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.

In an interview last week, Shipp recalled the resistance that greeted her appointment as assistant principal at the former Humboldt senior and junior highs in 2004. Colleagues implied, she said, that she was there in part because of the color of her skin and not because she’d been a school social worker dedicated to special-ed programming — who had earned a principal’s license, too.

That is the “black tax,” she said, knowing you must show up at a higher level to break even; that you can’t make a mistake and expect to survive it; that you may have to get this degree and then that one; that you must weigh in the back of your mind when giving directions that are not followed whether the outcomes may have been different if those directives had come from a white man.

“The job itself is not easy,” Shipp said. “Put those layers on it and it can be pretty exhausting.”

Ability to relate

As a mentor, Shipp, who oversees special-education care and treatment programs for the district, heard similar concerns from Vang and, in the process of on-site visits, witnessed Vang’s meetings with students who had gotten themselves in trouble. Those intern-to-student sessions, on other occasions, also revealed the benefits of having a Hmong leader working with Hmong students.

Vang cites the example of students telling her that they had been told by a teacher not to speak Hmong to each other. It had happened in the past, too, the students said, and at those times, they elected to just sit back quietly.

Thinking back to her own days as a student, Vang said she probably wouldn’t have spoken Hmong, either. Her parents taught her to listen to her teachers, that they were always right, she said. But her advice to the kids that day was to take up the issue with their instructor. That teacher, Vang said last week, may not realize some kids need to use their native language to forward their learning.

Those lessons, she said, now are part of the district’s equity push, and it is why Vang wants to stay in St. Paul — someday as a principal but for now as an assistant principal, the job she wanted and ended up landing at Phalen Lake Hmong Studies Magnet on the East Side.

That is a St. Paul school district school.