In an about-face, the South St. Paul school board voted unanimously Monday night to allow students to wear sashes representing their identities at the secondary school’s graduation this spring.
Three weeks ago, Principal Chuck Ochocki said that students wouldn’t be allowed to wear the sashes to this year’s ceremony on June 6, though the district would consider a policy change for later.
But officials said that several school board members encouraged administrators to speed up the process after a compelling student presentation to the board.
Sixteen students from groups that had lobbied for the right to wear the sashes — the Black Pride Organization, Comunidad de Latinos Unidos, the Women’s Society and the Sexuality and Gender Alliance (SAGA), a group for LGBT students — attended Monday’s meeting and were jubilant after the vote.
“I never thought this would actually happen,” said senior Naomi Gedey, a Black Pride member. “I didn’t know one little thing could become this big.”
Emiliano Granados, who belongs to Comunidad de Latinos Unidos, said that letting students express themselves is part of a larger change that is happening as the city and district become more diverse.
“This is something that the community really needs,” Granados said. “I think it further unites members of the community showing that every voice does matter.”
Hafsa Ahmad said she believes that a school board presentation by the students in late April — which required students to “get out of our comfort zones” — was the factor that changed school officials’ minds.
The students were guided by Jessica Davis, a math teacher at the school who is also the 2019 Minnesota Teacher of the Year. “I’m elated, overjoyed and so especially proud of these students,” Davis said.
Graduation sashes, also called stoles, are often worn at higher education commencements. Some school districts, including St. Paul, recently have allowed students to don so-called “identity adornments,” primarily multicolored stoles that hang over the front of graduation gowns. The sashes designed by South St. Paul students feature symbols of all four groups.
School Board Member Patty Bjorklund said she was “deeply impressed” by the presentations by students on why they wanted to wear the stoles, and called them “articulate, passionate and respectful.”
“The best argument that they gave us is we are an International Baccalaureate school,” Bjorklund said. “And we should act like one and embrace our identity as a global community.”
International Baccalaureate (IB) World Schools like South St. Paul Secondary School offer the IB Diploma Programme,a rigorous curriculum that emphasizes critical thinking and uses exams to measure achievement.
Superintendent Dave Webb also said he was proud of the students.
“We believe in elevating student voice and they were great examples of that this year,” he said.
An anonymous donor has stepped up to cover the cost of having the sashes made, Webb said.
Before the school board decided to allow the sashes, a local church had offered to hold a commencement event where students could wear the garments and Davis would speak. That ceremony will still be held June 5 at Clark-Grace United Church of Christ in South St. Paul.
The Rev. Oliver White, co-pastor at Clark-Grace, said he was hoping that school board members would change their minds.
“When I heard the story ... I thought it was not fair and it was something that needed to be addressed,” White said. “We’re going to come together and celebrate this win-win.”