St. Paul Schools prepare leaders — sometimes to the benefit of other districts

  • Article by: ANTHONY LONETREE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 19, 2013 - 10:59 PM

Program yields new leaders of color, who sometimes land elsewhere.

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Deborah Shipp, left, was Be Vang’s mentor when Vang was an intern in a program that prepares people for possible administrative roles in the St. Paul school district.

Photo: Renée Jones Schneider • reneejones@startribune.com,

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The sweeping changes that accompanied this year’s St. Paul schools restructuring also threw into question the fate of a promising administrative intern, Be Vang.

Vang, at the end of a two-year internship that could mean a promotion to assistant principal or a return to teaching, was told last spring that there would be no position for her at the school where she interned.

But where she might land, “they just left it hanging,” said Deborah Shipp, her school district mentor. “Definitely, at that moment, she was thinking, ‘What the heck?’ That was an anxious moment for her and for me. This was an exceptional person.”

The St. Paul school district prides itself on developing talent, and for Shipp and Vang, it meant being part of a mentoring program giving two women of color — Shipp is black and Vang is Hmong — an opportunity to work out issues of leadership and race, and creating the type of administrative candidate coveted by districts seeking skilled leaders who look more like the students they teach.

Some of St. Paul’s new school leaders, in turn, have gone elsewhere, not an insignificant loss for a district in which 60 percent of principals and assistant principals are white, yet about 75 percent of the students are minority-group members.

School board Member Elona Street-Stewart, a Delaware Nanticoke tribal member, said it’s difficult to see good people leave. But she knows, too, that Minnesota’s schools are growing more diverse, and St. Paul’s loss, she said, can be “a gain for the whole state.”

“I am trying to remain positive,” she said.

Shipp and Vang are proof, too, of the power of the mentoring program, in terms of both what it’s meant to them personally and also to the district’s racial-equity pursuits, Vang said.

For both women, there have been tests along the way. In the anxiety over her future, Vang said, she found herself thinking of the many Hmong administrators who had left the district before her.

This year, the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School District has benefited from its neighbor’s leadership work. Isis Buchanan, a former St. Paul assistant principal, is the new principal at Carver Elementary in Maplewood. Buchanan, a black woman, participated in last year’s mentoring program and was the winner of a $25,000 Milken National Educator Award as a St. Paul teacher in 2006.

Program’s benefits

On a recent Tuesday, Buchanan led visitors down one hall and then another to Room 110, where English language teacher Kira Fischler was to be the surprise recipient of $1,000 in classroom supplies — an honor given as part of a national event called “A Day Made Better.”

Afterward, the teacher said of the new principal: “She’s been fantastic … very supportive of all the programming in this building,” which includes a growing percentage of English language learners, Fischler said.

Buchanan, back in her office, reflected on the benefits of St. Paul’s mentoring program. She found particularly valuable, she said, her one-on-one work with a retired principal who helped her to set goals and “grow where I wanted to grow.”

She doesn’t have to travel far in her new district to see an old colleague. Pangjua Xiong, former supervisor of multilingual learning in St. Paul, is the new leader at Weaver Elementary, where 34 percent of last year’s students were Asian.

Special challenges

Earlier this year, Vang and Shipp appeared before the St. Paul school board to talk about the mentoring program, and decided then to be forthright about issues facing women of color in leadership roles. A risky move, they agreed, but important to get out there, Shipp said.

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