St. Paul School Board Candidate Questionnaire: Steve Marchese

Steve Marchese is running for St. Paul School Board. Learn more about him at https://www.steveforspps.com/

How do you understand the school-to-prison pipeline, and how will you work to eradicate it?

The school to prison pipeline needs three things to exist — harsh disciplinary policies that focus on punitive responses to behavior; staff that perceive behavior in racialized terms based upon either implicit or explicit bias; and systems that are more concerned with addressing short-term solutions to behavior rather than long-term problem solving. The net result is disproportionate numbers of black and brown children experiencing harsh discipline creating negative school records and fueling a cycle of mistrust that increases the likelihood of negative future interactions with law enforcement. To eradicate this cycle, we need to address each of these issues — offer a broader range of responses to behavior that allow for restoration of relationships (in addition to consequences); intentional action that pushes staff (particularly white staff) to behave consciously around race and adjust their perceptions of student behavior; and establishing disciplinary processes that focus on addressing the root causes of student behavior and recognize how trauma (individual and historical) impacts children.

Addressing these issues has been a part of my work on the school board since the beginning of my service. I have and will continue to push the district to review and address disciplinary disparities and look for ways to shift the culture districtwide and in schools. This would include supporting the district’s strategic initiatives to improve climate through the focused implementation of PBIS, increasing the use of restorative practices throughout the district, and ensuring culturally proficient staff are available to address disciplinary issues.

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?

Three things impact my understanding — first, my experiences in youth leadership during high school in the early 1980s when I served on both the New York City and New York State Youth Councils. In both circumstances, I worked with adults to create programs that addressed youth needs in youth services departments and sought information and input from youth around the city and state. Second, my studies of critical race theory during law school in the early 1990s when I learned about the works of Derek Bell, Patricia Williams and others who highlighted the importance of race, as well as class and gender, in understanding the structures of the legal system and society. Third, reading The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander and seeing the documentary 13th. Both provide clear historical context and documentation for the impact on African-American people.

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?

Since I have been on the board, we have made progress in better defining the roles and responsibilities of SROs and trying to foster better relationships with students. This was in direct response to student activism when I came to the board in 2016. However, my goal would be to see less reliance on SROs over time and increased presence of other adults, whether SPPS staff, community members or others, who can help address disciplinary needs, as well as create different relationships with students. I would like to see this happen in the next year or two, if possible. I am also very uncomfortable with the ongoing cost of the district’s contract and have been dismayed by the SPPD’s unwillingness to negotiate on cost, since the district currently pays for days of service where there is no contact with students or need in buildings. This is unfair, particularly in this fiscal environment. I have told district administration that I expect future contracts to be more equitable in terms of the funding split so that we can use our resources for different purposes around climate and culture in our schools.

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 believe this requires a consistent effort to educate the public and, more importantly, state leadership about the needs of our district and our students and pushing for more equitable funding from the state. I have been active in advocating around education funding with our legislative lobbyist and city delegation. I believe we need to also make common cause with other school districts around the state, whether through existing organizations (such as the Association for Metropolitan School Districts) or otherwise, to make the case for why our state needs to invest in our children, as opposed to punishment. I also believe I can be helpful as a public voice for supporting alternatives to traditional systems of punishment and incarceration in conjunction other advocates and providers in the community. Finally, as a board member, I can make sure our budget invests in programs that support our students learning and well-being.

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?

This has been a persistent concern of mine and I have raised this publicly in board meetings, as well as in private meetings with district leadership. First, the district needs to have regular public discussions about the data it has on disciplinary outcomes and processes. Second, I am encouraged that the SPPS Achieves strategic plan includes improving climate and culture as part of the long term outcomes and administrators and staff are working on specific initiatives to improve those outcomes. Thus far, this has included more consistent implementation of PBIS throughout the district. I also believe it should include increased use of other models of dispute resolution, such as restorative practices, as well as more attention and staffing to address students’ social and emotional needs, as well as mental health. I do think we need a continued conversation about implicit bias and the impact of race and racism on how our staff and students work together. These conversations were started in one fashion within the district’s equity work. I am and will continue to push the district for how it can move that work forward to make an impact.

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?

Since I have been on the board, we have made some strides in increasing student voice through the work of the Student Engagement and Advocacy Board (SEAB). SEAB members come from diverse backgrounds throughout the district and their work has informed the board in a number of important ways — changes to the SRO contract, adoption of new graduation attire policy, focus on advanced courses for all students, etc. I know the board is examining with SEAB members and support staff what the work and role of the group will be after several years of implementation. I believe we need more active student engagement at the building level in ways that go beyond traditional student government. I believe students have wisdom on this issue and know what they think will work best. I also would like district administration to consider how to regularly involve students in the oversight and monitoring of SPPS Achieves so there is a mechanism in place over the next several years.

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 think meaningful engagement must go beyond traditional student government type structures. One example that has worked well is the Govvie leadership program at Johnson High School. Allowing students time in the day to work on common topics of interest, cultivating diverse models and levels of student leadership, and giving students responsibility for setting and holding social and cultural norms within the building has had a powerful impact on that community. While the exact program may be unique to Johnson, I believe there is much that can be learned from that experience to be used in other buildings, including middle and elementary schools. I also think St. Paul Youth Services has offered some important leadership opportunities for African and African-American students that are grounded and culturally relevant, as well as offering opportunities for students to offer input and learn about their own leadership capacity.

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?

My fundamental concern, and the one that motivated me to vote to approve the joint powers agreement, is finding a mechanism to enable information from different systems that impact the lives of our children and their families to be shared in a manner that will result in better coordination of services and, ultimately, their experience. We have families interacting with multiple government entities that have no way to communicate effectively with each other and this disconnection means important information that could be helpful never gets to be used. I believe sharing information should be done, but in a way that does not make community members and families feel more at risk or exposed to scrutiny. I am not wedded to the joint powers approach nor the predictive analytics that could be used as a means of early intervention. I do believe the challenge for community and policy makers is to find a systematic way for different systems to communicate. This must be consistent, equitable and reliable in implementation to be valuable. I know state data privacy laws prevent much of this work from happening and believe there needs to be a more pragmatic understanding of how different entities work with our families and children so that there are constructive guidelines to follow.

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?

I would like to see our district adopt a “strengths-based” approach to assessing our students, either at the time of early childhood screening or enrollment in the district, and on an annual basis at the beginning of the school year. How can we enable our staff — teaching, paraprofessional and clerical — to understand and value what each child brings to the school building? I think there could be space for new ways of working within SPPS Achieves’ climate and culture initiative. I also think there can be greater use of existing models that strengthen relationships, such as the teacher home visit program and the APTT school conference model. Finally, the district can look to encourage and help expand efforts like St. Paul Promise Neighborhood that address multiple family needs, provide parent training and offer culturally relevant and affirming services,

How can schools expand social and emotional supports for youth, rooted in healing, justice and wellness?

This is the million dollar question, ultimately. I think it starts with re-thinking the basis for our schools to focus on supporting and teaching the children that are in our schools today and will be in the future. I think this will require using different instructional methods than might be used currently with staff that more closely reflects the students present in the classroom. On a policy basis, I think it means encouraging restorative approaches and models, some of which we already in use within SPPS, and provide training and support for their implementation. Fundamentally though, it requires staff and decision makers to acknowledge the potential of each of our students and the willingness to support multiple ways of learning and behaving in school buildings. This does not mean there are no standards of behavior or curriculum. It means adapting to different methods and mindsets beyond those that have been traditionally used in most public schools. There are models available for this nationally (and elsewhere) and SPPS can look to those for ideas and inspiration.

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