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The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped everything we thought we once knew about educational delivery and the classroom experience. The extended period of distance learning that SPPS students have endured over the last year has only strengthened the importance of social interaction within holistic and well-rounded pedagogical approaches. As we are amidst having now transitioned to fully in-person learning (accompanied by the new permanent online school option that the district launched at the beginning of this school year), it’s essential that there’s ongoing debriefing and analyzing of the “lessons learned” during the pandemic and translating those into better support for student and teachers. In regards to returning back to "normal", my top priorities include: centering the health and safety of students/staff/educators, adjusting evaluation expectations of students who were disproportionately targeted by learning disparities exasperated by the pandemic, and targeted investments in school support staff who play crucial roles in building operations and student support. Due to the pandemic, students, educators, and families are facing unprecedented levels of trauma. It's extremely important for that to be a constant reminder and held as a central reality for district policymakers.
Currently under consideration by the school board, the Envision SPPS initiative is focused on aligning district resources, programs, and facilities to provide all students in SPPS with a well-rounded education. The district's definition of a well-rounded education can be found halfway down on the homepage of the Envision SPPS webpage.
As a prospective school board member, I very much understand the reality of needing to ensure strong fiscal accountability and stewardship of our district's limited resources. The articulated reasons the district started the Envision SPPS initiative I believe are reasonable. There has been extensive advocacy over the years by parents, students, and other invested parties surrounding the idea of well-rounded education and providing students at *all* schools in the district with the enrichment activities and resources they deserve. However, at the outset, I have significant process and engagement concerns with the overall initiative. Closing/combining/merging schools is a very raw and traumatic process for families, staff, students, neighborhoods, and communities. The way the recommendations were rolled out (click here to view my overview and reactions to the October 11th school board meeting where the recommendations were presented) and the parallel concerns and governance process confusion relayed by current school board members in real time deeply troubles me.
I believe a bold initiative like Envision SPPS is necessary to stop the declining enrollment crisis that continues to plague the district. However, as legitimate engagement and process feedback continues to mount as community members are starting to hear about and digest the recommendations coming from the district, I am supportive of a timeline adjustment to ensure there is adequate time and space for impacted communities to authentically engage with and be heard about the various recommendations on the table. Ideally, this would also allow for a more transparent and streamlined governance process at the school board level regarding the final votes and decision-making pathway. The school board's role amidst such a significant initiative needs to center accountability, long-term stewardship, and demanding district administration gather authentic community input.
In regards to the recommendations themselves, I share a lot of similar questions that current school board members have been asking in the public meetings. Including, but not limited to: how do these recommendations get at the core of disrupting systemic inequities in our historically underinvested schools? Have we talked to the families at potentially impacted schools to see if the recommendations are approved, if they're actually going to follow the district's recommended pathway on where to enroll their student? Why do we still not have comprehensive (and extremely valuable) information from families that are leaving the district on why they're leaving?
As the Envision SPPS plan currently stands, I would vote no.
I will be paying close attention to upcoming school board meetings on the subject and plan to attend as many of the community engagement/listening sessions as possible. I am very eager to hear what comes out of the school community listening sessions. That information/qualitative data is is a critical part of this transformative work.
Critical Ethnic Studies: I fully support the critical ethnic studies course (currently being piloted in three SPPS high schools) along with the upcoming benchmark that critical ethnic studies will become a graduate requirement for all SPPS students.
I served on the SPPS Multicultural Ethnic Studies Stakeholder Group and am now serving on the Critical Ethnic Studies Steering Committee which is continuing work on implementation and evaluation of the pilot critical ethnic studies course. I'm honored to be able to take part in this work alongside some amazing and invested community members, subject area experts, current SPPS students, and alumni. Students have been asking for increased culturally relevant curriculum for far too long. As a multiracial former SPPS student, I am very committed to the district making strong investments to ensure our curriculum is responsive and reflective of the students we serve.
Declining Enrollment: SPPS is facing an enrollment crisis. Uncertainty surrounding enrollment has only increased due to an extended period of distance learning and other disruptions to educational delivery due to to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In 2018 (pre COVID-19), total enrollment had declined in seven out of the ten prior years. Ongoing programmatic evaluation, examination of building capacity (also in line with a holistic review of the Facilities Master Plan), and the elements of Superintendent Gothard's strategic plan tied to enrollment and family retention must be analyzed and evaluated on an ongoing basis in order to reverse the trend of declining enrollment as soon as possible. The district simply can't sustain continued decreases in enrollment and it's going to take a comprehensive approach to reverse this trend (see the Envision SPPS section above for more on this/related commentary).
