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Principal for a day: Face-to-face with the new face of Minnesota

Date Published: 03/08/2012

Author: Dane Smith, President


Tomorrow’s economic future, now students at Mississippi Creative Arts Magnet, with Principal (for a day) Dane Smith. Front row (left to right): Anderson, Virgilio, Jarvis, David; back row: John, Principal Smith, Kenia and Chailia.

The third-graders in the art class, almost all of them Asian, Latino or African-American, were busily drawing and painting their own artistic visions of the solar system, getting all the planets in order and using the Internet to look up information they needed for fact sheets to round out the project.

Free artistic expression was encouraged by their animated and masterful teacher, but there was strong scientific content in the assignment. The children were taught that a crayon line on paper will repel water-based paint because the wax is “hydrophobic” and the paper is “hydrophilic.” I did not know that.

Pictured above: Tomorrow’s economic future, now students at
Mississippi CreativeArts Magnet,with Principal (for a day) Dane Smith.
Front row (left to right):Anderson, Virgilio, Jarvis, David;
back row: John, Principal Smith, Kenia and Chailia.

In serving as ”principal for a day” recently at the Mississippi Creative Arts Magnet school, I spent the better part of an hour working with the art students, who were exceedingly polite, precocious and inspiring. Their meticulously neat and recently remodeled school lies between St. Paul’s East Side and North End neighborhoods, in the heart of a dynamic demographic brew of immigrants and low-income families, too often described as a problem, and too often with resentment.

These are the new faces of Minnesota’s future, and we will not prosper in this century unless we embrace these children and help them succeed. A startling PowerPoint slide in a Minnesota Compass presentation shows the face of a kindly looking elderly white man next to the face of a darling preschool African-American girl. The caption notes that only 3 percent of Minnesotans over the age of 85 are non-white, while 30 percent of Minnesotans under the age of 5 are non-white.

Few schools in Minnesota reflect this transformation of our complexion as vividly as Mississippi Creative Arts. Kate Flynn, the school’s experienced and enthusiastic new principal, who also is a musician and singer, told me that almost three-fourths of the students are ELL, or English language learners. About two-thirds are Asian, many of them Karen (kuh-REN) immigrants who have been fleeing conflict and persecution in southeast Asia and now constitute a growing ethnic group in Minnesota. More than 10 percent are Latino. About 4 percent are white.

Becoming a “world state” and less of a monoculture is a good thing, I strongly believe, and not just because it’s inevitable. These children bring unexpected gifts and assets, including, in the case of immigrants, a broader understanding that comes from having a foot in two or more cultures. In each of about a dozen classrooms we visited, we asked how many children spoke more than one language. Usually about a third to half of the class raised their hands. One boy said he was conversant in four.

I came away with a renewed faith in the enormous potential of these children. I was inspired by their obvious desire to learn, succeed and belong, and confident about the commitment of our public school principals and teachers in St. Paul to help them seize opportunities.

Test scores at Mississippi are not at the level they should be — certainly not on a par with the affluent white suburbs, and 20 to 30 percentage points behind state averages. But everywhere you look, there are signs of energy and progress and unflagging commitment by this school’s staff and the St. Paul Public Schools to show results. At Mississippi, the average mark on MCA-II Grade 3 reading has risen 10 percentage points in just four years.

The school’s nutrition program, being implemented throughout the district, now includes Breakfast to Go, a faster and more efficient way to get good food in the bellies of all children, a precondition for effective brain function and learning. The art students even had little dishes of healthy fresh pineapple to snack on in early afternoon.

The school now has a richer mix of arts specialists in music, as well as teachers of color and bilingual staff. And Mississippi has recently added a pre-kindergarten program. Irrefutable evidence shows that Minnesota must dramatically increase and improve early childhood care and education in order to close the achievement and attainment gaps for children of color and those from low-income families.

One of the most impressive scenes I witnessed was a backroom “data dig,” in which a team of five teachers and specialists plotted the status and progress of every child, using laptops, complex spreadsheets and a wall chart that sorted every child into color-coded status: red (most in need of intervention), yellow (close to meeting standards) or green (meeting standards). And the school’s computer room is now chock full of the latest technology, instead of the hand-me-downs one often sees in public schools.

At a debriefing afterward for about a dozen of us one-day principals, Superintendent Valeria Silva exhorted us to spread the word about the district’s progress and its desperate need for yet another referendum levy in November. Principal Flynn urged me to take up the cause, because without the levy, she probably will lose some of the new technology and programs the school has been able to add in the last few years.

Their appeals made good sense, and as a rabidly pro-St. Paul resident, I’ll do everything I can to ensure passage of that levy. But I’ll be doing it not for the superintendent and the principal but for a 10-year-old Latino boy at Mississippi who offered to show me to the office when I got a bit lost.

As we walked, I inquired a little about his origins. In a very slight Spanish accent, he explained that one of his parents was from Mexico and the other was from Minnesota.

“But I’m from HERE,” he said, rather emphatically. And then he said it again: “I’m from HERE!”


A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Paul Legal Ledger Capitol Report on Thursday, March 8, 2012.

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