Eight candidates are vying for four seats on the St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS) Board of Education. Keith Hardy is the one incumbent seeking re-election. We asked Hardy, Greg Copeland, Zuki Ellis, Linda Freeman, Steve Marchese, Scott Raskiewicz, Jon Schumacher and Mary Vanderwert to answer these questions: What do you see as the top challenges facing SPPS today and how would you address those challenges? If you could change the direction of one thing in SPPS, what would it be?
Here are their answers.
Greg Copeland has lived in the Payne-Phalen neighborhood since 1992. A widower
since 2008, Copeland was his wife’s caregiver for 16 years after she became disabled due to a 1992 auto accident. He worked as city manager for the City of Maplewood and as a public administration consultant. Copeland recently was named to the Minnesota Department of Education Committee of Practitioners that advises the commissioner on the Federal Title I Program, which manages funding for low-income children’s education to help close the achievement gap.
Copeland’s list of top three challenges are:
Equal Representation for all citizens. He also wants to do away with the at-large citywide election of SPPS board members and instead elect representatives from geographic areas in the city, as with the St. Paul City Council. This would give fair geographic representation from all parts of the city, he says. Currently, the East Side is underrepresented and the West Side is not represented at all on the board, he says.
Transparency demands all public meetings are broadcast: He wants the board to meet twice a month in public, cable-TV broadcast sessions in the district’s boardroom or in the community at school auditoriums “to hear directly from parents, students, teachers, support staff and taxpayers. The current ‘Committee of the Board’ meeting held prior to the one Regular monthly board meeting is not broadcast and is not held in the board room with the general public, but in an upstairs meeting area with the Board members and staff.”
Hiring a new superintendent is job No. 1 for the school board: Copeland says Superintendent Valeria Silva’s Strong Schools, Strong Communities has failed. He cites the academic gap in scores between white students and black students on the 2015 Minnesota MCA test results and says that gap has widened since 2010. School order, safety and student discipline needs to be prioritized. “Silva has prioritized staff race-training and salary bonuses to principals not suspending students,” he says. “This discipline model has failed, as teachers have left their jobs at schools where principals have routinely returned to the classroom those misbehaving without taking disciplinary action.”
The attendance zones established in the Strong Schools plan is a disadvantage for parents in low-income neighborhoods who want their children to attend schools outside of their area “because they lack the ability provide transportation across the city. The attendance zones need to go to restore equity of educational choice and respect for all parents get their children the education they want.”
If elected, his goals are to work on the items mentions above and increase the number of guidance counselors in schools, cut administrative funding and reallocate it to student instructional services, eliminate race-training contracts and reprioritize the levy money that was allocated to give each student an iPad.
Zuki Ellis is a native of St. Paul. She grew up in Rondo and attended Webster Magnet Elementary and Highland Park Senior High. She received her bachelor’s degree from
Metropolitan State University in 2011 with a double major in ethnic studies and social science. She is the mother of three St. Paul Public School students, the youngest of whom is a first-grader at J.J. Hill Montessori. Ellis has been involved in SPPS for more than a decade as a mother of SPPS students, as a volunteer with PTOs and site councils, and as a parent trainer with the district’s Parent Teacher Home Visit project, the job she now holds.
If elected, Ellis’s “top three priorities are staffing levels, special education and improving the district’s communication with the community,” she says. “We need to make sure we have enough support staff (EAs, TAs, ELL/special education staff, social workers, librarians, media specialists) in our schools so all of our children have the resources they need to succeed. What are we telling our special needs students when their supports are the first to be cut every time there are budget troubles? We also need to be better about seeking community input on major decisions like mainstreaming and the iPad rollout. We make our best decisions as a district when everyone feels engaged. Look to the later high school start times as a strong of example of community engagement at work.”
“If I could fix one issue in SPPS, it would be the opportunity gap. The opportunity gap is a tremendously difficult problem to solve, rooted in many centuries of disenfranchisement. Addressing it fully will take decades of work, but staffing our schools to support all of our students and communicating better are places we need to start.
“Support staff are critical to schools that work for all of our students. Better communication from the district can rebuild trust and relationships between schools and parents, so that we better understand the challenges our students are facing, and so that we can work hand in hand with community members to build the strong schools we need for our kids.”
Linda Freeman is a licensed teacher and has worked in schools, including St. Paul Public Schools, since 1998. Her education interests have been with alternatives to
traditional education, particularly Montessori, with a focus on children who are not achieving. Before attaining her licensure, she owned and operated a licensed home preschool and daycare for 10 years. Freeman has helped develop Montessori programs on a remote Lakota reservation in South Dakota; Montessori nonprofit preschools and charter elementary schools in North Minneapolis and St. Paul’s East Side; a Christian home-school academy; and a Montessori preschool in Duluth.