Charter Schools: the rapid growth of charter schools in Saint Paul is something that I believe in carefully studying and learning more about, especially the impact of that growth on Saint Paul Public Schools. With the City of Saint Paul in discussions on issues such as policies and procedures surrounding the issuance of conduit bonds to charter schools and requiring conditional use permits for charter school expansion, I strongly support the creation of a joint task force between Saint Paul Public Schools, the City of Saint Paul, Saint Paul Federation of Educators, and other relevant stakeholders in an effort to approach this important topic in a coordinated, collaborative fashion. I'm open to a moratorium on new charter schools and expansion of existing charter schools in Saint Paul being a part of the comprehensive solution that needs to be developed for our city and school district.
Supporting Educators: as the son of two longtime public school teachers, I've grown up hearing stories around the dinner table about the highs, lows, and everything in between of teaching. It's on each and every one of us to improve outcomes and educational experiences for children. Teachers need consistent and demonstrated affirmation that the district has their back. Through thoughtful and collaborative visioning and strategic planning, we must continue to support our hardworking SPPS educators with adequate resources and meaningful professional development opportunities, just to name a few examples.
School Resource Officers (SROs): following the decision to remove SROs from district high schools, there must continue be an inclusive, transparent, and equity centric implementation and evaluation process of a new SPPS school safety plan with buy in from all building and community stakeholders. Having a holistic approach to building safety is a good thing and purposeful evaluation and adjustments as needed is a core part of that.
Gender Equity and Inclusion: as a school board member, I will be 100% committed to centering the voices of our most marginalized and underrepresented students in policymaking. I'm proud of Saint Paul Public School's Gender Inclusion Policy which ensures that "all students have equitable access to safe and comfortable programming, athletics and facilities". As a large institution/organization, just because a strong policy exists doesn't mean the work is over. From issues such as comprehensive and inclusive sexual education to ensuring that all district renovation projects involving bathrooms prioritize the addition of gender inclusive bathrooms, I will consistently evaluate policies, procedures, and other decisions in front of the board with a lens that keeps equity for the LGBTQ+ community in the forefront.
Legislative Lobbying: especially in light of changing operational models due to COVID-19, we must strive to ensure that fully funded public education is a cornerstone of our society. The trend of educators spending hundreds of dollars of their own money on classroom supplies and materials must come to an end. Devoting time and energy alongside school districts across the state towards lobbying the state legislature for fully funded public schools will be a top priority of my school board service.
Racism and Inequity: in order to achieve racially equitable schools, we must all be willing to have open, honest, and sometimes uncomfortable conversations about the intersections of race, bias, and privilege. There’s a lot of work to be done, especially in the coming months/years where school boards across the country will be faced with unique opportunities to be partners in the reshaping of education as we know it. Disrupting and dismantling racism and deeply ingrained systemic inequities must be at the forefront of ongoing conversations.
Unsheltered Youth: there are 2000+ unsheltered/unaccompanied youth in Saint Paul Public Schools annually, the large majority of which are BIPOC. Homelessness has a significant negative impact on a child’s ability to perform academically or access any school based services. As a school board member, I will actively re-initiate and strengthen the district's participation in conversations in partnership with SPPS Project REACH and the variety of other community stakeholders who’ve come together to advocate on this issue. The district should be taking a lead in ending this crisis that impacts far too many students annually.
Accountability and Transparency: I expect to be held accountable by the SPPS community to ask hard questions, always prepare before every board meeting, and be accessible and responsive at all times, especially during times that are often most convenient for families and community members (nights, weekends, etc).
Strategic Planning: there needs to be measurable short and long term goals from the strategic plan that are regularly reported on during school board meetings. A core responsibility of a governing board is working with staff/administration to build a strategic plan and then diligently monitoring and benchmarking progress and implementation.
Broadening Community Input: investigate reforming the committee structure of the board in order to increase transparency, accountability, engagement, and participation by board members and the community on important topics. Example: Minneapolis Public Schools
SPPS Budget and Finance Advisory Committee (BFAC): I strongly support the immediate re-implementation of BFAC which advises the Superintendent and his team on district budget priorities and decisions.
External Engagement: I'm not afraid to be part of making difficult decisions and then put in the work to fully communicate and explain those decisions in a transparent manner via social media and other external methods of communication. Governance can be an inaccessible and confusing process to many, so I will always be willing to sit down with anyone at any time to talk through a particular board agenda item or action.
Systems Analysis: many direct stakeholders of the district do not feel listened to or heard. I would also like to see an analysis/survey of the membership of the established district PACs to get a sense of participatory effectiveness and where we can work to strengthen authentic and representational channels of community input and community engagement.
Community Partnerships: it takes a village to raise a child. Robust community partnerships are key to supporting and sustaining strong local public schools. A major priority for me as a school board member will be to serve as a connector between school communities and their elected representatives, local organizers, and other focal points for resources and supports for students and teachers. When schools are lifted up and supported by their surrounding community, it's a win-win for all.
Re-Examining Engagement and Participation: research and benchmarking methods of community engagement and participation utilized by other school districts. Utilizing the results of the benchmarking and research, I'd like to see the implementation of a revised advisory committee/PAC structure that increases authentic community engagement and consultation in district level decision making. Example: Fairfax County Public Schools