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St. Paul superintendent’s spirit symbolizes urban school revival

Date Published: 12/15/2011

Author: Dane Smith, President


As a reading tutor for a couple of bright-eyed, hungry-to-learn elementary children – a Hmong girl and a Somali boy who attend my neighborhood St. Paul School – I am relearning firsthand the enormous value of our state’s second-largest school district and the powerful good it does every day for its 39,000 students.

And as a grateful taxpayer and citizen, I’ll be a zealous advocate for both the district’s enrollment drive and its 2012 levy referendum campaign, built around the new theme “One Thing I Love About St. Paul Public Schools.” Parents and community members have been encouraged to submit their “one thing,” and more, on postcards or online (visit www.spps.org, click on “About Us” and select “One Thing I Love”).

There’s actually a lot to love these days.

At her State of the District speech at the Como Park Pavilion last week, the district’s always ebullient superintendent, Valeria Silva, gave community leaders an overview of the district’s encouraging progress on average test scores, graduation rates and college readiness.

Among key measures of progress: White children in St. Paul schools and those who are learning English are doing better on reading and math proficiency than their counterparts statewide. The district recorded a 4 percent gain on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments for reading, the largest gain since 2008, with 25 schools in the district posting gains of 5 percent or more, Silva said.

“We are helping students excel no matter where their starting point is,” she said. “Whether they are coming to us from Mac-Groveland or Myanmar, we can reach them and connect them to learning that is challenging, meaningful and relevant.”

Silva attributed the gains in part to investments from a previous referendum for an early childhood education program that now serves more than 1,000 4-year-olds and that increased “alphabet knowledge” for pre-K students to 82 percent.

Other factors that portend sustained success include a recent reorganization and realignment based on the reality that students of color were doing as well in community schools as they were in magnet schools (which were designed years ago to foster greater integration within the district). Silva noted that St. Paul’s neighborhood schools are more “naturally integrated” than in most other cities.

And she attributed part of the recent progress to a team effort by her administration and the school board to improve the alignment and coordination of all the district’s various initiatives, to focus more intensely on high-quality and rigorous instruction, and in general to a make a stronger commitment to racial equity. Silva shared credit with several local foundations, including the St. Paul Foundation, the F. R. Bigelow Foundation, the Travelers Foundation and the St. Paul Public Schools Foundation, which coordinates my tutoring program.
Two other things to love in the district’s cradle-to-career investment strategy are the new initiatives around out-of-school time and the emphasis on post-secondary attainment.

All children spend most of their waking hours outside the school building, and the Sprockets program is one of the most creative and collaborative efforts in Minnesota to use those hours in constructive ways. The district and the city government, under education-zealot Mayor Chris Coleman, along with a host of other nonprofit youth-serving organizations, have been working on linking and even transporting children to hundreds of activities, from computer gaming to holiday pageants to rec-league sports.

Meanwhile, few districts in Minnesota are doing more to expand student horizons toward the real goal line of education policy in our state: post-secondary completion and a launch toward a rewarding career. The district’s college readiness brochures and Web pages direct families to a wealth of resources that help them start planning and thinking about college options.

Parochial as I am about my own city’s obvious superiority and civic health, this kind of success in the face of enormous adversity is actually happening all across urban America. Public schools have been under relentless attack for more than 30 years from anti-government, anti-tax, anti-integration and anti-democratic forces who have undermined public confidence in the beleaguered systems, while pushing laws and policies that have worsened the economic status of middle- and lower-income families who send their children to those schools.

And through it all, despite increases in the percentage of students who are poor or distressed, many of the nation’s urban and public schools have managed to improve test scores. The overall improvement is slight, not good enough. Scores need to improve at a faster rate. But it is improvement. A recent article in the authoritative Education Week magazine notes that since the early 2000s, nearly all of the big-city districts that have participated in the Trial Urban District Assessment program have recorded gains in reading and math scores.

In her inspiring book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System,” author Diane Ravitch, a former top adviser to President George W. Bush who has evolved toward a more progressive approach to education policy, prescribes a philosophy and strategy for revival based in part on ample funding and resources for our neediest students.

“Our schools cannot be improved by those who say that money doesn’t matter,” Ravitch wrote. “If we are serious about narrowing and closing the achievement gap, then we will make sure that the schools attended by our neediest students have well-educated teachers, small classes, beautiful facilities, and a curriculum rich in the arts and sciences. Our schools cannot be improved if we ignore the disadvantages associated with poverty that affect children’s ability to learn.”

We are blessed in St. Paul to have community and business leaders who get this truth. One of them is Scott Burns, an up-and-coming St. Paul business leader and owner of a technology firm in downtown St. Paul, who summed up the momentum at the State of the District event with a salute to community leadership that “could have succumbed to cynicism. But we’ve chosen to rally around our schools.”


A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, December 15, 2011.

Dane Smith is the president of Growth & Justice, a progressive public policy organization that promotes statewide economic growth for Minnesota through smarter public investments in human capital and infrastructure.

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