On paper, the rollout of the second phase of a long-range strategic plan to overhaul St. Paul public schools would seem to be smoother than the launch of the initial reorganization three years ago.
But on the eve of school board approval of Strong Schools Strong Communities 2.0 (SSSC 2.0) next week, the district finds itself stumbling out of the gate.
Central High School parents turned out by the dozens on Monday to express concerns about the rumored elimination of advanced placement, or AP courses, at the only district school to carry the state’s top ranking of “reward school.”
Later, Jackie Statum Allen, the district’s assistant director for strategic planning and policy, chalked up the controversy to a “misunderstanding,” and went on to make it clear during an interview Wednesday: “There are no plans to eliminate AP at Central.”
The fact that Allen had to make plain what others failed to do two nights earlier, however, gives further weight to an argument advanced by critics that St. Paul is a district that needs to be clearer and more transparent when it comes to its vision and its actions.
Central’s recent frustrations resonate on the West Side. There, a newly formed community group slammed the district last fall after Superintendent Valeria Silva issued an out-of-the-blue pronouncement that the district would relocate its resurgent Open World Learning Community (OWL) school from downtown to the West Side. It was a decision that came without any public input, despite the West Side group’s overture to the district to partner with it on issues that involved the neighborhood.
The group, West Siders for Strong Schools, also has pointed out the challenges that the district faces — at least on the West Side — in meeting its original Strong Schools Strong Communities strategic goal of steering students to neighborhood schools.
That was the push in the first phase of the three-year plan, which de-emphasized magnet schools in a citywide restructuring that is expected to continue in less dramatic fashion under SSSC 2.0. That five-year plan, which would rely on technology-enhanced learning and a doubling down on racial equity efforts as a means to ensure that all district students succeed, awaits school board approval Tuesday.
A month ago, the West Side group released a survey showing that a majority of West Side respondents were unlikely to send their children to West Side schools in the future.
Of the concerns aired by Central parents about the perceived lack of transparency, Rebecca Noecker, a leader of the West Side group, said in an interview Tuesday: “What else is new?”
Earlier this year, Silva used a broad-brush approach in describing SSSC 2.0. In recent weeks, Allen and others have offered a few more details of the plan, which includes the development next year of “elective African-American course offerings at middle schools and high schools.”
Efforts to obtain additional information about the electives, and to explore whether the district might have an Afrocentric magnet school in its future, were temporarily derailed when the district canceled a newspaper interview on the grounds that the effort was only in the preliminary stages and there wasn’t much to talk about.
Allen, asked about the plans this week, said that the district is considering expanding African-American literature and/or history courses at its secondary schools, and is also exploring the possibility of creating an African-American culture class that could be offered, at least initially, at an elementary magnet school.
Keith Hardy, the school board’s vice chairman, said this week he was excited about the possibility of the district “offering at some point an African-American studies, if you will.” As for the district’s initial reluctance to address the subject, he noted that SSSC 2.0 is a five-year plan, and that the lack of specifics is something to be expected.
“I look forward to seeing those details,” he said.
At Central, Ayesha Shariff, a parent who is co-chairwoman of the school’s parent advisory council, said the concerns about the possible elimination of AP courses stemmed from comments made to parents by a number of teachers who had attended a recent SSSC 2.0 staff briefing with Allen and Matt Mohs, the district’s chief academic officer.
Teachers left thinking that the Central AP and Quest programs were in danger of being dropped.
AP in the course catalog
Principal Mary Mackbee, who was out of town when the issue heated up, distributed a letter at Monday’s meeting noting that AP and Quest courses were in the 2014-15 course catalog. When a parent asked if AP was being phased out, Mackbee replied: “That’s not my understanding.”
Asked the next day if she was satisfied, Shariff said, “Certainly, the information received last night implied there were no immediate changes … but I think there’s still a lot of uncertainty about what will happen as we move forward.”
Allen said that she believed the misunderstanding stemmed from comments made by Mohs at the staff meeting about the impending review of AP courses districtwide. “At no point,” however, she said, “did he say that AP would be eliminated.” The district has made clear, however, that no new AP classes will be added at Central, Allen said.
On that point, at least at Central High last Monday night, there were no misunderstandings.