A month after voters agreed to back $18.6 million a year in new school funding, St. Paul Public Schools Superintendent Joe Gothard sharpened his new strategic plan for the state’s second-largest district by detailing, among other things, how he will work to strengthen its middle schools.
The five-year plan, SPPS Achieves, had been in the works for nearly a year and was presented to school board members at a meeting Tuesday during which they also narrowly approved an overdue agreement with the city’s Police Department for school resource officers (SRO).
Gothard made clear throughout the year that he would focus on classrooms and student supports rather than a sweeping reorganization along the lines of former Superintendent Valeria Silva’s plan that shifted the district’s focus from magnet schools to neighborhood schools.
SPPS Achieves will help the district prioritize its resources to positively impact student learning, Gothard said. The blueprint also will be revised regularly, he said, to “ensure it remains impactful, relevant and reflective of our work.”
Board Chairwoman Zuki Ellis said the plan’s success also will require robust community engagement.
The district asked voters in November to help it turn around a string of funding deficits and invest in the new superintendent’s vision for schools. The measure won overwhelming support.
Board members had been supportive along the way of long-term goals that included decreasing disparities in achievement based on race, culture and identity; increasing achievement of English learners and special-education students; and preparing every graduate for “college, career and life.” But they also wondered how things might look different under Gothard’s plan.
Two concrete offerings had been the effort to improve middle schools — an acknowledgment of the district’s struggles to retain students at that level — and a push to expand positive approaches to discipline through a system known as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS).
The middle-school changes include a redesign of program offerings to allow for both readers and writers workshops in sixth grade.
Last year, the Minnesota Department of Human Rights identified St. Paul as one of 43 districts or charter school systems that could face investigations into possible discrimination if they did not work to reduce racial disparities in student discipline.
PBIS, a remedy proposed by the department, finds schools teaching students what’s expected of them and rewarding them for good work in order to create a positive culture that includes upbeat mottos like Phalen Pride at Phalen Lake Hmong Studies Magnet School on St. Paul’s East Side.
The department also forged an agreement with St. Paul that calls for the district to direct school resource officers to steer clear of investigating or recommending discipline for students for missteps that do not involve a crime.
While concerns over cops in schools linger in both Minneapolis and St. Paul, the St. Paul district worked in 2016 to try to ease tensions between officers and students. Traditional uniforms were replaced with blue polo shirts. The officers also were directed to explore alternatives to arresting students and putting them in the court system.
In-school arrests fell from 56 in 2015-16 to five in 2016-17, but they increased to 34 in 2017-18.
On Tuesday, the board voted, 4-3, on a new SRO contract that will cost the district $700,000, nearly the same as in 2017-18.
Ellis, who joined colleagues Jeanelle Foster and Marny Xiong in opposition, objected to being presented with a new deal that again, she said, had “nothing as another option.”
Negotiations on the next contract are expected to begin in 2019, with a proposal to be put before the board in May.