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Jim Vue is currently the only Hmong member of the St. Paul school board. He wants ethnic studies courses and language immersion programs to help retain diverse students. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

St. Paul voters will choose four school board members out of eight candidates. Six of them—James Farnsworth, Halla Henderson, Jennifer McPherson, Jim Vue, Uriah Ward, and Ryan Williams—are running for four-year terms; three will win. Two candidates, Jeannie Foster and Clayton Howatt, are competing in a special election for a two-year term. One will win. You can find the rest of our school board candidate interviews here.

Jim Vue, 41, is vice chair of the St. Paul Public Schools Board of Education, personal care attendant for his son, and program facilitator at an arts nonprofit.

Describe yourself in ten words or fewer.

Describe yourself in ten words or fewer.

“Clarity, focus, alignment. A father for my children: That’s my leadership style.” 

In one sentence, why should people in St. Paul vote for you?

“The district is comprised of over 30 percent Asian American students, mostly Hmong, and historically in the district, things don’t get done for our students unless there’s representation in leadership positions: a teacher or principal in the building, a leader in the administration, and that also applies to the school board—so when we do align all these leaderships together, the needs of that community are really brought to the table, and we get to see the results.”

How would you help St. Paul Public Schools reverse enrollment declines and attract and retain students? Give your answer in bullet points/action steps.

  • “I helped develop an ethnic studies course requirement for graduation. That helps our students of color here in St. Paul Public Schools: It allows them to bring their experiences and expertise into the classroom and really use that as an asset. It helps our students see themselves not just in the classroom but in other parts of the school building. That also helps our teachers: There’s a certain expertise that primarily teachers of color bring to help nurture and grow that program, nurture and grow our students.”
  • “Language immersion programs. Students who speak their native language ideally can come to that class and use that as an asset. And again, that helps them see themselves in the school buildings. It also helps our staff because we need to pull staff into the building to have expertise in this particular language, whether it be Hmong, Karen, Spanish, or Chinese.”

“In short, we build the programs, create the demand, and demonstrate their success. And at that point, we basically say to everybody, this is a need, this is what’s successful, let’s grow these programs, let’s get staff who represent our community.”

What’s a signature policy or achievement that you’ve played a role in during your tenure on the school board? 

“What I’m most proud of in the last year is coming on to the board after the death of Marny Xiong. I was able to stabilize the board, get them to acknowledge that Marny was here, but she’s not anymore. We need to carry forward with that work knowing that we’re still grieving for her. 

“Lots of board members from other school districts are quitting. If you look at our board we’re together. I think I had a big role in that.

“There’s a resolution I’m working on, which Marny Xiong came up with before she passed away, to roll back the ways Asian Americans experience inequity and racism here in the district. This resolution offers the opportunity for me to gather leaders, teachers, students, administrators and share our experiences. Find out what the priorities are in identifying the needs going forward. It’ll go a long way in acknowledging some of the experiences that Asian Americans have been going through in the district over the last few years.

“The people who are leaving our district are Asian Americans. People can say, ‘Well, they haven’t told us why they left, we want a survey, we want the Asian Americans to tell us why they are leaving.’ To me, that’s just another way of gaslighting.”

jim vue

“The people who are leaving our district are Asian Americans. People can say, ‘Well, they haven’t told us why they left, we want a survey, we want the Asian Americans to tell us why they are leaving.’ To me, that’s just another way of gaslighting. There’s so many ways we told you already. Now, you want us to do a survey. Are they really going to do the survey when you dismiss them this whole time?”

Name 2-3 things the district has done well in its response to the COVID-19 crisis, and 2-3 areas in need of improvement.

The district has done well in aligning its COVID-19 protocols with those of the Minnesota Departments of Health and Education, Vue said, rather than making up its own. “Building those partnerships is something that we need to continue to do as we encounter things that we’re not normally trained to confront,” he said. “All the answers aren’t in St. Paul Public Schools.”

Acknowledging the hardships and suffering of district families has also been important, he said. “What we do in education is just one more challenge in addition to a myriad of other challenges that our families and our students are facing. We’ve done a good job acknowledging that we are not the center of the universe,” he said.

As for needed improvements, the district should work on prioritizing the communities most affected by COVID-19, he said. That means identifying who needs the most support and targeting resources.

The district can also improve its COVID-19 reporting system, he said. Currently, the district’s formula and notification system leaves too many people out, he said. A COVID exposure warning may go out only if you were sitting immediately next to someone sick, and who wasn’t wearing a mask, for example. “There are some families who are concerned and say, ‘Just let me know anyway. If my child was even in the room, I need to know.’ 

We need to do a better job of listening to folks who are on the ground, being impacted by this, and just adapting going forward.”

Give an example of a racial equity problem at St. Paul Public Schools, and tell us what you would do or have done to address it.

Vue cited the district’s difficulty communicating with families who speak languages at home other than English. It’s a particular challenge for schools to convey urgency and nuance, he said. 

“I think people who aren’t used to talking in a second language don’t understand this, that there’s not a direct translation between English and, say, Hmong. You can’t say things word-for-word. If you do it that way, it may not make sense. You lose the context of the message and you lose the urgency of the message. It takes a certain kind of expertise to extrapolate that information and say it in a way that is effective for that community.”

For example, when Superintendent Joe Gothard announced the district’s plans to return to in-person learning last December, families needed more information and time to make decisions, he said. “Are you really going to tell our families who don’t speak English as a second language all the information they need to hear to make the best choice they can in that amount of time?” he asked. “It requires the district to have a translator who knows how to translate the scientific dangers of COVID-19 in such a way that demonstrates the urgency and the complexity to our families—and that doesn’t always get across.”

Vue said he’s encouraged Gothard to be more proactive about identifying and contracting with experienced translators.

Who was the best teacher you ever had and why?

“His name was Kelvin Monroe. He taught ethnic studies at Metropolitan State University. He got me to understand that the inequities that I was experiencing weren’t just relegated to me or Hmong people. There’s intersectionalities of inequities between Black folks, Indigenous folks, that they experienced as well. 

“It’s important to understand the intersectionalities as opposed to trying to drown each other out. He got me to understand that inequity was a system, not just an individual experience, not just an experience held by a certain group of people.” 

In two sentences, what’s another issue facing SPPS we haven’t talked about and what’s your plan to tackle it?

“American Rescue Plan funding: On September 21, we approved allocation of these funds, but how we engage with the community and how we determine what services those funds are going to—that’s still in the works. A big issue that I see going forward is creating a robust engagement with the community: using data and the experiences of people who are most impacted to target where the needs are, who needs it more than others, and what services they need.”

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.