On Willful Defiance, Power Plays and Valeria Silva’s Buy-Out

The Nearly-Million-Dollar Question the Superintendent’s Departure Begs: Who Owns St. Paul Public Schools?


Last fall I got a phone call from Nick Faber, who is the vice president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers. He wanted to talk about the union’s home-visiting initiative, in which pairs of teachers who have received special training visit their students’ homes.

The power struggle that ended last week with the school board’s decision to buy out Superintendent Valeria Silva’s contract was in full swing at the time. The federation was campaigning hard, under the guise of pursuing equity in the schools, for the pro-union board majority that just fired Silva. The home visiting project was Exhibit A.

Faber and I had a nice talk—he’s a swell, passionate guy–but I confess to being shocked. I don’t think he realized, but the story he wanted to tell me neatly illustrates the scope of the issues Silva was trying to address, as well as the adult resistance to change.

St. Paul Public Schools enrolls almost 38,000 students, more than 75 percent of them children of color or American Indian. Nearly one third are learning English. They are taught by 3,135 teachers, 83 percent of them white.

Race correlates tightly to poor outcomes in the district, and a trough of research supports the notion that implicit bias is at play in most of the problems that drive the disparities. Silva and her senior leaders in 2010 began work on a race-equity plan that has come, over the last year, to be blamed for everything from violence in schools to the budget crisis.

The most controversial of the changes Silva sought was the full inclusion of children of color, in particular black boys, in mainstream classrooms. Of particular concern was stopping suspensions sparked by “willful defiance” and other nonviolent behaviors.

The debate that’s raged since then about school climate has been incendiary and racist. Three months ago a school board meeting was brought to a halt by a clash between supporters and critics of a teacher Silva suspended after parents complained about his thinly fictionalized blog, which demonized students with names like Le’Vante, Jai’Sean and Meng “whoring trains” and fighting.

So does it surprise anyone that the same vocal segment of SPPS staff that didn’t understand why Theo Olson’s blog was racially incendiary was enraged by Silva’s approach to discipline?

Faber’s story: Since 2011, some 450 teachers had been trained to conduct home visits, for which they received continuing education credits. About 200 teachers were actively making home visits in pairs, for which they are paid. Last year, the total number of visits since the program’s inception passed 1,000.

During a 2014 evaluation of the program, 76 percent of teachers who responded to a survey reported that making the home visits changed their assumptions about their students’ parents. More than half said they had underestimated the obligations the parents were juggling.

“More than once,” one said, “I met with parents who were assumed to be disinterested or non-supportive and found that they were working multiple jobs and going to school themselves to provide for their children and give an example of hard work ethic.”

The most important component of the program, according to those surveyed? Participation is voluntary. Three-fourths valued having a partner on the visits.

To recap, then: Over the last five years, a little more than 6 percent of the teacher corps has been intrepid enough to visit their students’ homes—with reinforcements and for pay–and most of those that did were confronted by their own prejudice. This, I submit, speaks volumes about the present juncture.

And in fairness, Faber is right that teacher buy-in is crucial. And good on him for providing opportunities for teachers to glimpse their privilege on their own. But his members aren’t opting in to a culture change in significant numbers. Indeed, they are resisting like crazy.

Seen from 30,000 feet, the battle to unseat Silva is just the most visible front in a much larger war over who controls how schools are organized. It’s a long game, and it’s breathtakingly audacious. And it goes well beyond the hackneyed “reformers vs. traditionalists” narrative that has swept public education in recent years.

Silva did not do a few of the things that have put other urban superintendents in union crosshairs. She did not seek to authorize charter schools or to overhaul the length of the school day or year. She did not recruit Teach for America corps members. She did radically retool the ranks of the administration, which is now 39 percent people of color.

Nor are St. Paul’s teachers struggling. More than half make more than $75,000 a year, making them by far the best paid in the state. On top of the customary automatic step and lane increases, the contract the brand-new board members who just ousted Silva inked includes 4 percent raises–$21 million–over the next two years.

Because the federation also sought–and got—dozens of new jobs for its members over the last two contract cycles, so its membership ranks are flush. But these same gains increase the pressure on the district’s budget. Because these expenditures compound, the shortfall will go from $15 million this year to $24 million next.

The federation’s proposal for the latest contract went well beyond money. There was a proposal to allow teachers to petition to have episodes of discipline removed from their files after two years, to claim intellectual property rights to lessons, tests or anything they create, and to create behavior review committees that would decide who is right when there’s a difference of opinion about a student’s behavior.

And of course there are the restorative justice proposals the union demanded be included in the contract, to the tune of $150,000 per pilot program. Never mind that two years earlier, the federation rejected a district and community plan to create restorative practices system-wide.

Concerned about racial disparities in discipline, during the summer of 2013, SPPS leaders began working with the federation, the Minnesota Education Equity Partnership and several community organizations representing people of color. One of the first steps was to survey various stakeholders about their beliefs about discipline.

Teachers were twice as likely as administrators—at 66 percent and 33 percent, respectively–to say that discipline is necessary to communicate that choices have consequences. In other words, to punish. The only respondents who were more solidly punitive were the school resource officers—the police on contract to work in the schools. Asked about the disproportionality in suspensions of black students, every group but the teachers named race or discrimination.

The following summer—2014—the group created a list of actions that would be taken to curb disproportionate discipline. Restorative justice—a system built on positive behavioral supports–was on the list. In August, the five federation members who had been participating sent a letter saying they would not sign off on the document. They wanted bottom line behavior standards for students and rejected the notion that race was a central issue.

Until a year ago, anyhow, at which point school climate had become the community’s hottest flash point. The Caucus for Change, the federation-organized campaign to oust and replace incumbent board members who supported Silva, began organizing community members around restorative justice. And as of February, it’s in the teachers’ contract—never mind the belief set the district survey revealed.

The good news, then, is that restorative justice is now coming to St. Paul schools. The open question is whether the culture is truly invested in using it.



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