Sparks of a Vibrant Debate Fly at Minneapolis School Board Candidate Forum

October 27, 2016

At New Creation church in north Minneapolis, on October 26, an invigorated Minneapolis school board candidate forum took place.

The forum was hosted by NOC (Neighborhoods Organizing for Change), the faith-based group ISAIAH, and Minneapolis Rising, a very grassroots band of public school supporters (including me). Amber Jones, NOC’s education organizer, moderated the event. 

Amber Jones of NOC

Amber Jones of NOC

School board candidates Kimberly Caprini and Kerry Jo Felder, from District 2 in north Minneapolis, were there, along with District 4 candidates Bob Walser and incumbent Josh Reimnitz, Tracine Asberry and Ira Jourdain from District 6 in southwest Minneapolis, and Kim Ellison, citywide candidate. (Her opponent, Doug Mann, could not attend but did provide written answers to forum questions.)

Felder, Walser, Jourdain and Ellison have all been endorsed by both the DFL and the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers. Ellison, Asberry, Caprini and Reimnitz, in turn, were all recently endorsed by the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Before Jones took the mic, New Creations pastor, Paul Slack, who is also the head of ISAIAH, introduced the event. The forum’s theme was racial justice, which is the focus of ISAIAH’s work as well, and Slack reminded the audience of about 100 people that, “We still haven’t come to terms with our history of racism.” We see it everywhere, he said, in health care and criminal justice disparities. We can also see its “fatal consequences” on the streets, in the stories of people such as Philando Castile and others killed by police.

Slack then noted that “schools hold a unique and powerful promise…where Black lives matter and are sacred.” Our public schools have a “mission to nurture each and every child,” Slack continued, and he spoke of the need for the adequate distribution of resources to support such work. On that note, Slack said ISAIAH sees the pending Minneapolis Public Schools referendum renewal, which voters will support or shut down on November 8, as a “justice issue” worthy of support.

From there, Jones commanded the microphone, describing the event’s purpose as that of “non-partisan, voter education.” The candidates had been given questions to ponder in advance, but before each question was asked, a designated storyteller offered context by describing how the questions related to his or her own personal experiences with the Minneapolis Public Schools.

Special Education, Support Staff, and the Minneapolis Public Schools Budget

The first woman to speak, Shonda Allen, shared the story of her eighth grade daughter, who now attends a charter school in Minneapolis. Allen spoke of having to go through “two districts and three schools” before getting the proper diagnosis and Indvidualized Education Plan (IEP) that is now helping her daughter succeed.

Before that, Allen said they had to deal with “referrals for bad behavior,” along with bullying from peers and assumptions, from school staff, that her daughter was simply a “bad kid.” She asked the candidates about the school district’s budget, and how analyses of it often show that inadequate resources flow to special education students and the staff who work with them. 

Felder said she supported the full-service community schools model as a strategy, where school communities decide how resources should be spent. She also favored lobbying legislators for more resources “for our students.” Bob Walser also spoke of wanting to press the state legislature for more funding for public schools, which he says has been in decline for the last twelve years or so. He then pointed out that he’s been endorsed by every legislator in his district, allowing him to start building relationships that could pay off later.

Asberry said she was about “kids, kids, kids,” and spoke directly to Allen, apologizing on behalf of the district, saying “we failed.” “When you reached out, someone should have pulled you in,” Asberry told her, before speaking of not just leadership, but “love and leadership” as a strategy for better meeting the needs of students and families. Her rival, Ira Jourdain, said he related with Allen’s story, and had been through “culturally intimidating IEP meetings” regarding his own school-age children.

“I was asked if my daughter lives in a shelter,” he told the crowd, “because she was having trouble paying attention in school.” Jourdain said school staff “needs to be racially and socially aware,” and spoke of his preference for giving kids more recess and freedom to move, rather than special education diagnoses. Kim Ellison further connected with Allen, saying she had taught her daughter. Kimberly Caprini also said she had been under-served as a student, which drove her to get involved in her own kids’ education.

SROs: Yes or No?

Next, special education assistant Malcolm Wells took a turn at the podium, asking all the candidates about a hot issue: Do they support the use of School Resource Officers, or SROs, in the schools? SROs are police officers, and their presence in the nation’s public schools has come under greater scrutiny in recent years, as awareness of the burgeoning school-to-prison pipeline grows.

