Since its inception in 1955, the Monitors Club has had a mission to support the advancement of African Americans and other people of color. This school year it is doing so by taking a look at public education to see what they can do to improve outcomes for Black and Brown children.
They began by sending out invitations to 12 schools in the Twin Cities. “Our strategy originally was to start for the central cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul and try to collect as many first-ring suburbs as we could,” said Robert Doty, the event planner and a Monitors Club member.
“We were also looking at where we had relationships. The superintendent in St. Cloud was an example of that.”
The plan was to have several conversations among superintendents with the intent of developing strategies to improve educational outcomes for Black and Brown children. The first superintendents’ forum was held at the University of St. Thomas on October 25.
Both the St. Paul and Minneapolis superintendents were attending the Council of the Great City Schools conference in Louisville, KY on that day, so they sent their assistant superintendents in their stead. Panelists included Superintendent Dr. Steven Unowsky of Richfield Area Schools, Assistant Superintendent Dr. Mike Favor of Roseville Area Schools, Superintendent Dr. Rhoda Mhiripiri-Reed of Hopkins, and Robbinsdale Area Public Schools Superintendent Carlton Jenkins.
The moderator, Senator Jeff Hayden (District 62), began by comparing the state’s ranking among the top five in the U.S. for high ACT scores to the persistent gaps in education between White and Brown and Black students. He then asked why these gaps persist and invited suggestions for closing them.
Unowsky admitted some awkwardness as the only White man on the panel speaking first and telling the primarily Black audience things he felt they already know. “Let’s be honest about what the state of Minnesota is,” he said.
“[If] we look at basically every indicator within the state, the systems of racial oppression are so wide that they are everywhere. So, while I am pleased to be on a panel where we are talking about this in terms of education, if we are going to be realistic and try to tackle this problem, this is a holistic problem.”
He said the Metropolitan Council, the chief of police, people from the justice system and the legislature would all need to be involved in the conversation. Focusing on education alone would mean looking at systemic racism in the classroom, made prevalent by low expectations for kids of color and the facts that 80% of Minnesota’s school superintendents are men and 96% are White.
“And I’m the one on the panel,” Unowsky said. “So, all aren’t in this conversation, aren’t acknowledging the problem. And until we do—statewide and education wide—this is going to continue to be a problem, and it’s going to continue to be pervasive.”
Dr. Favor agreed with Unowsky in setting higher expectations for kids of color and making sure that they not simply meet standards but exceed them. He said it is also important to listen to students and parents and create pathways for workforce readiness.
“Oftentimes we are pushing people into discussions around going to college and discussions about getting into college,” he explained. “But one of the things that I had to reflect back on, some of the mistakes I made as a leader is making sure that we are putting an emphasis on career and workforce readiness.”
Mhiripiri-Reed started by referencing the play “Pipeline: Is There No Way Out?” at Penumbra Theatre. “The elephant in the room is not the achievement gap, but the fact that everybody, even our best schools in this state, are allowing or are pushing boys out of school,” she said.
“[This is] a state that is mostly White, a state that has no shame for failing our kids of color. A state that has over 90% of elementary teachers [who are] White and female. And so, we have a huge cultural mismatch that our students experience from the get-go.”
At the beginning of the school year in Hopkins, Mhiripiri-Reed showed her staff data of the 171 students from kindergarten through second grade that had two or more office referrals. Though 71% of them were students of color, only 47% of the population are students of color. Similar to the play, the long-term negative experiences that may begin in preschool often lead to a “strong negative orientation toward school.”
Dr. Jenkins said the problem is that Black children are invisible. He referenced a report released October 11 documenting educational disparities for Black and Brown students in Minnesota.
“I met one professor here tonight,” he said. “I would have thought every professor in the state would be here tonight. I would have expected that everybody who was really interested and who could see children of color would be here tonight.
“Part of our problem, we don’t see us,” Jenkins said. “We don’t see children of color—Black, Brown, Indigenous—we don’t see them, so it’s hard to have high expectations for what you don’t see.”
This was the first of many dialogues that the Monitors Club will sponsor in an effort to improve the school experience for students of color. Since the forum, Doty said both the Minneapolis and St. Paul school districts have agreed to have a combined conversation at an upcoming Monitor’s meeting. St. Thomas has agreed to make the forums part of their urban studies curriculum.
During the forum there was also a question of what the Monitors could do to support the superintendents. One response was to partner with and support a school, a classroom, or a student. As a result of that conversation, “We have had a request from one of the schools to have the Monitors partner with their high school to come into the school and be mentors,” said Doty.
“I was pleased with the relationship that we built and are building with the superintendents,” Doty continued. “Part of what the Monitors are trying to do as best we can is to be a voice for the community. We can pull the community together to have that kind of a dialogue on a recurring basis. I’m really pleased that we’ve started the first steps in doing that.”
Vickie Evans-Nash is a contributing writer and former editor in chief at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.