By JAN WILLMS
The Nov. 3rd election is approaching, and a full slate of candidates is running for four at-large positions on the Saint Paul Public Schools (SPPS) school board. The candidates who filed for election were contacted by the Monitor. One of those candidates, Aaron Benner, has since decided not to run. Rashad Turner is a write-in candidate who did not file.
Greg Copeland, 63, is a long-time resident of the East Side’s Payne Ave. neighborhood. He is a retired newspaper reporter, grant writer, nonprofit adult and youth job training program director, a community action agency administrator, and was Maplewood city manager. He also served as caregiver and health care advocate for his wife Betty for 16 years following a disabling on-the-job auto crash.
Copeland strongly believes a new superintendent needs to be hired. “We cannot afford to wait any longer if our SPPS district’s record of educational failure over the last five years is to be turned around,” he said.
“The incumbent school board absolutely ignored the scope of Supt. Valeria Silva’s failure to make any reasonable academic progress over the last five years, especially in closing the achievement gap. The 2015 Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment (MCA) Math student proficiency gap between White students and Blacks was 37%; with Hispanics 31%, American Indians 33% and Asians had a 9% gap with White students. Reading results for the 2015 MCAs had the gap between White and Black students at 33%, 31% with Hispanics, with American Indians 29% and Asians at 13%,” said Copeland.
Copeland said St. Paul students deserve better than a school system of big financial favors for the insiders in the administration, while rank and file teachers and classroom aides get layoff notices, and property taxpayers get asked to pay yet higher taxes for less academic achievement. Copeland said that voters need to realize this is a non-partisan election for an independent school district. “Voters need to elect only those candidates pledged to carry out the needed leadership and policy changes after the election,” he stated.
Copeland said he is an independent thinker who is unafraid of making institutional change. “I believe that in choosing democracy and self-government we have accepted that there is inherently controversy as we decide together to leave past failures behind, learn what we can from them, and agree to start anew for a future we choose to improve for both our family and our community,” Copland noted.
Copeland cited several school programs that he considers system failures and would like to end. He said these include: mainstreaming of Special Education students with behavioral and emotional challenges that led to needless disruption of classes for students and faculty; unilaterally placing English Language Learners in regular classrooms without respect to cultural preferences and individual readiness; and rigid adherence to a centralized top-down system that has robbed children and their teachers of exercising creativity, variation and initiative in the classroom.
Regarding the achievement gap, Copeland said that every student needs an individual education plan to eliminate it. “To keep them current we need to hire a lot more guidance counselors,” Copeland said. “In today’s complex fast moving world every student can benefit from an education plan and later a vocational, college or career plan that we update as they grow, and their interests take shape.”
Copeland said the funds for hiring more guidance personnel would come from setting new priorities for spending limited funds. He suggested elimination of programs like the Pacific Education Group race training and reducing staff travel outside the state, except that earned by bringing tax dollars back from the federal and state governments in the form of grant contracts to support new priorities. He also suggested reducing central administration and reorganizing district support staff and functions to strengthen schools.
Copeland said only 48% of General Fund dollars are currently going directly into classrooms. “My focus will be to spend more dollars than ever before on direct student instruction.”
Developing legislative policy with state lawmakers and state and federal agencies to improve district budgets is a goal of Copeland’s. He also proposes going to single member districts and using the seven city council wards to apportion representation fairly on the school board. He would like to see board meetings held twice a month in regular public sessions.
“All board meetings should be broadcast on cable TV, as should all advisory bodies appointed by the board of education. Transparency is required, not optional,” he noted.
Zuki Ellis, 41, is a parent trainer for St. Paul Federation of Teachers’ Parent Teacher Home Visit Project. She lives in the Summit-University neighborhood.
Ellis said she decided to run for school board because she feels that the current board is not acknowledging or listening to the concerns of families and the community. “I’ve been an advocate, organizer and an ally for our teachers and our support staff within the district, and I know the power of listening to students, the community, parents and teachers and how beneficial it can be for everyone when all parties have a seat at the table,” she said.
