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St. Paul Public Schools has plan to better engage with parents

November 13, 2018

St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS) is aiming to boost community engagement and to be more responsive to parents, especially those in its Parent Advisory Councils, when they weigh in with concerns.

School board members discussed the subject last week after being hammered in recent months by the Coalition of Asian American Leaders (CAAL) for allegedly neglecting the needs of Asian students — the district’s largest constituency.

Superintendent Joe Gothard is making “robust community engagement” one of the pillars of a new strategic plan, SPPS Achieves, to be detailed in December.

He also is taking CAAL’s calls seriously. Last month, Gothard appeared on 3 Hmong TV to talk about the district’s request for more operating money — approved overwhelmingly by voters last Tuesday — and he has agreed to expand busing citywide to two schools that specialize in Hmong language and culture.

“This is an important step to support Hmong language by building on the assets that currently exist in SPPS,” TC Duong, program and policy manager for CAAL, told school board members recently in response to the move.

Some parents, however, have expressed frustration with the lack of feedback they get after sharing ideas with the district about how to improve services to their communities.

Board Member Marny Xiong said last week she has heard a consistent message from parents: “They don’t know where their recommendations are,” she said.

Each year, the school board hears reports from the district’s Latino and American Indian councils. But it has not received recommendations from other groups, including those representing Somali, Hmong, Karen, black and special education students and families, since March 2017. A summary of ideas presented then was the subject of last Tuesday’s board discussion.

Among those topping the list are the need for a curriculum that better reflects the district’s diverse student population plus the hiring and retaining of more bilingual staff members and people of color.

Lynn Shellenberger, co-chairwoman of the Special Education Advisory Council, said she had to threaten to sue the district before it agreed to provide her son — a Spanish immersion student — with the services of a Spanish-speaking aide as part of his Individualized Education Plan (IEP).

But she also had good things to say about teaming with the district a year ago to rewrite its IEP policy.

“It wasn’t a secret that we got a lot of stuff done,” Shellenberger said of her group’s work with former special education director, Gail Ghere, who filled the role on an interim basis and then retired after not getting the permanent job.

At last week’s school board committee meeting, board members spoke of the value of connecting with families and community members. Board Member Jon Schumacher said he went recently with colleagues Mary Vanderwert and Jeanelle Foster to Highwood Hills Elementary to meet with Somali parents. He believes more of that kind of outreach could be helpful to the parent councils.

“They were real good conversations,” he said.

Xiong asked the toughest questions. She said that in addition to people being frustrated about their recommendations going unanswered, “the other comment is they just don’t want to serve as a rubber stamp.”

While CAAL is encouraged that Gothard plans to address some of its concerns in his new strategic plan, it also says the district must be accountable to the community in a more transparent way.

“There has been a history of quietly ignoring this community, and this cannot be the usual ‘trust us’ approach,” Duong told the school board in October.

Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109

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