There were more eyes on this year’s St. Paul School Board race than any board election I can remember, and for good reason: The district is at a critical tipping point in determining whether and how they will commit to ongoing racial equity work, such as pursuing restorative justice policies to reduce suspensions for students of color.
It could be tempting, in light of recent fights that have been covered in the media, to scrap the past racial equity work and go back to the drawing board. Let’s not do that; but instead ask how we can build up supports to live up to the vision of equity we share.
I am a parent of a St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS) student, a graduate of St. Paul Central High School, a Saint Paul voter and a Minneapolis Public Schools educator. I believe that racial equity work is at the core of improving education for all SPPS students. To me, that means every child feels valued, and every child has a chance to stay in school and learn. St. Paul needs school board members who demonstrate leadership in proposing ideas for ensuring racial equity, ideas fueled by the voices of community members: current education leaders, teachers, students, families and the community.
As a current administrator in Minneapolis, I see firsthand some of the same issues that St. Paul students and teachers are struggling to navigate. One common challenge that we face is how to address behaviors that in the past resulted in suspensions. At my school, we are learning about and using mediation and restorative justice practices, which have been shown to reduce behavioral incidents and improve student outcomes. However, our teachers have had little to no training on either and don’t have the privilege of one-on-one time with students that I have as an administrator. I have seen how these promising practices and policies succeed or fail depending on how they are implemented.
The implementation of St. Paul’s racial equity trainings and student discipline policies has not been perfect. However, that doesn’t make it any less important to further commit to making the district a place where all students and families feel safe and successful. The new board has the opportunity to show our students and families of color that they are committed to eliminating the achievement gap and discipline disparities. They could do that by implementing promising practices, like restorative justice.
St. Paul’s school board members have the opportunity to advocate for better implementation through training and on-site support for teachers as they adapt to new policies. The Saint Paul Federation of Teachers has outlined a proposal for implementing restorative justice practices that is a great starting place. As they note, the key will be to create time and space for collaborative planning with all stakeholders.
If the incoming board chooses to put the brakes on the racial equity work in St. Paul, what message are we sending to our students and families of color?
We must not revert back to a system that is inequitable and has created racial discipline disparities and contributed to the achievement gap.
As voters, we must hold our elected officials accountable for creating real plans to address issues of racial inequity in our schools, rather than just blaming and shaming those who are trying to do the work.
I am hopeful the new school board will work to include student, community and teacher voices in the conversation about how to move forward in our district’s racial equity work. It is not enough to say that what we are doing now isn’t working. Instead, the board needs to offer solutions and be ready with a plan to actively pursue practical, equitable solutions.
I ask that the school board be clear with voters about their stances on the district’s current racial justice and suspension policies and how they would move forward.