St. Paul School Board Candidate Questionnaire: Mary Vanderwert
Mary Vanderwert is running for St. Paul School Board. Learn more about her at https://www.maryvforstpaulkids.com
How do you understand the school-to-prison pipeline, and how will you work to eradicate it?
This speaks to the way we treat our children of color and especially our African American children. Too often our expectations are low and our environments promote behaviors that reflect poorly on them. Preconceived notions about their future are prophecies fulfilled.
Name a book, movie, individual or experience that has most influenced your understanding and orientation on the school to prison pipeline or youth justice? How did it affect your analysis and work?
The Minds of Boys by Michael Gurian, The New Jim Crow and White Fragility have all contributed mightily to my understanding of our discriminatory systems and implicit bias. I have a better understanding of how we established environments that promote failure for too many youth.
Saint Paul Public Schools employs police officers/school resource officers (SROs) to work in several of its buildings. What is your position on the role of police in schools, and the cost of this service to the school district?
I have talked at length with our St. Paul SROs about their role. They tell me that students use them to help with issues outside of school that involve abuse or domestic violence. They are a pipeline that help prevent gang or other violent activities outside of school. They also have a unique way of defusing conflict in our schools and redirecting students to more positive productive behavior. Their knowledge of the systems are useful in helping teens realize the consequences of their actions and allow them the opportunity to make a better choice. I value the role of SROs in our school district, and see them as a positive force for our communities’ kids. I feel it’s important to find ways to maximize collaboration between our schools and the SPPD in order to help reduce costs for the school district.
Over the last three decades, spending on corrections in Minnesota has outpaced spending on K-12 education by nearly three times. Budgets are moral documents that express priorities and commitments. How will you use your position to advance investments in education instead of incarceration and systems of punishment and control?
I am working on the plan for a system that will allow all 3 and 4 year olds in our city access to high quality early childhood education. High quality programs have well trained teachers who are supported with mental health, health and other supports and have an intentional and effective way to support families with the information, social networks and advocacy skills to manage their homes and families in a way that promotes healthy development for children. This is expensive but is an investment that can pay off mightily in savings in the criminal justice system, health, and special education. This plan could be a huge step forward in improving St. Paul for our children. Work on SPPS Achieves includes improving the culture of our schools to one of inclusion, continuous improvement and joy in learning including social emotional learning. Skills in managing emotions, developing relationships and enthusiasm in learning will go a long way to ensuring a healthy, productive future for our children.
The most recent data available show that black students are 8 times more likely to be suspended than white students in St. Paul Public Schools, and that the use of suspensions has been increasing in recent years. Students of color, especially black students, are overwhelmingly more likely to be pushed out of learning through exclusionary discipline practices. How will you address the alarming and growing disparities in the use of punitive and exclusionary discipline policies?
SPPS Achieves, the latest strategic plan, includes the use of an evidence based social skills curriculum in the elementary and middle school classrooms. This curriculum, implemented with fidelity will help our students solve problems appropriately and reduce the need for suspensions. We have invested in more mental health professionals and social workers in our schools that can work individually in schools. Our investment in learning leads will also be a way to help teachers strategize better ways for classroom management that will help students regulate. We are working in each school on ways that will find ways to help students and staff understand that behavior has meaning and when we know what children are telling us, we can find ways to eliminate the need to communicate in ways that result in suspensions. Again, work with families when their children are young will prepare them to be more successful in schools and genuine partners with SPPS staff to support their children’s healthy choices.
How will you work to support the leadership of youth in co-creating their learning pathways, especially youth who are not traditionally supported in leadership roles?
Our work on positive school climates will provide opportunities for students to exercise their leadership and problem solving skills. This work involves helping all staff to understand their own implicit bias and understanding of culture so they can help children develop leadership skills that are positive.
What is your vision for meaningful engagement of youth and families in school buildings, and the district, to make sure all have a sense of ownership in what happens in schools and the district?
I know I am a broken record — I really believe work with families and children in preschool will address this issue. When parents’ stress level is lowered and their advocacy for their children increases, they can be involved in their schools. Home visits, opportunities to build social networks, information about child development and a welcoming environment in each of our schools will go a long way to enhance the engagement of both youth and families.
In the spring of 2018, all school board members approved a controversial data sharing “Joint Powers Agreement” that created a legal structure to share data and apply predictive analytics to flag youth “at risk” of delinquency. Due to community advocacy, that legal agreement has been dissolved. Yet Ramsey County, St. Paul Public Schools, and the city of St. Paul continue to push for data sharing. What is your position on that Joint Powers Agreement, data sharing, and predictive analytics? How will you work to ensure that sensitive family and youth data are protected, and that families and youth are partners in any collaboration around data or services?
I appreciate the effort that went into the development of the data sharing agreement and agree that we must find ways to intervene early when children are demonstrating a need for help. The plan was designed to do that. The use of the data for prediction through an outside agency compromised the plan and we need to go back to the drawing board to find ways to work together to ensure families are getting the support they need to grow strong, resilient, successful children. Minnesota data privacy laws are among the strongest in the nation and SPPS is diligent in protecting the data privacy of all of our students. This will continue with a sharing agreement or not.
Students in the district bring a range of experiences, strengths and challenges from their homes and communities with them into schools. How can our schools build upon youth and family strengths, and reduce the impacts associated with adversities?
Family support early in a family’s life can go a LONG way in reducing the challenges in their lives. Our staff needs systems that allow them the time and capacity to get to know each of their students and build classrooms and other environments that meet the needs of each of the children. All learning happens in relationship — we need to ensure that it is possible for those relationships to be productive in all of our schools and programs. Continuing the work on inclusion, adding mental health and health supports and the social skills curriculum in our strategic plan will go a long way in building the resilience of our youth
How can schools expand social and emotional supports for youth, rooted in healing, justice and wellness?
We have invested in more mental health professionals and social workers in our schools. We are working on a curriculum that is culturally relevant which includes an accurate account of our history and an understanding and celebration of the cultures present in our schools. The use of restorative practices in our schools is helping children to learn from each other and develop ways to regulate their thinking and emotions. We need to help our children understand what they are feeling and experiencing and provide environments in which it is safe to share and seek support. Learning calming techniques, positive ways to expend energy, and regular conversations about building community and health in our schools is happening already and will expand with the implementation of SPPS Achieves.