Ellis said that working with the Parent Teacher Home Visit Project, PTO and site councils for years has given her lots of experience working closely with educators, students and families. “I hope to leverage these community ties to keep the district communicating better with the community,” she noted.
Ellis claimed the largest issues facing the school board are improving communication and transparency within the district, so parents, teachers and students all feel as if they have a seat at the table. “Beyond that, we need to work on closing the opportunity gap,” she added.
Ellis said there isn’t a single simple answer to the problem of the achievement gap. “It’ll be a long process to address this,” she said. “As an initial improvement I’m passionate about, we need to be better about keeping strong levels of support staff in our schools. Staff like social workers, nurses and teachers’ assistants often provide the most support to students who are falling the furthest behind. While their work is critical for all students, disenfranchised students are hurt by their absence the most, and we need to see support staff in that light.”
Ellis’ biggest goal is making sure more groups in the district feel they have a seat at the table, and that the district is communicating and being transparent with them. “Beyond that, I have some background working with the Parent Advocacy Coalition for Educational Rights on special education, so I’d look into what work I could do there as well.”
Candidate Linda Freeman, 63, is from the Como neighborhood and is a licensed elementary and Montessori teacher and consultant. She said she decided to run because she considers schools to be the most powerful place to assure the best possible future for children and the school board the most influential position to keep the focus on children.
“I’m in an optimal position to give the necessary attention to the school board where some of our current and previous members have been falling short,” she said. “I’ll take the time to ask questions to inform our decisions and reach out and listen to children, parents, teachers, and principals to support our district’s data.”
Freeman said she has enduring experience with education that she can bring to the school board. She was owner-operator of a preschool and daycare in her home for 10 years. She has taught in SPPS since 1998, focusing on programs designed to meet the needs of at-risk and homeless children. She said she also taught in innovative Montessori schools on a Lakota reservation and in North Minneapolis.
“I’ve served on the District Budget Committee, school committees, a site council and a district parent group,” Freeman noted. “I’ve had input in developing a Minnesota Montessori resource group, and I’m active with a local Montessori mentorship committee.” She said that her active immersion in the culture and cultures of St. Paul and its diverse neighborhoods are as important as her education and experience.
Freeman said the budget is always the bottom line regarding upcoming challenges. “We have to be prepared to present the budget and bottom line needs that will make our schools great, and bring the public into the spending discussion, especially at their school sites where solutions can become a reality.”
To diminish the achievement gap, Freeman suggested a strong, radical effort to minimize testing is overdue. “We should be developing a stronger relationship with the Minnesota Department of Education to assure it’s in touch with supporting our needs,” Freeman said.
“We can’t wait any longer to develop a world class early childhood program through our public schools,” Freeman added. “This is necessary throughout Minnesota, but St. Paul is positioned to be in the forefront.”
Freeman said she does not support Minnesota’s current view of universal Pre-K, which she considers has become a diminishing catch phrase for a very important initiative. “I see public schools teaching four-year-olds the same way they teach 10-year-olds, with no regard for stages in child development,” she said. “We have to accept only highly trained, dedicated teachers to this program, who are willing to be scrutinized.”
According to Freeman, the St. Paul community has to step up to support closing the achievement gap. “We choose and continue to live in St. Paul because we’re a rich, creative, caring culture,” Freeman said. “We have to be unified and dynamic in living out our choice.”
Freeman emphasized that all children must be reading at grade level. “We have to think twice when we level the playing fields with our IPads, to assure we’re not covering up realities in students’ abilities.”
“We have to assure that our ‘gifted and talented’ children learn responsibility for their abilities within their curriculum,” she continued. Freeman said that obsession with high achievement must be set aside with all the St. Paul community working toward a manageable, significant goal that optimally and realistically positions everyone for success.
Keith Hardy, 52, an IT project manager for US Bank who resides in the Payne-Phalen neighborhood, is the only incumbent in the race. He decided to run for re-election because he does not believe his work on the board is finished.
