St. Paul school district affirms efforts to close achievement gap

School district puts a racial equity policy and a consulting group in place to help overcome “inequity and institutional racism.”

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St. Paul Superintendent Valeria Silva joined Dayton's Bluff Elementary students as Minnesota Senator Al Franken, and Arnie Duncan, the United States Secretary of Education, read a book in their classroom in St. Paul, Minn., on Tuesday, May 31, 2011.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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The St. Paul School District is doubling its commitment to erasing the racial achievement gap by renewing a partnership with a California consulting group and adopting a racial equity policy drawing upon 2 ½ years of work and candid talk.

The policy, approved by the school board this week, is believed to be the second such document enacted by a state school district, and it finds the district vowing to fight and overcome “inequity and institutional racism” to ensure all students succeed.

“A policy is a piece of paper, yes,” said Michelle Bierman, the district’s assistant director for equity, but in this case, it’s proof to employees that they work for a district that “stands on equity.”

For several months, the board had toiled over the racial equity policy statement, and this week, when it was suggested that action be delayed, Board Member Elona Street-Stewart spoke passionately about the need to turn around racial disparities that she said have put Minnesota and St. Paul “at the bottom of the heap,” nationally.

People of color have said, “We’ve lost too much already. We’re in a crisis that’s been there for decades,” Street-Stewart said.

Asian students are the district’s largest ethnic group, at 31.4 percent. Black students are next at 29.6 percent, followed by whites, 23.7 percent; Hispanic students, 13.6 percent, and American Indians, 1.8 percent.

School staff members are 83 percent white, and 61 percent of administrators are white.

The policy seeks to ensure all students are engaged, parents are heard and multiracial perspectives are reflected in what’s taught. In many ways, it is work that already has begun, Bierman said. An elementary school that is further along in equity training has fifth-grade teachers who step in to assist one another with students who may struggle with an individual instructor, she said. A multiweek Parent Academy is presented in English, Hmong, Somali, Karen and Spanish.

Bierman described “institutional racism” as a systemic issue, and not as deliberate discriminatory acts. One example, she said, might be a test question that is understood only by those students born in the United States. Said Bierman, “It doesn’t mean it was done intentionally.”

To assist it with its work, the school district has hired a consultant, Pacific Educational Group, which has secured contracts totaling more than $850,000 during the past three years. In June, the board voted 6-1 to enter into a new $380,000 agreement for the 2013-14 school year.

Board Member John Brodrick, who voted against the renewal, said that the training provided by Pacific Educational Group was a stimulating jump-start to racial equity work, but that he believed the district now could carry on the effort on its own.

But Superintendent Valeria Silva countered that while the $380,000 investment seemed large — equal, in fact, to about 7 ½ teachers — she believed the impact to the district of the racial equity work was greater than what 7 ½ teachers would provide.

 

Anthony Lonetree • 651-925-5036

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