The top three challenges Freeman sees SPPS facing:
“Understanding the needs and desires of our diverse St. Paul populations and communities, and providing them with developmentally and academically rigorous goals and programs. It will be important that the board extends itself to the community, to make its presence felt, to listen, and remain in touch to monitor and adjust.
“Ensuring that the budget reaches the children. Collaborative understanding of spending at each site.
“Closing the achievement gap, not just through budgetary means, but also through changes in attitude throughout the district about the disparities, and creating opportunities to enter into the way we approach equitable education and making choices to become part of it.
Freeman would like to “reduce the excessive standardized testing and place more emphasis on informed, individualized, instruction and support” in the district.
Keith Hardy was first elected to the SPPS Board of Education in 2007, and has served two terms. He was born in Buffalo, N.Y., and has lived in South Carolina and Texas. He
resides in the Payne-Phalen neighborhood of St. Paul. His 15-year-old son is a freshman at Champlin Park High School. Hardy has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Texas-Arlington and is working on a master’s degree in technical communication at the University of Minnesota. He is a project manager at U.S. Bank.
Hardy lists the following as the top three challenges facing the district:
“Having all students read at grade level.” Hardy wants the district budget to accommodate more reading-support programs and services and to bring in more partners who can provide volunteer reading tutors. “I will monitor the personalized learning through technology to ensure student reading comprehension is supported and heightened,” he says.
Providing increased academic choices and programs with reduced state and federal funding is another challenge. “I will continue to advocate with Congress members to increase the federal funding for special education services through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act,” he says. “I will continue to advocate with state legislators to not reduce integration funding and other funds that large urban school districts need to support our diverse student population.
And last, “continuing to dismantle the institutional racism and racially predictable barriers to academic and life success for students of color. I will continue to be an ardent advocate for racial equity in our instructional, leadership, and administrative practices for students and employees.”
The one thing he would change in the district is “to have more students reading at grade level so they have the competence and confidence to excel in other content areas such as math, science, social sciences, etc.”
Steve Marchese has lived in St. Paul since 2007 and is the father of two sons who attend St. Paul schools, a 10th-grader at Central High School and a seventh-grader at
Capitol Hill. He lives with his wife, Jodi Sandfort, and sons in the Summit-University neighborhood. Marchese has been an attorney for more than 20 years and works now as pro bono director for the Minnesota State Bar Association. He serves on the Mayflower Early Childhood Center board in Minneapolis and served for three years on the St. Anthony Park Elementary School Site Council. He grew up the son of a Teamsters truck driver in New York City and is the first child in his family to go to college.
He lists the following as the top three challenges facing SPPS today:
“We need a more independent, active school board committed to representing the public’s interest and holding district administrators accountable for results.
“The district needs to do a much better job of engaging all stakeholders in the work of our schools. Parents, educators, staff and community members all have a stake in the St. Paul Public Schools. We need district leadership committed to transparency and open input as part of all major decisions.
“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.”
The one thing he would change: “Addressing systemic inequities in achievement and resource allocation. Gaps in achievement persist between white students and students of color. The district has attempted to address them, in part, with its racial equity initiative; however, this is only an imperfect start. There needs to be more attention paid to providing teachers with concrete strategies and support to work with students.
“We need to enable more decision-making at the building level to allow educators, staff and families to work together to improve achievement in each building,” he says. “We need more experimentation with curriculum and building organization. The district’s Strong Schools, Strong Communities plan needs to be evaluated to ensure that all families have excellent options for their children and to ensure that schools do not become more segregated by race, class and ability status. Finally, the district needs to look at how it can support learning with arts, physical education and technical courses.”
Scott Raskiewicz has worked as a counselor, coach, social worker, tennis instructor and, for 17 years, as a substitute teacher in St. Paul schools. He has worked with youth
for more than 40 years. He is also a writer and philosopher and the author of the book Economic Democracy: Ending the Corporate Domination of Our Lives. The oldest (and the only boy) in a family of seven children, he grew up in Grand Haven, Mich. Raskiewicz has lived in St. Paul for more than 20 years.
Raskiewicz believes there is only one challenge facing schools: “It is the same problem plaguing our nation: We have profoundly inhumane and antidemocratic economic and political systems supported by a corporate cartel that controls all major media.