“The issues facing our students, especially students who are immigrants, who are poorer or from communities of color, are too important for me to stay out of the campaign,” he noted. “I also want to continue being a strong voice for the under-represented communities and for getting more members of those communities involved in our schools as teachers, administrators, tutors and in other ways.”
Hardy added that because of policy changes and district initiatives during his service on the board, SPPS graduation rates are increasing across all student groups while academic achievement has increased for more students in the past four years. “However, too many of our black and brown male students continue to feel pushed out of school or feel that school is irrelevant in their lives. As an African American man, I feel responsible for changing that.”
Hardy, who has been the only African American on the board for the past eight years, said he comes from a family that was not well off financially. “While I have strongly supported academic rigor and success for all students, I have felt a special responsibility for the majority of our students who come from families of color and of poverty,” he noted.
He considers his most important accomplishments to be helping create the racial equity policy and anti-bullying policy; championing the establishment of credit unions in high schools and the Parents of African American Students Advisory Committee; and expansion of FIRST Robotic teams in traditional and alternative high schools. He also passed the gender inclusion policy, tutors students and said he ensures fiscally responsible annual budgets, which included voting twice against the proposed budget. “I also observe learning and authentically listen to principals, students, teachers and staff at all 70-plus SPPS Schools and advocate for students in alternative schools,” Hardy said.
Hardy said some of the greatest challenges facing the board include narrowing the education equity gap and strengthening bonds with community organizations to help students and their families receive necessary mental/emotional and physical/safety needs. Other challenges are pushing the district leadership to recruit and retain more teachers from communities of color and immigrant communities and ensuring racial equity and high academic rigor are practiced daily in all schools.
Some of Hardy’s suggestions for eradicating the education equity gap are to help every student read at grade level, continue to challenge students academically, connect students with their culture, educate the whole child and keep students focused on a successful future.
Hardy said his personal goals if re-elected are to become more fluent in multiple languages, continue tutoring in math and reading and add science, help coach urban debate and robotics teams and become a stronger advocate for public education and the school district with federal and state leaders.
Steve Marchese, 48, a Pro Bono Director at the Minnesota State Bar Association, lives in the Summit-University neighborhood. He said that as a parent and school volunteer, he has watched the central administration take decision-making authority away from the schools and bring it to the central office, leaving educators, families and staff with little influence over what happens in their own buildings. “Time and again, the administration with the support of the current board have pursued a well-intentioned effort to increase educational equity only to have that agenda undermined by poor communication and questionable administrative decisions,” he said.
Marchese believes a more inclusive, transparent and effective district is needed; one with clear goals, objectives and strategies for improving achievement. “We also need an independent school board that holds the superintendent and administrators accountable for both their promises and their performance,” Marchese said. “I believe I have the professional and personal experience to bring thoughtful, strategic and pragmatic leadership to the SPPS board.”
Marchese said he brings over 20 years’ experience as an attorney to the school board. He was in private practice earlier in his career, including representing families and children in special education proceedings and as co-counsel for plaintiffs in Michigan school desegregation litigation. He currently serves on the St. Paul Civil Service Commission, as well as several boards.
The school board faces several challenges, according to Marchese. “We need a more independent, active school board committed to representing the public’s interest and holding district administrators accountable for results,” he said. “The district needs to do a much better job of engaging all stakeholders in the work of our schools. The district needs to address inequities within our schools, as well as develop a focused commitment to excellence for all students. Every family should be able to believe their children can receive a top-notch education in a St. Paul school regardless of location. Unfortunately, that is not so today.”
Lessening the achievement gap starts with a board that is connected to the community, committed to closing the gap and willing to set expectations for administrators, staff, and students, according to Marchese. He said the district needs to think more creatively about how it is meeting the educational needs of students and involve educators, families and students in the process of determining how to be more effective. “What can we learn from successful schools outside of SPPS? How do we look at supportive services for students in schools so that they reinforce teaching and connect students and families in a holistic manner?” are some questions Marchese poses.
Marchese said the board should be the rallying point for a community commitment to closing achievement disparities. “Every parent, caregiver and community member in St. Paul deserves to believe that their schools are excellent,” he said.
