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Class Act

Star Tribune writers tracking education issues

Osseo school board ties on vote to end racial-equity consultant contract

Osseo Area school board members came to a stalemate vote Tuesday night on deciding the fate of the district’s five-year relationship with a racial-equity consulting group.

Three board members voted to not approve the district’s achievement and integration budget and plan. The district’s revised plan would have reduced its spending on the Pacific Educational Group (PEG) and terminated its contract with the group after the 2017-2018 school year.

Teachers, parents and community members packed into the Osseo School Board meeting room to voice their support of the district’s contract with PEG, which works to lessen racial disparities and narrow the achievement gap through professional development.

Erin Aulik, a first grade teacher at Birch Grove Elementary School for the Arts, was one of several teachers who addressed the board Tuesday.

Aulik averages about two to three white students in her classroom each year. As a white teacher, she said, the trainings have given her the perspective and tools to accommodate her students of color.

“I would not be half the teacher I am today without the professional development I have received from Pacific Educational Group,” she said to the board Tuesday.

At a March 7 work session, the board seemed in agreement that they would approve the revised budget and end their contract with PEG on Tuesday. Board members said PEG has not helped the district, where students of color make up more than half of the enrollment, close its achievement gap and Osseo Area Public Schools could no longer support the cost of PEG’s services.

In 2016-2017, the district contracted with PEG for $152,000. The district had planned on ending its contract with PEG in order to more of its equity work in-house.

“As we reduce our dependence on outside vendors, we are able to dedicate more of the AIM (Achievement and Integration for Minnesota) budget to other areas of our equity work,” Mike Ostaffe, school board member, said Tuesday.

With a tie vote, the district is back to the drawing board on its achievement and integration plan. Board members will now have to review the plan again and ask the Minnesota Department of Education for a second extension on submitting its budget. Board members Jessica Craig, Stephanie Fortner and Jim Burgett voted to not approve the budget on Tuesday.

Abdullah Kiatamba, executive director of African Immigrant Services, worked with the board on drafting its first equity plan in November, Kiatamba said the board wanted to end its contract with PEG but offered no alternative on how the district would move ahead with its equity work.

“It does not make sense to transition out of something to nothing,” he said. “They have not created an alternative.”

But, he said, the tie vote demonstrations that the district is willing to listen to the community.

St. Paul's English language learners deserve better, critics say

The St. Paul School District is being pushed to improve services to English language learners who comprise about one-third of its student population.

Opinions differ, however, on the current state of the programming.

Kristina Herman-Hill, an English language teacher at Washington Technology Magnet School on the North End, told the school board at its monthly meeting Tuesday that the ELL program was in crisis.

She said staffing has been reduced while the number of students has remained steady. Hundreds of kids are not getting the services they should be provided, she contends, and many are being left behind when it comes to college and career readiness.

Herman-Hill said she knew of 11 students who could not qualify for remedial college coursework.

The assessment offered by her and others came after the state Department of Education audited the program during the fall and found that the district was out of compliance with federal requirements in several areas. The district now must identify corrective measures to be taken during the next year.

In a statement, district officials said that despite the audit's findings, "there is no crisis." The review allows the district to "improve our practices and see where we can do better. If we take into context all that we are doing well, then this constructive feedback will only make us better," officials say.

The program also was audited in 2010, and then and now, questions were raised about whether enough teachers had access to professional development opportunities.

On Tuesday, the board received a petition signed by 1,032 people calling for program changes.

The petition, circulated by the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, seeks greater transparency in program allocations as well as a "consistent, well-articulated six-year graduation path" for refugees whose educational experience is limited or has been interrupted and who need to acquire not only English skills but also literacy and academic skills.

The district said that work is underway to provide a response to the state by March 30, and that it has been a collaborative effort that last week involved 15 English language teachers. Officials concede, however, that issues surrounding professional development could require a multi-year approach.