St. Paul schools looking to ease concerns about discipline, disorder

Summer conversations between St. Paul school board, teachers follow year during which middle-school suspensions soared.

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St. Paul schools Superintendent Valeria Silva.

Photo: Joel Koyama, Star Tribune

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Jeremy Myers isn’t inclined to let his son make the jump from elementary to middle school in the St. Paul School District.

He’s heard, he said, of district middle school teachers being shoved and cursed at by kids — stories relayed to him by students and teachers alike. That’s left Myers, an Augsburg College associate professor living in the Hamline-Midway area, with tough questions as the next school year approaches.

“Do we leave him in the district because we value public schools, or do we pull him out for what we think is best for his education?” Myers said last week. “I don’t worry about my kid being beat up or bullied. But is the culture conducive for a 12-year-old to thrive?”

At times, the 2013-14 school year was a tense one for the district. Behavioral issues arose in schools forced to adapt quickly to big changes: junior highs becoming middle schools, and special-education and English Language Learner students moving into regular classrooms. At year’s end, Superintendent Valeria Silva and school board members were challenged publicly by five teachers seeking consequences for students who misbehave and disrupt classrooms.

Silva, in a recent e-mail to the teachers, acknowledged it had been a “difficult year.”

But this summer, the district is opening up conversations to improve the climate in its schools, and the five teachers — who helped spur a standing-room-only turnout at the school board meeting in May — now are optimistic, they say.

During a recent sit-down with Silva, the teachers were heartened by the superintendent’s repeated support of “high standards of student conduct,” said Ian Keith, one of the teachers and a former president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers.

Beginning July 10, the five teachers will be part of a group examining suspensions and other strategies to ease disruptive behavior and student conflicts — all in hopes of delivering recommendations to Silva to put into use in 2014-15.

Middle school change

Some claim the district’s push in recent years to reduce suspensions, coupled with a move to shift some students with emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD) into regular classrooms without adequate resources and support, has contributed to a rise in unruly behavior in classrooms.

In 2013-14, the issues were acute in the middle schools, the three-year bridge between the elementary and high school years. As part of Silva’s long-range strategic plan, middle schools replaced two-year junior highs last year. The move was based on the argument that having students in middle school for three years instead of in junior high for two would strengthen bonds between schools and parents, and teachers and students — helping lift achievement in the process.

During the first three quarters of 2013-14, suspensions for middle-school-aged students rose sharply, from 673 in 2012-13 to 1,066 in 2013-14, a 58 percent increase.

At Murray Middle School, Bill Mills, a parent, said he believed the school’s new leaders were given a tough, multifaceted assignment without adequate planning at the district level, leaving a “mess” that administrators and teachers had to figure out. For his son, a sixth-grader at the time, the lesson became: “How do you get by in a less-than-perfect environment?” Mills said.

Principal Stacy Theien-Collins said that 2013-14 was a year of “monumental change” for students and the difficulties were shared by all district middle schools. The key in the year ahead, she said, is to adjust and improve.

Last Thursday, a school discipline committee that included Mills put in motion plans to enlist mentors to help 25 eighth-graders with their academic, social and behavioral needs, and to add a special-education staff member to each of the school’s academic teams to “consult around the needs of learners with disabilities,” Theien-Collins said.

“We’re looking forward to those supports for students,” she said.

‘Unsafe and anxious’

In St. Paul, as well as in many other urban districts, black students are more likely to be among those suspended or labeled as EBD. The district, in turn, has moved to erase such inequities by making a dedicated push to reduce suspensions, arranging for cultural-awareness training for employees and by moving about 270 EBD kids last fall from self-contained learning centers to regular classrooms. That has put it at the forefront of action steps being promoted by the Obama administration.

During the emotionally charged meeting in May, the school board heard tales of EBD students who now were thriving. Karlene Hill said she moved her son from a school with a negative environment to Frost Lake Elementary. After being in a regular classroom, she said, he is calmer and his reading has improved. She implored the board not to “send him back to the learning center.”

That public-comment session — dominated by support for the district’s racial-equity work and other initiatives — came after a series of school board listening sessions during which parents and teachers criticized “top-down, one-size-fits-all” policies and seemingly lower standards of student conduct.

Chong Thao, who teaches at Como Park Senior High and was one of the five teachers who had challenged district leaders, said in a statement to the board in April: “There are students who are frustrated with the elevated levels of disruption in classrooms. There are students who feel unsafe and anxious as they witness a school out of control, where fights occur on a weekly if not daily basis.”

Silva, in her e-mail to the group, said she recognized “when changes this impactful are being made, I need to get more people involved and have better communication and stronger execution plans.” At the same time, she added, she remained “committed to changing the paradigm that has developed in our school system — the majority of our students are not performing at grade level.”

Silva invited the teachers to be part of the group that begins meeting on July 10. The talks are part of a project called “Solutions in Action,” and could result in teachers being given new tools to “better meet the behavioral and academic needs of students,” said Michelle Bierman, the district’s director of equity. Among the measures being sought by the five teachers are withholding recess from misbehaving elementary students and requiring others to attend after-school detention — and to do school work during that time.

Myers, whose son, Elijah, was on track to attend Murray after finishing a “great” fifth-grade year at Chelsea Heights Elementary, said he was pleased to hear about the coming talks — and about the optimism expressed by teachers. But his son has been accepted to a charter school, and the family is reluctant to change plans this late.

Theien-Collins said good things are in store for Murray. The staff is amazing, she said, and families are dedicated — and with that kind of foundation, she said, the school can grow and improve.

“We need the community members to stand with us,” she said.

Anthony Lonetree • 651-925-5036

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