“I am particularly interested in improving the functioning of the board,” Marchese continued, “engaging more actively with the community by soliciting and including their input, and addressing inequities in our schools while also focusing on excellence across the district.”
Scott Raskiewicz, 62, is a Highland Park resident who is a semi-retired tennis teaching professional, writer and author of the book “Economic Democracy: Ending the Corporate Domination of Our Lives.”
Raskiewicz was a substitute teacher in the SPPS district for 17 years. During that time, he said he witnessed much dysfunction, most of which he considered the result of America’s political and management classes.
“These people are detached from their decisions while wielding great power with little accountability,” said Raskiewicz. “I am running to hold the decision-makers accountable and to draw attention to the root cause of the problems facing education and our society.”
Raskiewicz said that in his professional life he was worked with young people in a variety of settings for over 40 years. “I know that all people have an intrinsic desire to learn,” he said. “But that desire is negated by crowded classrooms and too much standardized testing. We must have smaller class sizes and a more individualized approach to education to maximize the intrinsic desire to learn.”
According to Raskiewicz, the single greatest challenge facing the school board and society is an inhumane, inequitable and antidemocratic economic and political system supported by a corporate cartel that controls nearly all major media. “These systems are hostile to poor and working and middle class Americans, particularly people of color. Social and educational progress requires real democracy—economic, media and political democracy.”
Raskiewicz said the achievement gap is largely a result of this same system. “We must also remember that parents are a child’s first and most important teachers, and the home is the first and most important educational setting,” he explained. “Because the economic and political system and media are hostile to families, it has become very difficult for many parents to provide the sort of stable home and consistent nurturing children need to thrive. Once we have authentic economic, media and political democracy all problems, including the achievement gap, will be solved or ameliorated.”
Working for smaller class sizes and an individualized, project-based approach to education is something for which Raskiewicz said he will strive. “We must also guard against the increasing corporatization of education that merely tries to prepare students ‘to compete in the global economy’,” he added.
“The purpose of education is to help students strive for self-actualization and prepare them to be cooperative members of the global community. These approaches will also help close the achievement gap,” Raskiewicz said.
Jon Schumacher, 63, is the father of two SPPS graduates and lives and works in the St. Anthony Park neighborhood. He has been the executive director of the Saint Anthony Park Community Foundation since 1999. For the past 23 years he has served on school site councils and committees and helped to develop and fund innovative learning solutions for area elementary, middle and senior high schools. “I’m experienced in board management, mediation and community building,” he said.
Schumacher said he is running for the school board because he is passionate about St. Paul’s kids and wants to do everything he can to give them the public school system they deserve. “I will leverage the skills, experience, and city-wide relationships I’ve built over my 23 years working with our schools, to develop a more collaborative approach to ensure successful outcomes for all of our students.”
Schumacher said he has three top priorities for the board to work on. “First, we need a process of disciplined inquiry to drive improvement,” he noted. “I will work with our board to set clear, consistent expectations for fully developed strategies—informed by open and honest evaluation—with measurable goals and implementable teaching tools.”
“Second, we have to re-engage and rebuild trust among our school community,” Schumacher said. He said the board must set an expectation of collaboration to actively engage families, students, educators and the broader community by developing a more open process for decision-making with timely presentation of pertinent data and details.
“Third, we need to work to ensure adequate classroom support for students and teachers,” Schumacher continued. He said this involves having the necessary staff in place to meet all student needs, which is critical to creating successful and racially equitable learning environments. “In addition,” he said, “we need to take more responsibility for preparing our graduating seniors for post-secondary success, and that includes a renewed focus on career and technical education.”
Addressing the achievement gap, Schumacher said the first step to overcoming it is to acknowledge that the teacher-student relationship is the heart and soul of any successful learning experience. He said that teachers must be supplied with adequate training and support, and parents and caregivers need to be recognized as the students’ first educators and welcomed into the schools and engaged.
“We also need to ensure our curriculum includes an accurate and balanced reflection of all cultures,” Schumacher said, “and that every school has a full complement of special education, mental and physical health, behavioral and library specialists, as well as regular access to art, music, and physical activity.”
