Full steam ahead — again — for St. Paul's Strong Schools plan

  • Article by: ANTHONY LONETREE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 31, 2014 - 12:30 AM

Superintendent lays out second phase of district’s restructuring.

Valeria Silva
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Valeria Silva

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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St. Paul schools Superintendent Valeria Silva on Thursday mapped out a new five-year vision for the district that aims to build on a sweeping makeover that has produced promising, yet mixed, results.

Strong Schools, Strong Communities 2.0, the second phase of a districtwide reorganization launched three years ago, would rely on technology-enhanced learning and a doubling down on racial equity efforts as a means to ensure that all district students succeed, Silva said in a State of the District speech.

“I want the country to look at us and say, ‘Look at what St. Paul did,’ ” she said.

But much work needs to be done, and in the case of the district’s stubborn racial achievement gap, done so quickly, St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman said recently.

In 2013, the gap between white and black students testing as proficient in math stood at 45 percent — a disparity described as “horrific” by school Board Member Jean O’Connell. The performance of both groups was up 2 percent over the previous year — 71 percent of whites were proficient in math, compared with 26 percent of blacks — but because the increases were identical, the gap went unchanged.

The district’s four-year graduation rate has risen 7 percent, from 59 to 66 percent, Silva noted Thursday. But that is below the district’s vision of 80 percent.

St. Paul also has yet to see the enrollment gains or transportation savings that Silva cited as goals when she first introduced the Strong Schools, Strong Communities plan in January 2011.

Since then, however, district voters have approved $9 million annually to use technology to tailor learning to the individual — an initiative that is to be rolled out to ninth-graders beginning next year, Silva said Thursday.

The district also has worked with a consulting firm, Pacific Educational Group, to conduct “courageous conversations” that encourage staff members to examine any racial biases they may bring to their work.

“As we look down the line five years from now, we want to see our students getting an education that values relationships — that values people,” Silva said in her prepared remarks. “As a district, we know that relationships are what’s going to help a child who has just gotten off the airplane from a refugee camp in Thailand learn how to read. We know it’s relationships that will inspire a young black man to recognize that he is loved and valued in this society.”

St. Paul is in the third pivotal year of the Strong Schools, Strong Communities reorganization that set out to steer more students to schools closer to their homes and that has emphasized the neighborhood school as the heart of the community.

Silva, when she launched the plan, stressed that the restructuring reflected the fact that students performed as well or better on standardized tests at neighborhood schools as they did at magnet schools.

Under the restructuring, elementary students move on to designated middle schools and high schools. They could, at any time, attend schools outside those designated “pathways,” but if the schools are outside their geographic zones, with a few exceptions, families would have to find their own transportation.

Initially, the district envisioned transportation savings of as much as $10 million annually. But for the current school year, the total savings were just $475,000 over the previous year, due in part to a decision to sweeten the allure of learning closer to home by making bus service available to elementary students at the half-mile mark — instead of a previous one-mile boundary.

The district also has fallen short of hopes for a 3,000-student enrollment increase.

The school board is expected to vote on the new strategic plan in March, following a series of community meetings that begin next month.

Also on Thursday, the St. Paul Federation of Teachers offered a counterpoint of sorts to Silva’s address by staging rallies outside the city’s schools to promote the union’s contract proposals, which include efforts to reduce class sizes and to expand preschool opportunities.

Standing outside Open World Learning Community (OWL) downtown about 6:30 a.m. as snow fell, Megan Olivia Hall, an OWL science teacher who also is the state’s 2013 teacher of the year, said: “The folks in the classroom, the on-the-ground folks, we see areas where there is room for improvement.”

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Valeria Silva