by Mike Knaak
Sartell-St. Stephen school board members offered somber and serious reactions to the June 24 listening session on education equity during a work session July 8.
“When I left that night, I was embarrassed that this was going on in our district,” board member Lesa Kramer said. “Our community does not deserve excuses why something hasn’t been done. I want to make sure we’re committed to move forward.”
During that June 24 session, board members heard from students, parents, community members and teachers who shared experiences of racism, insensitive, hurtful comments about religion, and failed attempts to correct the problems.
The board members discussed a range of solutions and how to move forward.
“I found it heart-wrenching to hear from students and parents,” board member Pat Marushin said. He described the comments as “profoundly disappointing. Every student deserves a safe and supportive environment.”
Because the board’s meeting was a work session, they could not vote on any actions, but the members did offer short- and long-term ideas. The board’s next formal session is on July 20.
Board members focused on the need for continuing professional development for teachers and staff on how to handle racist or other hurtful comments in the classroom. Board member Amanda Byrd said those comments can’t be ignored. “Part of your job is to make sure all kids feel safe,” Byrd said. “It’s not an optional part of your job anymore.”
The board asked Superintendent Jeff Schwiebert to bring back together a multicultural group started four years that hasn’t met in a year.
At the June 24 listening session, Mayor Ryan Fitzthum spoke about racism being a community problem and wants to work jointly with the schools. Board members strongly supported a community effort that goes beyond the classroom.
Board Chair Jeremy Snoberger, Board Member Jason Nies and Schwiebert met with a representative of Equity Alliance MN, an organization that works with school districts to audit and create a plan addressing equity issues. The group is led by Sebastian Witherspoon, former equity director in the St. Cloud school district. The board invited Equity Alliance MN to present a plan at the July 20 meeting. An audit by the group would include visits to every classroom, focus groups with students, staff and parents as well as a analysis of the district’s testing and discipline data. The audit take three or four months and then district would receive a multi-year plan to address the findings.
About a dozen people attended the work session, many of them people who spoke at the listening session.
Board members agreed that action responding to the listening session discussion is needed but also expressed a desire to be “purposeful and deliberate,” Kremer said.
“I walked away (from the listening session) with hope and that there’s no disagreement that we haven’t done as good a job as we should have or that our kids deserve,” Nies said. “It’s a chance for us to lead. I left sad but at the same time very hopeful.”
The board also discussed preparations for opening schools during the Covid-19 pandemic. While all schools wait for guidelines from the state that are expected the week of July 27, Schwiebert said teams will be meeting starting next week to plan how the schools would operate under three scenarios. The Minnesota Department of Education directed plans for three options: in-person learning for all students with social distancing; a hybrid lan with strict social distancing and capacity limits; and distance learning for all students.