Low-income quota eyed for St. Paul schools

  • Article by: DAAREL BURNETTE II , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 19, 2011 - 11:45 PM

St. Paul panel urges it for the most sought-after schools.

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St. Paul schools superintendent Valeria S. Silva mingled with guests Thursday, Dec. 8, 2011, at the Como Park Zoo and Conservatory, before giving her "State of the District" address.

Photo: David Joles, Star Tribune

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St. Paul schools should reserve 20 percent of seats at the most sought-after elementary and middle schools for students from high-poverty neighborhoods, an advisory committee said Monday.

The recommendation of the "choice/integration" committee was one of several presentations to the school board outlining how Superintendent Valeria Silva should implement her "Strong Schools, Strong Communities" plan that aims to close the achievement gap between white and minority students.

That plan will convert several magnet schools into neighborhood schools and drastically limit citywide transportation.

"I do believe that if there's a place in the country where we can truly close the achievement gap, that is going to be in St. Paul, Minnesota," Silva said Monday.

Silva offered praise for the committee's suggestions and said she would review them before making her own recommendations to the board in the next two months.

In recent years, administrators have used a complex choice system that considers, among other things, a student's family income and their proximity to a school in deciding who gets to go to schools with waiting lists.

That choice system will largely be done away with by 2014. The Strong Schools, Strong Communities plan divides the district into six areas. Each area offers residents a high school, middle school and a choice of magnet, Montessori and special education programs as well as community elementary schools. Busing would be provided within each area, all of which are economically and racially diverse, according to school officials.

But the local NAACP chapter complained that placing students at schools based strictly on their proximity to those schools and not considering race and family income will lead to several racially isolated schools, and would ultimately widen the achievement gap. The chapter has threatened a suit to block the plan.

In its recommendations Monday, the "choice/integration" committee suggested that "individual elementary school proximity attendance boundaries need to be carefully drawn to promote diversity."

The committee urged that the district use a point system that will give priority to students from neighborhoods with a high population of English Language Learners, students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and score below grade level in reading and math.

For neighborhood schools and some magnet schools, students would be given priority if they have a sibling at the school or live close to the school.

The committee also advised that the district encourage white and wealthy families to send their children to high poverty schools by providing incentives such as preschool programs or reduced-price after-school programs.

The committee suggested that their recommendations go into effect in 2013.

"It seems clean, more simple and easy," Silva said of the committee's proposal. "It does address all the issues and brings it to a level that a regular person can look at it and say this is why I got in and why I didn't get in and people won't think we did something that wasn't appropriate as a system."

Daarel Burnette II • 651-735-1695 Twitter: @DaarelStrib

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