School district administrators and other staffers are being deployed to St. Paul schools as the district struggles to get issues of unruly student behavior under control.
In a Monday update to all employees, Superintendent Valeria Silva wrote that she was reassigning an unspecified number of administrators, including cabinet members, to spend "a portion of their day" at sites where fighting-related suspensions have surged.
She also was taking steps to ensure all staff members supervise students in hallways between classes and before and after school, she wrote.
The moves mirror suggestions raised by Denise Rodriguez, president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, in a sharply worded Dec. 15 letter that sought support at the school level. They also come as the district and union continue to negotiate over school climate and other contractual issues — and as Silva faces pressure from her new school board bosses to act quickly on school-climate concerns.
On Monday, Rodriguez noted she had yet to hear from teachers that they have seen new staff members in the buildings — a deployment now set for next Tuesday.
"It looks good on paper, but how does it look in the schools?" she said of the changes, which she had hoped would be in place when students returned from winter break last week. In her letter to Silva, Rodriguez wrote that many schools had hit a "crisis level" and that immediate action was needed.
Suspensions and fights soared in the St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS) during a rough first quarter, but it wasn't until a Central High teacher was choked into unconsciousness by a student on Dec. 4 that Silva began taking corrective measures in addition to offering public expressions of concern.
In October, district spokeswoman Toya Stewart Downey told the Star Tribune that the district would not be providing additional personnel in response to brawls that had been reported at Como Park and Humboldt high schools.
Now, the plan is to have up to 50 administrators working in the schools at least through spring break, she said Monday. She insisted that such a deployment was not new under Silva, and that it had been in the works before the union's request. But she acknowledged that the scope had been broadened.
"It also is needed right now," Stewart Downey said.
She would not go so far, however, as to call the situation a "crisis," saying that "the district and its leaders are concerned about the behavior incidents that are happening at a small percentage of SPPS schools."
Fighting-related suspensions jumped by 61 percent in the high schools during first quarter — from 54 to 87, district data show.
Concerns about unruly classrooms and perceived leniency toward students who misbehave helped ignite a Caucus for Change movement that propelled four political newcomers — a new board majority — into office. After the new members took their oaths last week, the board immediately called for aggressive action by Silva on several key topics — school climate and enrollment initiatives among them.
On Monday, Chairman Jon Schumacher said that he was heartened that the superintendent was listening to the union, and he welcomed the moves outlined in her message to employees. He also wanted to learn more.
"My sense is that the community is eager to hear specifically what we're going to be doing short- and long-term," he said. "I think everyone feels a sense of urgency around this."
One move announced by Silva in December requires district officials and school employees to work to share more information about students who are new to schools. For students who transfer to schools within St. Paul, a "transition meeting" will be held between the old school, the new school and the student's family to determine what did or did not work in the previous school. About 120 to 160 students transfer within the district in a given month, and about 40 of those transfers are linked to behavioral issues.
Another move outlined Monday calls for an unspecified number of instructional coaches to work in specific school sites for a part of the day.
As for administrators, Stewart Downey said it was expected they will assist with student arrival and dismissal, provide support in targeted classrooms, mentor students in lunch and breakfast groups, and help with hallway and lunchroom supervision.
Rodriguez suggested that the administrators be deployed to schools for the rest of the year, but the commitment, for now, is through spring break. But Stewart Downey said principals can decide whether the staffers should stay on longer.
By moving to take contract talks to mediation, the union signaled that school-climate concerns were serious enough to call a strike. Contract talks resume Thursday.