St. Paul school board OKs groundbreaking racial equity policy
Mila Koumpilova, Pioneer Press, July 16, 2013 – After much revision and hours of impassioned debate, the St. Paul school district adopted an uncommon policy Tuesday night enshrining a commitment to battle racial inequities.
District leaders believe the new racial equity policy is the only one of its kind in Minnesota, though other districts are exploring similar documents. The school board debated it longer than any other policy in recent memory, including perhaps the most emotionally charged discussion in recent years at Tuesday’s regular meeting.
District leaders hope the policy will add momentum to efforts to tackle the gaping achievement gap between students of color and their peers. They say it will inform ongoing work to eliminate disparities based on race, including a seven-figure investment in professional development to help staff members confront their racial prejudices.
A couple of board members argued for taking extra time to flesh out exactly how the district will put the policy into action; they pointed out staff and community members had weighed in on a now-obsolete earlier version. But a majority who felt a sense of urgency in approving the policy prevailed.
“What’s most important is the message to our students and families that we care deeply about this and we’re engaged in change,” said board chair Jean O’Connell.
The policy spells out a district determination to diagnose and tackle ways in which racial bias permeates the school system.
“Eliminating our district’s institutional racism will increase achievement, including on-time graduation, for all students,” the policy reads, “while narrowing the gaps between the highest- and lowest-performing students.”
The policy calls on the district to seek out input from diverse students and families on teaching practices and curricula. It says the district will work to recruit and retain a “racially conscious and culturally competent” staff and embrace “culturally responsive” practices in the classroom and beyond.
Racial equity policies remain relatively rare nationally. District leaders consulted such policies in Portland, Ore., and Seattle.
In 2010, the district teamed with Pacific Education Group, a San Francisco-based consulting company, to embark on a five-year racial equity plan. The district’s goal is that each of its 6,000 employees will go through two-day “Beyond Diversity” training; in it, staff members examine their racial biases and the ways in which long-standing district practices might trip up some of its minority students.
PEG also provides additional professional development for members of school racial equity teams, made up of teachers, administrators and support staff. St. Paul has so far signed $1.2 million worth of contracts with PEG.
The new policy, said Michelle Bierman, assistant director of the district’s Office of Equity, will send a strong message: “St. Paul Public Schools supports this work and has taken the time and energy to put a policy into place.”
The district held meetings with staff and community members to gather feedback. Some participants hailed the policy as a much-needed document codifying the district’s commitment. Others wanted to see more specifics about its implementation and less jargon that could stump lay people, such as “adaptive solutions.” Some voiced skepticism that a policy would make much difference in moving the needle on the achievement gap.
And even as they welcomed the policy, some board members had concerns. They pushed the district to add more specifics as well as a section that says the district will come up with measurable ways to gauge its effect and report back to the board regularly.
Member Louise Seeba also wanted the policy to include an acknowledgment that complex social factors outside school walls contribute to achievement disparities.
“The achievement gap is an issue that can’t be borne entirely on the shoulders of school districts,” she said.
Seeba and member John Brodrick argued that the board needs to spend more time to clarify its repercussions.
“We must have an ability to monitor and evaluate the procedures that come out of this policy,” said Brodrick, who cast the lone “no” vote on the policy.
But other board members argued it was important not to delay.
“This is what we need right now because our achievement gap is not getting any smaller,” said Mary Doran.
Melanie Traxler, a science teacher at Randolph Heights Elementary and a member of its equity team, thanked the board for supporting the policy. She said the district’s racial equity push has helped her see her students’ diverse needs more clearly.
Jacquie Thomas, a district parent, said the policy is “long overdue” and a well-done document — with some caveats. She said she remains unsure how the district will measure progress and ensure the policy has teeth.
“It would be great if there was some transparency in this plan as it goes forward,” Thomas said.