‘We need to do better’ school board members told at listening session

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by Mike Knaak

editor@thenewsleaders.com

Since the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and a renewed focus on racial justice, the Sartell-St. Stephen school has taken two actions to address local concerns.

The board conducted a listening session June 24 to hear about how schools should address equity issues. On June 15, the district published a statement that emphasized “as a school district, we are committed to ensuring each child is part of a healthy, safe, engaged and supported environment.”

About two dozen people attended the listening session at the high school. Participants included students, parents, community members and teachers. About half of them shared experiencing racism; insensitive, hurtful comments about religion; and failed attempts to correct the problems.

Board members heard suggestions that centered on these areas:

  • hire an equity director and create an equity department to lead training and curriculum development. One speaker said Sartell-St. Stephen should work with St. Cloud and Sauk Rapids schools.
  • ongoing, required professional development for staff about how to recognize and understand racial injustice and how to handle it in the classroom.
  • a more diverse staff so students of color see people who look like them in leadership roles.

Several students of color said they were called racially offensive names, teased for their appearance or criticized for their religion. They also criticized how racist behavior was poorly handled in the classroom. “No one knows what to do,” one black student said.

“Awareness in our culture has pushed things forward in a good way,” board chair Jeremy Snoberger said before the meeting. “We always respect voices in our community, and this is a reality we need to address.”

Students of color make up less than 10 percent of the district’s enrollment. Not dealing with equity issues, several speakers said, is a disservice to white students because they will be entering a diverse word.

“They will go into a much more multi-cultural world than we have here,” Superintendent Jeff Schwiebert said in an interview last week. “How are we preparing all of our kids for a more diverse world?”

Several of the parents and students of color spoke about the high-quality education they receive but said the district is failing on diversity and inclusion.

One parent, who teaches in another district said, “Sartell is a leader in so many ways. This is an opportunity for Sartell to lead the way,” she said. “We need to be better.”

“Schools need to reflect their community but also “educate, train and equip students for the world they enter,” Snoberger said during an interview before the meeting. “We seek to be an active part of the community.”

Several speakers’ comments drew applause from the crowd and several speakers were brought to tears recounting painful experiences.

In planning the meeting, Schwiebert said the current discussion around racial equity could be a “momentous time. We don’t want to tell students what to think but explain issues to help them process the information” and be “well prepared citizens of the country.”

During the meeting, Snoberger moved among the speakers holding a microphone. The participants sat 6 feet apart on the high school commons Learning Stairs. Everyone was required to wear a mask. All six school board members sat on chairs in front of the room taking notes, and as planned, offered no comments during the session.

A video recording of the session is available on the school district website.

Toward the end of the meeting, Sartell Mayor Ryan Fitzthum spoke. “This isn’t a St. Cloud issue, this isn’t just a school issue. It’s a community issue. Don’t think it can’t happen here. Let’s get it done right and let’s get it done together.”

Future listening sessions on other topics are planned and Snoberger asked the crowd to suggest topics. Ideas  included economic issues, LGBTQ topics and how the city and school district work together.

The board has used listening sessions before as a means to guide policies and decisions. When an operating levy failed two years ago, the board hosted a series of sessions that helped shape a second levy question approved by voters last year.

Scheduling the listening session on equity followed an informal discussion at a board working session a few weeks ago. Snoberger said the board has talked about how to be more transparent. “Let’s start now,” he said.

The board has scheduled a work session for Wednesday, July 8, where board members would have a chance to discuss what they learn at the listening session. The July 8 meeting will begin with a closed session at 5:30 p.m. where the board with discuss Schwiebert’s evaluation. An open session will follow at about 6:30 or 7 p.m. The meeting will be at the District Service Center, 212 Third Ave. N.

photo by Mike Knaak
About two dozen people attended a listening session with the Sartell-St Stephen school board June 24 to discuss race and other diversity issues.

 

Author: Ellarry Prentice

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