After weeks of public discussion, the St. Paul School Board has approved a plan that will reconfigure several schools and overhaul busing operations.
It's a plan officials say will help close the district's achievement gap, in part, by re-focusing instruction on community, or neighborhood schools, instead of magnet schools that draw students from anywhere in the city.
The debate over superintendent Valeria Silva's reorganization plan has been going on earnestly since she released it two months ago, and it continued right up until the school board approved it following a final, two-hour public hearing Tuesday night.
Parent Paquo Xiong's told board members she supports the strategic plan because of its academic goals. The most notable of those is to have three-fourths of all St. Paul students proficient in reading and math within three years. Only about half are now.
Xiong said she's tired of seeing Hmong teens dropping out of college after discovering they've taken out loans to pay for remedial college courses that won't count toward a diploma.
“This plan is bringing us to a different place ... We do very well with many kids, but we also have areas we need to improve.”Valeria Silva, St. Paul Superintendent
"I want my son to have the same opportunity as a privileged white child who lives on Summit Avenue that, when they both enter college, they will both graduate and graduate into something great," Xiong said.
Another supporter was former school board member Marc Mandersheid, who heralded the vote as the most significant structural change for St. Paul Schools since the 1970s, when magnet schools were introduced to better racially balance school populations in a mostly-white district.
"The idea that a plan developed in 1972 for a very, very different St. Paul than the community we have today could still form the basis of our school district program makes no sense whatsoever," Mandersheid said.
Today, fewer than a quarter of St. Paul students are white. District leaders say their own demographic studies suggest it is no longer necessary to bus children across the city to attain an ethnic mix that already exists in each neighborhood.
Students now will live in one of six attendance areas and be encouraged to attend community schools in their area. More than a dozen magnet schools will become community schools and lose citywide busing, though several other citywide magnets will remain.
"This plan is bringing us to a different place," said Superintendent Valeria Silva. "We have an achievement gap and we have to own it. We do very well with many kids, but we also have areas we need to improve."
The move to eliminate some magnet schools and instate attendance areas has Jeff Martin, president of the St. Paul NAACP, worried the plan will increase segregation.
"With all the details of the plan not yet determined, we are unable to support the plan as presented," Martin said.
Martin's concerns were echoed by four Central High School students, who wore T-shirts reading "Don't Destroy Our Diversity" across the front.
Martin asked the board to delay the vote, but other African-American community leaders expressed support for the plan, including city councilman Melvin Carter, who represents both the Frogtown and Summit-University neighborhoods of St. Paul.
"The [ward] I represent is approximately one-third African-American, yet somehow I represent schools that are 90 percent African-American," Carter said. "I am very much looking forward to the day that we see schools that better reflect the diversity that exists in the communities of St. Paul."
Other speakers expressed worries about different facets of the plan. One major piece of the plan is to remove sixth grade from all elementary schools and put them into middle schools. St. Paul will now have K thru 5th and 6th thru 8th as a grade configuration, instead of K thru 6th and 7th thru 8th.
Amanda McCormick said she hadn't found any research that supported such a move for academic reasons and suggested parents might "vote with their feet" and leave the district as a result.
"There were no focus groups, there were no questionnaires, there were no community meetings before the plan was developed," McCormick said. "[The meetings] only happened when we were given it as a fixed plan."
In all, more than 60 people spoke Tuesday night, capping months of sometimes contentious meetings on the plan. There were no disturbances, but two uniformed police officers were on hand. Officials say Superintendent Valeria Silva recently had received what they called 'disrespectful' messages, though they didn't consider them threats.
As for the plan itself, the district did acknowledge that even with its passage, it's still short of some details. School board member Anne Carroll said that's one of the plan's positives because it will now force the community to stay involved and help find solutions.
"We are making some very bold and clear and courageous moves, but there is a lot of room for the continuing evolution of this plan. It's not fixed," Carroll said. "The big decisions are fixed, but we continue to shape it and grow it to respond to changing conditions."
Discussions over those remaining details may well be contentious, if the city's French immersion school, L'Etoile du Nord, provides any clue. Desiree Bergquist told the board that parents have received conflicting information on plans for the school, and that's divided parents into factions.
"No matter what side parents stand on, most seem to agree on this: We don't trust you," Bergquist said.
Silva indicated last night she's willing to explore with parents whether to expand the French immersion program through eighth grade, the program currently ends after sixth; that pleased parent Jennifer Ampulski.
"The fact that the district has stated they believe it's a viable option and they're committed to making it work for us -- if the parents want it -- I see as a very positive thing," Ampulski said.
But Lara Duddingston still doesn't like that French immersion students would be split among two buildings.
"The experts still point to the fact that an immersion location needs to be located in one building," Duddingston said.
The district will now start working on those finer points of the plan, but leaders also have a new task to address -- the budget. Even with an estimated savings of $10 million from the strategic plan, there's still a $19 million gap to fill before the new fiscal year starts in July.