Wells works at Minneapolis’s Harrison Education Center, the district’s high school for students with high emotional and behavior needs. He told the tale of a SRO at Harrison whose gun was “unclipped” and thus a source of worry for students. After a prolonged, “intense” interaction between students and the SRO, Wells said the officer told students he would “see them in the streets.” Wells was choked with emotion as he relayed the story, saying the students he works with are “still processing” what happened to northside resident Jamar Clark in 2015.

As the candidates answered Wells’s question about whether or not they would support the continued use of SROs in Minneapolis schools, noticeable differences emerged. Bob Walser said he didn’t necessarily support the use of SROs, but knew that some Minneapolis school staff liked having them in their buildings. “I would respect a community that said they wanted it, and would defer to their judgment,” he said.

His opponent, Josh Reimnitz, said he had recently voted, along with most school board members, to renew the SROs contract for another year, but that his decision was based on “mistakes.” He didn’t listen closely enough to the school board’s student liaison, Shaadia Munye, and her concerns. But, he promised, he is prepared to “make up for it” by working students to “shift the policy for a year from now,” when, presumably, the SRO contract will again be up for renewal.

His counterpart on the board, Tracine Asberry, said she voted no on the SRO contract, and spoke out against the idea that “being brown and black is a crime.” Having police officers in the schools “creates an unsafe space,” she told the crowd, and then said it is a “problem that we can’t even imagine a non-violent crisis intervention.” Board member Kim Ellison said she voted for the SRO contract because “we don’t have any alternatives right now.” When situations are unsafe or escalating, the only “alternative…is to call 911,” according to Ellison, who stated that the district’s superintendent, Ed Graff, would be looking into the issue in the year ahead.

Caprini echoed Walser’s take on this issue, saying she would respect those schools that want to have SROs, even though she herself wasn’t entirely comfortable with the police (outside of north Minneapolis, she emphasized). Felder, on the other hand, said emphatically that she was not in favor of SROs because she “spent sixteen days and four nights” at the Minneapolis Police Department’s Fourth Precinct last year, after Jamar Clark was killed by an officer.

“We’ve been talking about this for years,” she said, but nothing has happened. If we need a presence in the hallways of schools, in order to keep kids on task, then let them be community members and hall monitors, there to support the students and connect with their home lives, Felder said.  Ira Jourdain said schools need the “right tools” in order to adequately implement restorative justice practices, which would then eliminate the need for SROs. He also spoke of students needing a “program to help them recognize cultural differences in each other,” in order to avoid physical confrontations.

More Teachers of Color?

Next, Kenya Womack, who works at north Minneapolis’s Bethune Elementary School, asked about teachers of color and how to increase their ranks in the district. Reimnitz spoke of “leveraging partnerships,” as with summer tutoring programs such as Learning Works, which puts college students of color in front of Minneapolis students. He also spoke of the importance of “switching licensure opportunities” in Minnesota, saying it is hard for people coming in to get a teacher’s license here.

Walser spoke of teachers needing more respect, so that the job is a desirable and manageable one. He also said “teachers of color are leaned on” more than white teachers, and positioned as the “cultural competency” experts. But do they get paid more? No, Walser answered, in unison with some audience members.  Asberry said the issue is one of “retention,” not recruitment, and said the “culture of the profession needs to change.” Teaching should not “just reflect white culture,” she said, before stating that “If we’re really about racial equity, we will mess with everything.”

Jourdain spoke about recruitment and retention, using Native American teacher training programs as an example. He thinks Minneapolis does not actively nor adequately recruit these teachers, who go on to work in neighboring districts. For teachers that do come to Minneapolis, Jourdain said they need more support during their first three years in the classroom, and said he felt they should not be “judged” by their students’ test scores.

Ellison said she agreed with the other candidates’ ideas, and supports programs that could inspire young people to go into the teaching profession. Felder spoke of recruiting now for future teachers at Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and mentioned that there had been a funding stream, part of the “Choice is Yours” program, for training teachers of color, but that the money has been misspent. 

Caprini also agreed with the other candidates on this issue, and said the real question could be about why teachers of color have left the district over the years. We need to do “exit interviews” for these teachers, and help get to the root of the problem, she said.

“Do we see our kids as individuals?”

