Sahan Journal interviewed all seven St. Paul school board candidates: Chauntyll Allen, Yusef Carrillo, Zuki Ellis, Carlo Franco, Abdi Omer, Erica Valliant, and Gita Rijal Zeitler. Voters can choose four.
Name: Chauntyll Allen
Current day job: Director of criminal justice policy and activism, Wayfinder Foundation
Kids in district: Both of her children graduated from Central High School
Neighborhood: Union Park
Chauntyll Allen never really left St. Paul Public Schools. After graduating from Central High School, she started working in the district’s Community Education department, organizing after-school programs in the Rondo neighborhood. She then worked at J.J. Hill Montessori School as a special education teaching assistant.
She did leave the district for 10 years to work for child protection services in Hennepin County. But she came back to Como Park High School as an educational assistant for kids diagnosed with emotional and behavioral disorders. She’s also volunteered as a basketball coach and been active in the Black Lives Matter movement.
“If I had a real title, I’d say I’m a youth advocate,” Allen told Sahan Journal.
After a total of 20 years working with St. Paul Public Schools, Allen won a seat on the St. Paul school board in November 2019. The pandemic slowed down some of the work Allen was hoping to accomplish. But she’s proud of the district’s progress toward ending the school-to-prison pipeline, and looks ahead to completing “unfinished business.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why are you running for reelection to the St. Paul school board?
I have a plan to shift how the district operates around Black and brown children, communications, and student outcomes. In the last three years, we’ve made some amazing progress. But I’m just not done. There needs to be a lot more emphasis on literacy, a lot more professional development around culturally relevant curriculum. The last three years we implemented some cultural programs—Txuj Ci, the Hmong language and culture school, and then we just opened up the East African program. I want to see something happen for African American students. We’re trying to get a Freedom School—not just in the summertime, but through the school year.
Unfinished business. The pandemic interrupted some of that work, too.
In 30 seconds or less, why should voters choose you?
I have a really good understanding of how our school system works after 20 years of working at St. Paul Public Schools and the 13 years I spent as a student in St. Paul Public Schools. I have a really good vision about what it takes to provide opportunity for all of our students.
List three things you think are going well in St. Paul Public Schools.
- Opportunities for all students. We implemented trades into all of our high schools early on when I was on the board, which was something I felt strongly about. A lot of our students are struggling with literacy and math, as you can see from the outcomes. But a lot of times if you can get a skill like welding or plumbing, where you can earn a living wage, you won’t get criminalized as you try to navigate early adulthood.
- I think we’re getting more compassionate. One of the big things that bothered me as a worker in St. Paul Public Schools was, there’ll be these crazy tragedies that happen in our city, in our state, in our country. And it was like we would show up to work in the morning and everybody was just doing business as usual. Nobody took into consideration how these tragedies were impacting students. Now there is a response.
- We got a new director in the Human Resources Department. She is doing a market analysis on all of our staff. We’re getting some interesting insight about staff. They’re really underpaid. I knew this as a paraprofessional in the schools. To see us actually addressing some of the wage issues is huge. We have to get to a place where we can have strong wages so we can retain strong leaders so we can build strong schools.
St. Paul Public Schools has historically seen many kids from immigrant families and other communities of color leave the district for charter schools. What do you think the district is doing well to attract and retain families of color, and how should it improve?
The one specific thing that people were leaving for was cultural programs, and now we’re building those. I think a lot of those parents appreciate the amenities that come with St. Paul Public Schools. But the fact that a general school doesn’t provide adequate cultural lessons for kids of color is disturbing to a parent of color. And I’m saying that as a Black parent. I knew that the public school system was not going to provide my kids with the important information that they needed to thrive in America.
We’re now building those cultural programs: the Hmong language and cultural K–8 program, the East African program. A large percentage of the kids in the East African program came from charter schools. The parents weren’t exactly happy with charter, but the kids weren’t being provided that cultural piece in regular public school. Now that they have that opportunity, they’ve moved over.
And what do you think the district can improve in attracting and retaining families of color?
Increase our literacy rates. That’s the biggest concern for a lot of parents—their students are graduating and not having exactly what they need. We need to hyperfocus and ensure that everybody is reading at grade level by third grade.
Last year, the district saw a few very scary incidents at schools—including one high school student fatally stabbing a classmate. What do you think the district is doing well in regards to school safety, and what does it need to do differently?
We are implementing restorative justice, and I think that is going to be the answer. When we allow students to be accountable for their own behavior, you start to see behaviors change, and that’s when you start to see the school climate change. What we’re not doing well is implementing restorative justice fast enough.
What’s another issue that would be a priority for you in another term on the school board, and how would you approach it?
We need to fully fund our school districts. I don’t know, ever in history, if there’s been a district predominantly of color that has been fully funded. Last year, we got the cross-subsidy funding. But we need to go beyond that. We need to be able to adequately pay our teachers and our building leaders, our paraprofessionals.
We need to make sure that we have enough money to change curriculum when it’s time to change. This year we implemented a new math curriculum, and we hadn’t had a new math curriculum in 20 years. Think about how technology has advanced in 20 years. The mindset of young people is totally different than it was 20 years ago. We need to be able to have the finances to make those shifts in our curriculum. And we also need to be able to provide the type of curriculum that works for our demographics.
What are you proud of from your service on the school board so far?
I feel like a lot of the pieces are in play for ending the school-to-prison pipeline in St. Paul. The one piece that’s not in place is literacy. But implementing the trades into schools is huge. Our district divesting from privatized prisons, and then writing a policy that says we will never invest in privatized prisons, that’s a huge step.