At times I almost had to jog to keep up with Principal Billy Chan, a new kind of education leader in a hurry, as he hustled through the halls of St. Paul's Eastern Heights Elementary School.
Armed with a leather-bound IPad on one hip and a walkie-talkie on the other, Chan huddled with teams of teachers here, monitored classroom instruction there, showed off new technology (teaching computer coding to first-graders!) and the latest techniques to help special-ed students. Along the way he aggressively intervened to investigate and squash a little factional rivalry between a half-dozen boys in gym class.
All the while, Chan confidently talked about other big and immediate plans for improving his students' performance, including equipping hundreds of them with their own Google Chromebook tablets, better enabling teachers and parents to monitor individual daily progress toward academic proficiency.
I spent a nine-hour day with Chan recently as part of the "School Leader for a Day'' program sponsored by St. Paul Public Schools. Chan was there long before me and stayed much later, to help out with a new "Parent Academy," to help moms and dads do a better job of educating at home and to start planning post-secondary completion and careers for their children.
Emerging teams of leaders like Chan and his staff should inspire confidence in the direction of our city's public schools, from East Side to West Side to North End and all around our town. These are the schools
that educated my entire family and hundreds of thousands of productive Minnesotans for more than 150 years, and which continue to strive and perform.
Mike Anderson, executive director of the St. Paul Public Schools Foundation, says the energy at Eastern Heights is an example of the "rock-solid commitment by (Superintendent Valeria) Silva and the district leadership to exceptional neighborhood schools, to principals as academic leaders, and creating trusting relationships with teachers.''
More broadly, Chan and his team underscore a larger truth in Minnesota: Our often maligned public schools and teachers are not just coping, but in many places thriving, with extraordinary challenges. With a smaller share of our resources than they had 20 years ago, with a far costlier and poorer student body, test scores statewide are actually improving slightly overall.
An even more important reality is that the long-term economic health of our city and state are riding on new leaders like Billy Chan and his team. At a recent legislative hearing on the theme of "The World's Best Workforce,'' a parade of business leaders and economists emphasized that boosting higher education and training completion levels, and reducing the disturbing racial and economic disparities in student achievement, must begin to happen, pretty much now.
About 30 percent of kids under the age of 5 in Minnesota now are kids of color, compared with 3 percent over age of 85. Eastern Heights is exactly the kind of school where this gap-closing must happen. Chan ticks off his demographics with precision: 85 percent from families with incomes low enough to qualify for reduced or free lunch (and now breakfast in most schools), 34 percent African-American, 28 percent Asian, 15 percent Latino, 30 percent still learning English, 20 percent with a range of disabilities that qualify them for special education.
I know this Eastern Heights neighborhood fairly well because it's where my wife grew up, amid a white, working-class mix of second- and third-generation European immigrants, and who worked at union jobs at Hamms, or 3M, or Whirlpool, or for the railroad. Many of those great jobs are gone, and pay and benefits were generally much better than for the people who live in these homes now, and the corporate CEOs back then were paid a whole lot less.
In the here and now, this is the face of the new St. Paul, a dynamic brew of immigrants and low-income families of color, with a mother lode of unrealized human potential, too often described as a problem, and too often with resentment. We tend to forget that our immigrant ancestors from Sweden and Italy and Poland and Germany also were ELL (English Language Learners), and resented for that, and that an East Side elementary school a century ago nevertheless produced two U.S. Supreme Court justices from the same class. Warren Burger and Harry Blackmun later graduated from Johnson High School and Mechanic Arts High School, respectively. (A play about these two, "Courting Harry,'' is playing at the History Theater in St. Paul).
The team at Eastern Heights is showing progress that could generate similar greatness. In Chan's first year there, last year, test scores for math and reading jumped a few percentage points, and he points to data showing his students doing better than most others in the district. Several times during the day he emphasized that his background as a Navy enlisted man (jet engine mechanic) and his training for law enforcement in California (before coming to Minnesota to get a degree in sociology from Concordia University instilled a total teamwork mentality into his leadership style.
"It gets exhausting to constantly have to turn over your shoulder to see if you have followers ... We win and lose together as a team,'' he says.
Several teachers told me as I explored the school that Chan's emphasis on teamwork and collaboration was genuine, and producing results. One of them was Terry Meryhew, who sent me two pages of detailed narrative about how she works as an "intervention specialist'' with Chan and other teachers to apply speedy personal assistance for kids who are falling behind. Meryhew also is nurturing a group of gifted students, and the school is not just about remediation. "Several times a day, students stop me in the hall and ask if they can participate (in the advanced group)... it's been a great motivational tool.''
Another team member who praised the team spirit was LaQuietta Green, a teaching assistant, who also works with Boys and Girls Club, an out-of-school intervention program. "The key ingredient here is a family spirit and consistency," Green said. "There is a warmth, both compassion AND passion, and high expectations.''
Chan's parting words to me were to get more help and reinforcement. Fortunately, Twin Citians everywhere are coalescing as never before to turn the tide for equity in education. And the best example is Generation Next, a brand new metropolitan-wide student achievement coalition, supported by an impressive array of businesses and foundations and focused on comprehensive cradle-to-career investments and interventions to close these gaps.
It's a very big job with lots of pieces, and everybody needs to pitch in. We know if our children are housed better, if they can access health care and early childhood education, if they are supported by families and the larger village, and if expectations are high, they will grow up to preserve and improve our economic competitiveness.
"These kids can't wait for us,'' Chan said. "I can't close the achievement gap by myself, and we need lots of help from everybody."
Dane Smith is president of Growth and Justice, a St. Paul-based policy and research organization focused on broadening prosperity.