At this point in the evening, two storytellers remained. One was former district principal Carol Markham Cousins, who spoke of working with a young man at Stadium View, the high school for students in the county juvenile detention centerHe went from there to Stillwater State Prison, and Markham Cousins kept meeting with him. He’s spent his “whole career in segregated schools,” she told the candidates, “where other students were equally traumatized” by being put in special education programs. “Do we see our kids as individuals?” Markham Cousins wondered. “Do we interrupt the path to prison for these students?” 

Jourdain answered first, speaking of how different student populations get different diagnoses. White students are more likely to be labeled as autistic, he said, while students of color tend to get slapped with an emotional-behavioral disorder diagnosis. He said he favored a solution that “does not cost a penny”: extending recess for students across the district. Jourdain said he is on the site council for Bancroft Elementary School, which voted to implement a thirty minute recess policy for this year. Instead of pegging kids as trouble makers, give them time to play, he said.

Asberry said that “the way we label kids is the responsibility of teachers.” She spoke out strongly against what she said were the “ten percent of teachers responsible for ninety percent” of the labeling that goes on in Minneapolis. In a dramatic turn, Asberry said “we need to talk about the ugliness of our teachers” if we are going to rectify the situation Markham Cousins described. She then said, “I am not against teachers” but that, as a board member, students have been her priority.

Ellison said students should not be concentrated in special education-only sites, like Harrison or the district’s River Bend Education Center. She also said leadership is important, and that she would hold Superintendent Ed Graff “accountable” for looking closely at this issue. Caprini said she would like to close Harrison down, and said “implicit bias is a problem” that leads to teachers to label kids as special education students. We need to hold teachers’ “feet to the fire,” she said, and help them feel safe doing the “equity work” necessary to make changes.

Felder said it is important to remember that the “district hires teachers,” and that perhaps we have an HR problem in Minneapolis. She also said the new teachers union president, Michelle Weise, has been active and vocal regarding equity and justice issue, and is a member of Latina and LGBTQ communities. Felder then recalled the past summer, when several high-profile HR cases were publicly aired in Minneapolis, after teachers and support staff felt punished for speaking up for students, staff and citizens of color.

Walser said he is on a “personal journey” to understand his own “bias as a white male,” and that, while there is no “magic bullet,” he believes strong relationships between teachers and students are key. Reimnitz said this is an “issue of adult behavior,” and referenced Asberry’s statement that a small percentage of Minneapolis teachers are responsible for the vast majority of special education labeling. He also said there is a need for more “engaging curriculum” for district students, and cited a positive example of this from Harrison.

Communication Breakdown

Finally, Brie Monahan, a district teacher who works with English language learners told a story of how the district’s Multilingual department has been undone in recent years. It was once “very strong,” she noted, and provided students, teachers and staff with a high level of support. Then, leadership changes were made and the whole department was restructured–with no explanation or community input, in her experience. Emails now go “unanswered,” she said, and a “student population that flourishes with support” is now at the whim of these changes.

Minneapolis has “habitually excluded students, staff and families from decision-making,” Monahan said, asking candidates how they would address this issue and encourage better community engagement. Asberry spoke of her vote during 2015’s Reading Horizons curriculum debacle, when she stayed in her seat during a board meeting protest, while most of her colleagues walked out. She also said she stood alongside Southwest High School students who organized a Racial Justice Day last spring. 

Jourdain said this was a “familiar” story, and connected it to the recent seemingly abrupt changes made to the district’s citywide autism program. Ellison said she will “push district staff not to make changes without input,” and said it is a “systemic problem” that the district needs to deal with. Felder echoed this idea, and spoke of her years working as an organizer, where she put together parent and community meetings in places like neighborhood parks. “I’ve done the work,” she told the crowd. “I know what it looks like.”

Her District 2 rival, Caprini, said the district’s “funding needs to be implemented as intended,” and put to use in ways that directly impact schools. She says she’s seen a lot of students lost to charter schools that make big promises, and that Minneapolis needs to do a better job of bringing these families back. Reimnitz, from District 4, said “communication problems are endemic” to the Minneapolis schools, and that he has spoken “explicitly” about this with Graff.

Reimnitz also referenced his preference for problems being solved “closest to where they occur,” and spoke of the new policy manual for the board he’s been working on. Walser said, for him, “focusing on communication and engagement is key.” He also brought up a recent Star Tribune article that described kindergarten as the “new first grade,” with teachers being pushed to assess their young students in standardized ways. Instead, he said he believes in teachers being given the freedom to know their students and families as individuals, and that “data gathering” should take a back seat to this more personalized approach.

