down Rice Street at night and they get pulled over by the police for no apparent reason. And for me as a white person — I can’t even comprehend that, why you would get pulled over by the police for doing nothing?

…Our biggest suspensions were for fights or assaults. So rather than suspend kids from school and have them out of school, we developed a program in conjunction with St. Paul Youth Services again called Education, Not Suspension. The ENS program — where instead of the parents coming in and saying ok the kid’s not going to fight anymore, we just send them back into class, we have a two hour educational session with a behavioral specialist, a number of our staff, and they look at the whole cradle to prison pipeline. They look at some literature, they look at what it takes to be successful in school, what it means…

…All parents want their kids to graduate from high school and go on to postsecondary, to go on to college. Just like the teachers sometimes need tools in order to reach all students, the parents need tools to help them be successful with their kids.

…The kids are hungry for this equity work and so I’ve talked to Michelle Bierman our Director of Equity — it’s like drinking from a fire hose. We just have to get the staff on board as far as being able to facilitate these kinds of discussions. Part of the PEG protocol is to experience discomfort. Some of this stuff is uncomfortable… But it’s working through that discomfort, either with the parents or the students or the staff, but only by working together… How do we work together in order to help our kids be successful in college?

We dismiss and suspend kids every day at Washington- for problems that they had or when they fall off the wagon or whatever, but once they have [college and career] in mind, then it’s a lot easier for them to focus on acadmics when you’re talking about where you’re going to college and what are you going to do and that’s not how college bound students behave. When the focus is on that, rather than let’s think of a million consequences, because again — you can’t be mean enough to some of the kids that go to our schools — because they’ve already had tragedy in their life. They’ve already had trauma in their life…

Doug Revsbeck, Harding:  … There are many things we can’t control, but as a collective group of professionals, there’s so much that we can control. And that’s really the key at our schools. And one thing that we can control more and more is that transition from 8th to 9th grade because success is so crucial in the 9th grade. And we try to do everything with the transition to work with the feeder schools to build a transition model…

So rules like hats and sagging pants- do you have rules against those and do you enforce them?

Doug Revsbeck, Harding: We want our schools to look good. We want to have that culture with students and with adults where we look professional and we behave the best we can. Hat policy? Yes, and we follow the district procedures when it comes to enforcing policies. But in reality, the key behind policies such as these with hats and pants and you name it… The key is having everybody on board with the nuances and the gray area. Looking at it this way, we don’t go overboard with any of these things, but in the end, we re-enforce positively what we expect.

Daniel Mesick, Como: We have a hat policy, we don’t allow kids to sag pants. Does it happen? Yes, and all I say is “Pull up your pants.” And they do. And that’s the relationship piece. It’s not about “Pull up your pants or I’m going to kick you out of school,” it’s just, “Pull up your pants because I don’t want to see your underwear.”

Doug Revsbeck, Harding: You have to humor them. You really have to humor students, too — they need to know you’re on their side. If they’re doing something and you walk in — a principal or a teacher walks in — and you joke with them.  I’ll say “Why wasn’t I invited to this meeting?” If they’re in the hallway or something and you want to get them to class. But the more you’re with them, the more they’ll work with you and student will do the right thing…

The disparities in suspension are still persisting. What isn’t working?

Daniel Mesick, Como: … The bottom line is I don’t want to suspend kids at all, whether they’re Black, White, Asian or Hispanic, and so the goal is to find ways to help kids do the right thing. I don’t think we’re ever going to solve it. Because they’re kids. But what we have to do is keep looking at it and find ways to keep examining the issue and say, “Okay, what can we do in these situations that helps kids?” … I think the answer is relationships.

Doug Revsbeck, Harding: We have to really look close at the data and make a point that we have constantly people looking at what’s working best, and wherever our challenges are, what are we doing to deal with that kind of situation. And it’s an ongoing challenge because it’s existing not just at Harding but it exists in our schools….More than anything, we want every 9th grader to develop a true sense of ownership that they can learn and they will learn and they’re gonna learn at high levels. That’s a big deal, and it’s very challenging if they’re coming into the school and we sense that they need to be building that efficacy…

Mike McCollor, Washington Tech: Again I think it’s providing motivation. Yes, there’s still a racial achievement gap and I think the work that the St. Paul Public Schools has been doing over the last several years to identify that and say it, because I mean I’ve been doing this for a long time… There’s been a racial achievement gap in schools around the country for a long time — and so I think it’s very courageous that the Superintendent is naming it and saying that “Hey, we are racially disparate, but now what are we going to do about it?” …

We do have to work with our community, because it’s the community that wants their kids to be successful. The parents want their kids to be successful, and of course we want their kids to be successful. So how are we reaching out so that the community feels welcome in the school, that the community feels they are a part of the school and that they feel that they are part of the solution.

This article is part of a series looking at changes Saint Paul Public Schools has made to address disparities in how the district handles discipline. Check the links below and our School Discipline page for the other pieces of the series that delve more deeply into issues of race and discipline, as well as how Special Education has become a controversial piece of the puzzle.