“I also see a need to work with the Department of Education to find ways to better align our large standardized tests with our evolving understanding of what constitutes achievement,” Schumacher added. He said he believes there is a sound case to be made that the MCAs contain content that might be unfamiliar or unfair to students of color, recent immigrants or students with learning disabilities.
Schumacher cited a recent report about the success of the state as a whole in closing the achievement gap while the gaps in St. Paul and Minneapolis persist. “We need to learn from successful strategies implemented elsewhere, determine if and how they make sense for St. Paul, and keep our minds open to new approaches,” he explained.
Based on his experience working with boards, governance and community-building, Schumacher said he would like to find ways to make board meetings more effective, efficient and user- friendly. He would also like to find ways to better engage families and educators where they live and work.
“That might mean regular opportunities for board members to hold listening sessions at schools or community centers,” Schumacher noted. “It certainly means forming deeper relationships with members of our school community to bridge the communications gap that sometimes exists between district policy decisions and implementation.”
Mary Vanderwert, from the Hamline-Midway neighborhood, is an independent contractor with America’s ToothFairy, National Children’s Oral Health Foundation. She said she has spent her entire 25-year career working with young children and their families in early childhood education, most of the time in Head Start and programs at the Wilder Foundation for five years. She also spent eight years at the Minnesota Department of Education as the Head Start state collaboration director. “My experience in early childhood education, both in the classroom and in administration, would be unique on the school board,” she said.
Vanderwert said she raised three children as a single parent and all graduated from St. Paul Public Schools. “I understand how decisions are made in families when there is limited time and even more limited resources,” she said, “and how important schools are to families in reaching their goals and dreams.”
As an educator, Vanderwert said she also understands how policies created and drafted by the board will affect teachers and students in the classroom environment. As an early childhood education professional, she said she has studied, and continues to study, brain development and the implications for policy development.
Vanderwert has provided training and technical assistance to Head Start programs throughout the state on issues related to organizational development and strategic planning, and she was selected to serve on the governor’s early childhood council.
“I have worked with many children and families and developed programs to support their stability and development,” she added.
“We need to improve the culture of the schools to one that is collaborative, creative, supportive and exciting,” Vanderwert said in response to challenges facing the school board. “We need a culture that values the contributions of staff and provides them a voice in decision making.”
Learning happens within the context of a relationship, according to Vanderwert. “When teachers know their students and families, they can adapt their classroom environment and instructional practices to fit their students’ needs, and children will perform better,” she continued. “We need to shift the focus from testing children to ensuring that teachers have what they need to get to know their children to gain their trust and be as effective as possible.”
Vanderwert stressed that parents are critical to their children’s success. She said parents need to be authentic partners in the decision making for their children and their schools.
Vanderwert said that the earlier the school system starts to support children and families, the better the outcomes will be regarding the achievement gap. “The schools need to work with early childhood programs to provide support and information to families as soon as a baby is expected,” she said. “When children enter our doors, we need to embrace the whole family and treat them with respect and openness.”
She spoke of the need to ensure that our instructional practices and learning environments meet the learning styles and needs of children living with stress. “Children with stress at home need access to health services and mental health services within the schools,” Vanderwert said.
Vanderwert said that when children come to school they need to know that their teachers like them, want what is best for them, and believe in their ability to achieve. “This makes it imperative that we have staff/teachers/leaders that come from their community, look like them and are trained in mental health and brain development. All teachers need training in how to navigate many cultures and how to relate to parents.” She also emphasized the importance of teaching and practicing emotional skills in the schools.
Vanderwert said she is very interested in assuring that SPPS implement Universal Pre-K in a way that is effective and works for children and families. “The program needs to be provided where children already are, such as in high-quality child care, work with families as much as children, and ensure that children are healthy both physically and emotionally.”
“From my experience working with Head Start programs on culture and as an administrator, I want to lead the board as it defines the kind of organizational culture we both want and need in our schools,” Vanderwert stated.