Vallay Varro said that she would run for the St. Paul School Board if she received the endorsement of the DFL party. That endorsement came Thursday night at Johnson High School, and she will now begin a campaign to become the second Hmong on the school board— joining current Board Chair Kazoua Kong Thao.
Varro, the Education Policy Director for the City of Saint Paul, intended to run for the school board in 2011, but the opportunity to run this November came with the resignation of Tom Conlon.
Varro said her motivation is with what she sees as a lack of strong, proactive leadership and accountability. As an executive body, she said the board governs the district and is ultimately responsible for its direction. She said her experience brings an ability to engage in a process of critical decision-making in line with a long term vision.
“I would be disappointed with myself if I didn’t put myself out there as a person who can contribute to putting Saint Paul Public School on a path that is good for kids and critical to the city to be competitive with the economy of the future.”
“This is important to me,” she said.
Varro describes herself as a young, next generation DFL’r, an educator and administrator who has worked with senior district staff and school board, along with state and national partners.
“I am someone who can think outside of the box and contemplate big picture solutions for big problems,” she said.
Long term declining enrollment projections, an increasing percentage of children of color, and scarce resources in a troubled economy make this one of the challenging times in the district’s history, said Varro.
As Education Policy Director, Varro said she brings established partnerships with state and private funding sources, and experience in working to narrow the achievement gap with the city and school district. She said there are a lot of synergies between the positions, but that the board position would allow jurisdiction over the school district.
“As a school board member it would be much more on a leadership level in terms of setting the tone and the direction for the district, and working to make sure the superintendent, whomever he or she may be, is in a position to fully embrace that direction and then to carry out the strategic plan in order to get to that end,” said Varro.
As for selecting the new superintendent, Varro said that anyone who has worked to achieve a superintendents license, local or national, should be considered in the search. The ideal applicant understands policy, is a good administrator, works well with various education and political structures, and embraces and works well with the community.
The board’s role, she added, is to set the direction, expectations and tone for a superintendent that can progress toward a long term vision. She is concerned with short term adjustments to declining enrollments and the budget, when enrollment trends show a need to bring the structure into balance.
“We are going to have to demand that of superintendent,” she added.
Varro said the lack of inflation adjusted funding and the unallotments are essentially cuts to education. She said this requires strategic planning stakeholders and advocates on the local, state and federal levels to demand resources and adequate funding for education.
“We need to go back and make sure the state is accountable,” she said.
Varro said she would work with partners in philanthropy and the business sector to “galvanize” people around gap issues. She said it is a time for innovation and creativity to help leverage resources and funding a little further in areas that haven’t been worked hard enough.
The board position would give Varro an open door policy to the district that she doesn’t currently have in her capacity as an education policy director. It would allow her to promote programming that she said would help reduce achievement gaps for kids that otherwise would not have access to enrichment programs, afterschool or summer programs.
“That is where the biggest academic slide happens,” she said.
When students of color and children from poor families are not testing as well as kids in an otherwise well educated state, then she said it requires a look at what is not being done correctly and make those standards accountable to everyone.
With kids of color and immigrants, she said there may be issues of teaching methods, teaching styles, or a host of factors. It may be about race, consistent learning programs among districts or a lot of things, she said.
The SPPD is about 75 percent students of color, with some schools at around 98 percent of students of color, she said. Around 30 percent of them are Asian American kids. The subgroups have various special needs students or are in the English Language Learners program.
“As a rule, as we think about Asian immigrants, we can generalize that many families as they immigrate to the United States will understand or have been told that education is a prerequisite for success in America,” she said. “They are coming in and seeking out all of the resources they can use to maximize those opportunities, regardless if they are younger or older kids.”
The SPPD is a leading district in the ELL area, producing curriculum and materials that are being adopted by other districts around the country. Varro said older kids and adults are going to the HUB Center or the LEAP Academy to learn English, to get a GED and into a vocational school or college. They need literacy skills or functional work English skills to catch up to their peers.
She cautioned against a tendency to pull back on these resources in times of declining need. There were two unexpected influxes of refugees in the past and trends have shown the importance of long term support for students at various levels.
The adjustment of district schools to accommodate high density groups of Hmong and other ethnic groups with language and culturally based curriculum is a positive innovation. However, she said the board needs to address some serious policy questions regarding teaching from within a culture.
The expectations of specialized learning and cognitive development in a bi-cultural environment, and the requirements of standardized testing, all impact outcomes, and she said that learning methods need to be balanced for kids to retain well be successful.
“As for policy and long term goals, we should ask how to approach this from a culturally competent perspective,” she added.
Varro said the economy is going to require the community to step up and take some of the burden to reduce inefficiency and for best use of funds. She said it may not be possible for districts to keep trying to do everything for kids, educating them, feeding them and transporting them along with other programs.
“All these things are necessary to get kids to show up and learn and moving forward,” she said. “The fact of the matter is that the funding isn’t there for SPPS to be all of this to people.
“In an era where resources are scarce, the community needs to play an even stronger role,” she added. “It is essential to the success of the district to work harder and better than we’ve ever done before.”
This will require the district to look at its policies that in the past have made it inappropriate for educators and other staff to provide roles or services that they could have filled. This may not be a permanent solution, but she said if it redirects funding elsewhere then it would help bring about structural balance.
“Hopefully, this will not be a Republican or Democrat thing, but the right thing to do about accountability and best practices,” she said. “…There are hard questions that need to be explored.”
The issue of safety is about dealing with real and perceived issues. She said parents address their concerns in terms of what is really happening to their kids and SPPD constantly addresses the perception that urban educational settings are not a good environment for learning.
Varro said most parents feel that smaller school settings make them confident that children are comfortable, safe, and have good relationships with teachers and other students. She said this is essential to become more sociable, reducing the presence of bullying, and having a better all around educational experience.
She said smaller schools allow teachers to be more responsive to them and their students with more time to interact in the classroom.
There is still a place for the large high schools, she added, and that they also provide quality education. She just would like the board to look more closely at why parents placing children in charter schools during middle school years.
The charter schools offer options that are attractive to parents but are not a guarantee of better testing outcomes. She said the board needs to explore what niche the parents are seeking that the district is not providing already.
It could be smaller classrooms and programs, uniforms, an enrichment center, or the focus of the curriculum. She said if this is about resources and options, it would require bringing charter schools to the table as stakeholders.
“How do we take those lessons learned and apply it to our district schools?” she asked. “That has always been the bedrock and foundation of why charters started to begin with. We got away from that and need to be intentional about incorporating that…into a welcoming environment.”
Varro comes from a Hmong refugee family and was raised in Appleton, Wisconsin. She earned both her undergraduate and masters degree in Education from the University of Minnesota. She served as a program manager at the Minnesota Literacy Council, a director at AmeriCorps Minnesota Reading Corps, and was a classroom teacher at the University of Saint Catherine Pre-K Education Center.
The Varro campaign (http://vallayvarro.com) will benefit from the support of a successful campaign network of her sister, State Sen. Mee Moua, and that of Mayor Chris Coleman.
“The campaign is a lot of work and I have been able to mobilize a very dedicated group of volunteers,” said Varro.
Varro lives in East Saint Paul with her spouse, Chris, and their two children ages 7 and 2.
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