But…How Will the Board Evaluate Itself?

By this point in the night, there was little time for audience questions, even though many had been turned in. A student in the audience had written out a question asking board members how they will “measure the success of the changes” they advocate for. Ellison said the district often “drops the ball on good ideas,” and that knowing why changes are being made and what the intended outcome is would be helpful.

Reimnitz said it should be measured through “student outcomes” and staff and student surveys, designed to gauge people’s satisfaction with district operations. Walser pointedly said, “I think you get to decide,” and said the district’s ability to attract and retain students will be an indication of whether or not the board and district are successful. Felder said she will know her actions are successful when “our schools are desegregated again,” due to quality programming that draws students in. Caprini spoke of the need to ask students for their ideas, and said she will “keep doing what she is doing,” as an active parent volunteer.

For Jourdain, a positive uptick in graduation rates for Native and African-American students would be a good sign, as would a decrease in suspension rates for these same student populations. Asberry said she has been “knocking on 40,000 registered voters’ doors” during her re-election campaign, and believes in having an “open dialogue” with students, families and staff.

The evening ended on a note of unity, with all candidates saying they would support a home visit program for the district, akin to what St. Paul offers through the national Parent-Teacher Home Visit project. Finally, seventeen-year old organizer, student and artist Harun Abukar read a poem he wrote, touching on a distaste for “spoon-fed, white-washed curriculum,” poverty being “tokenized,” and the need for board members and other decision-makers to “start listening to us.”

Need more info before election day? Check out NOC’s School Board Candidate Q & A.

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4 thoughts on “Sparks of a Vibrant Debate Fly at Minneapolis School Board Candidate Forum

  1. Valerie

    Fifty teachers quit the District last year (not including retirees), and one third of us are in our first three years of teaching and Tracine has this to say? — “we need to talk about the ugliness of our teachers.” This is no way to improve the morale of teachers and their students.

    Reply
  2. Karen Twyman

    It deeply saddens me to hear that so many of our potential (and current) board members are vilifying teachers for working through the process of providing special education support. It has long been my opinion that we need wrap-around services, especially in regards to mental health, for all of our students in this country. EBD is an Emotional Behavioral Disorder. In my opinion, the emotional facet it the core of the problem but the behavioral facet is the one the makes teaching the child in a mainstream setting the most challenging. Young people who’s emotional challenges impede their ability to manage their behavior need to be provided with therapy and skill building to help them heal and learn to advocate for themselves. That could mean the young person would benefit from a special setting temporarily while they are in a more intensive phase of their treatment.

    The point I am making is that condemning teachers for trying to support students who are struggling by enlisting the help of special education teachers makes no sense to me. As a general education teacher, I am not equipped to provide the sort of intensive work some of these kids need in order to thrive, and as our system currently stands, it is our special education system that is charged with that task. In my opinion, the entire system needs a huge overhaul. We need to be able to provide individualized educational plans to ALL of our students without having to jump through countless hoops. Every one of our students should be receiving any additional supports they require to succeed in school, such as mental health therapy, occupational therapy, and intensive academic and behavioral interventions.

    I know many readers might be saying, “That would cost too much.” Not so, see Finland as an example. They do many of the things I am suggesting and spend the same amount per student as we do. We can do this, folks, but we need to do this together as a community, and that’s not going to happen if we shame teachers and drive them out of the profession!

    Reply
  3. Tracine Asberry

    My comment was part of a broader response to the overidentification of students of color in special education.

    I noted that to achieve racial equity we need to examine all aspects of the system including the need for teachers to examine their own practices and attitudes for bias.

    We can’t talk about challenges of poverty, families, and the administrators, without reflecting on our own roles in perpetuating in an inequitable system. We become teachers to positively impact students’ lives and reflection and growth is a critical part of that.

    As an educator who spent 10 years teaching at a North Minneapolis middle school I have the utmost respect for the teaching profession. I also saw firsthand how low expectations and lack of cultural responsiveness impacted the lives of Black students.

    My phrasing was unfortunate – my point was that if we are truly about racial equity then we will be all in – and that means teachers have a responsibility to do the work to ensure we’re regarding, challenging, and nurturing all students equally in our classrooms.

    Reply

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