St. Paul leaders back contentious school reform planby Sasha Aslanian, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman is lending his political power to a plan to reform the city's public schools. Superintendent Valeria Silva wants to focus resources on neighborhood schools, in part by reducing citywide busing to magnet schools.
Coleman brought the city's political, educational and faith leaders together Tuesday morning for a sort of pep rally at a struggling East Side elementary school.
A student band from Farnsworth Aerospace welcomed visitors to Ames Sheridan Elementary School. Inside, the mayor and city leaders turned out to show support for the superintendent's plan -- which would divide the city into six attendance zones, restructure middle schools and standardize the curriculum across the district.
Mayor Coleman told students from Ames Sheridan, a school with 90 percent of its children on free or reduced lunch, that the city and the district would not fail them.
"We are strong, we are united, we are behind Superintendent Silva's plan," said Coleman.
Superintendent Silva didn't speak at the event. But afterward, she explained she's been trying to sell her plan for transforming schools to parents and the community for nearly two months.
"There's no plan that is perfect, and it will have time to evolve and develop because everything doesn't start tomorrow," Silva said. "We'll have time to improve and reroute and improve the education for all kids."
Some St. Paul parents say they haven't had time to understand all the implications of Silva's proposals. Amanda McCormick, mother of a pre-kindergartener, has signed a parent-led petition that calls for delaying the plan.
McCormick attended several information sessions, and says parents seem most upset about the idea of moving sixth graders into middle schools, and "managed instruction" -- where the district oversees the core educational functions across all schools.
McCormick also questions how the district is planning to grow its enrollment.
"They've got this idea that they're going to do a marketing plan, which sounds like they're going to bring in some consulting company to kind of advertise St. Paul Public Schools to people," she said. "But people don't choose schools like you choose a toaster oven."
McCormick says parents will choose schools based on how good they are.
One reason St. Paul is forced to make big changes is an increasing number of parents, especially low-income parents of color, have chosen not to send their children to district schools -- and the money has flowed out of the system with them. Enrollment in charter schools has nearly tripled in the last decade, many of them drawing students along racial or ethnic lines.
Re-segregation is a trend that concerns Myron Orfield of the Institute on Race and Poverty at the University of Minnesota Law School. Orfield considers St. Paul's return to neighborhood schools a step backward for desegregation.
"People in the east side of the city will over time have less access to the really good schools on the west side of the city, and it's going to have effects on neighborhood choice," said Orfield. "It won't be immediately apparent but they'll be there. They always are."
Orfield says this weakens cities and schools.
Jeffrey Martin, the new president of the St. Paul NAACP, says he's not sure about all the steps in the plan, but he's glad to hear the superintendent talking about equity for all students.
"I think this has been a system that has not been equitable across the district," said Martin. "I think that some schools were better funded. Some schools had more energetic and visionary leadership so those programs excelled and did very well. But what about the other 40 schools?"
The St. Paul NAACP was scheduled to decide Tuesday night whether to get on board with the plan. The St. Paul School board will vote on the new strategic plan on March 15.
- All Things Considered, 03/08/2011, 4:54 p.m.