St. Paul school board candidates chat at roundtable discussion

The League of Women Voters St. Paul held a Sept. 18 roundtable discussion with St. Paul Public School board candidates at the East Side Freedom Library. 

Nine of the 10 candidates participated, traveling between nine groups of participants to spend seven minutes with each group answering questions about their candidacy. 

The candidates at the event were Chauntyll Allen, Charlie Castro, incumbent Zuki Ellis, Tiffany Fearing, Jessica Kopp, incumbent Steve Marchese, Jennifer McPherson, Omar Syed and Ryan Williams. Candidate Elijah Norris-Holliday did not attend the discussion.

Board members are elected at-large in the district and four seats are up for election this fall.

Many of the candidates prioritized similar issues — disparities in academics and discipline, having teachers and classes that better represent the diversity and learning styles of students and getting the community more involved with schools and the school board.

While the candidates rotated between the groups of anywhere from five to seven visitors, the responses in this article are based off their answers to a single group.

 

Diversity, trauma and community connections

One of the most commonly shared priorities among the candidates was the need for more teachers to represent both the diversity of the demographics of the school district, as well as the various learning styles of students.

“It’s not the kids, it’s the system,” said Kopp. “It’s not set up for all students to be successful.” She said she’d like to support various types of learning, not just having students sit at desks all day long. 

Syed and Castro, along with most of the other candidates, said some of their top priorities are working on ways to attract more teachers of color to reflect the diversity of students. Castro said she’d like to work with higher learning institutions to create programs to attract teachers to St. Paul Public Schools. 

Fearing said she’d like to make sure that a variety of classes, like tech classes, are supported by the district to give students a variety of subjects to keep them interested in school, a goal McPherson echoed.

One parent, who said she came to the U.S. from Somalia, asked multiple candidates what they could do to make sure educators were better trained on understanding the diversity of cultures in schools. 

Ellis said in her first four years on the board she’s been trying to work on policies regarding cultural training. She said if she were re-elected, she’d like to get involved in the school board’s policy workgroup to review the school district’s racial equity policies and to open that workgroup to parents and community members. 

Marchese, who is also finishing up his first term on the school board, said the district’s new strategic plan includes goals of addressing racism.

“These issues will not be fixed with just goodwill, it will take focus and resources,” he said. 

Allen said one of her top priorities if elected would be to have paraprofessionals in schools trained in understanding urban trauma, caused, for example, by kids experiencing crime in their neighborhood, and teaching kids how to work through it.

She said such trauma is preventing students from being able to pay attention in class and learn, “Because they’re being clouded by what they are seeing in the streets.”

Allen added that she’d also prioritize adding more cultural and ethnic studies classes that teach about the history and cultures of the student body. 

For McPherson, bullying and the trauma caused by it are her top priorities if elected. She said it’s not just student bullying, but bullying between staff, as well, that she’d want to address.

“It’s abuse,” she said. 

 

Communication

Many of the candidates also shared concerns over communication between the district, families and community.

For Williams, he said his top priority is making sure that when kids are restrained for behavioral issues that it’s properly documented to know the demographics of who is being restrained, how often and whether it was necessary. 

“We need to see what’s going on with restraints,” he said. 

Kopp said one of her priorities is improving communications between the district and communities and making it easier to find information on the district’s websites. She added she’d like to make sure the information is translated into more languages. 

She said she’d also like to see more partnerships between schools and the community, adding “school isn’t singular from community.” 

Both Kopp and Allen said they’d support having more school buildings in the district that would serve as full-service community schools, meaning they would include services for the whole family like health care, access to social services, after-school programs or early childhood programs. 

Election Day is Nov. 5.

 

–Marjorie Otto can be reached at 651-748-7816 or at eastside@lillienews.com.

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