“These systems concentrate wealth and power into the hands of the corporate and economic elite and their collaborators while harming poor, working and middle class American.”
He lists the school-achievement gap, overcrowded classrooms and “the obsession with standardized testing and technology,” the scapegoating of teachers, the lack of daily physical fitness and the arts in schools, declining levels of fitness and health among students and other problems as the result of an elite that doesn’t care about the majority of Americans.
“The first step in addressing this challenge is to recognize it. Then we must create a society that works for everyone,” he says. That would include full employment based on “cooperative and public utility economics,” a reduction of the work week to strengthen families and a Medicare-for-all health care system.
If elected, he would work to change the purpose of education “to prepare students to create and cooperate in a global community that lives in harmony with the natural world, a community where all people are valued and all human needs met.”
Jon Schumacher is married and the father of two SPPS graduates. He has lived in St. Paul since 1981 and resides in St. Anthony Park, District 12, where he works as executive
director of the Saint Anthony Park Community Foundation, a position he has held since 1999. For the past 23 years, he has served on school site councils and committees and helped to develop and fund a variety of programs for area elementary, middle and senior high schools. Schumacher first moved to the Twin Cities to be an actor and spent a number of years working at various theaters, including a two-year stint at the Brave New Workshop. He also made television and radio commercials as well as many corporate training videos.
His top three priorities if elected are:
“First, we need a process of disciplined inquiry to drive improvement.” The district needs to “find out what’s working and reprioritize our budget to support success starting at the classroom level,” he says.
“Second, we have to re-engage and rebuild trust among our school community,” he says. The school board needs “to actively engage families, students, educators and the broader community. It starts by developing a more open process for decision-making with timely presentation of pertinent data and details.”
Last, Schumacher lists adequate classroom support for students and teachers. “Having the necessary staff in place to meet all student needs is critical to creating successful and racially equitable learning environments. In addition, 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.”
“The achievement, or opportunity, gap” and school climate are areas that need to be addressed, he says. “The first step to overcoming the achievement gap is to acknowledge that the teacher-student relationship is the heart and soul of any successful learning experience. Teachers must be supplied with adequate training and support, as well as practical and implementable tools for the classroom. In addition, we need to recognize that parents or caregivers are the students’ first educators and we need to welcome them into our schools and engage them as true partners in the education of their children.
“We also need to ensure our curriculum includes an accurate and balanced reflection of all cultures 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. And we need more career and technical education opportunities provided so our students have multiple pathways to succeed.”
The state’s Department of Education should “find ways to better align our large standardized tests with our evolving understanding of what constitutes achievement. Our district’s vision for racial equity calls for culturally responsive assessment and I believe there is a sound case to be made that the MCAs contain content that might be unfamiliar or unfair to students of color, recent immigrant or students with learning disabilities.”
The one thing he would most like to change in the St. Paul school district is “the climate of our school communities, which goes back to my second priority. We can’t move forward together until we build a culture of trust and respect. That means better communication between all groups, more effective ways to gain feedback from all members of our school community and more inclusive collaboration on strategies for success.”
Mary Vanderwert has lived in St. Paul for 25 years. She raised three children as a single parent, an experience she says gives her an understanding of “how decisions are
made in families when there is limited time and even more limited resources and how important schools are to families in reaching their goals and dreams.” Vanderwert is a master gardener and has used her back yard to host fundraisers for the Family Place to support families experiencing homelessness. Vanderwert has a background in early childhood education and has worked with Head Start, served as director of childcare at Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, was the Minnesota Head Start state collaboration director for the Minnesota Department of Education, and served on the Governor’s Early Learning Council.
Vanderwert describes the top three challenges facing SPPS:
“We need to improve the culture of the schools to one that is collaborative, creative, supportive and exciting. We need a culture that values the contributions of staff and provides them a voice in decision-making.
“I believe learning happens within the context of relationship. 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. The systems in the schools need to support developing relationships. 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.
“Parents are critical to their children’s success. By providing a greater focus on support and family engagement our schools will be more successful. They need to be authentic partners in the decision making for their children and their schools.”
The thing she would change in the district is the “organizational culture.”
“We need a school board, staff, parents and administration that have a common vision for the direction of the schools and are willing to work together toward those goals,” she says. “While some school sites have really effective, positive cultures, it is inconsistent across the city. Culture comes from the leadership of an organization and we want one that is collaborative, creative, supportive and exciting. We need a culture that values the contributions of staff and provides them a voice in decision-making. With a healthy culture focused on the mission and with effective leadership, we can make SPPS the best school district in this country.”