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: Gita Rijal Zeitler
Current day job: Public health nurse
Kids in the district: Two at Central High School
Neighborhood: Union Park
Gita Rijal Zeitler grew up in Nepal. Her dad and community members started the high school she attended. Zeitler and her friends went off to college and became successful. But things have changed since her own school days. Zeitler has seen how rich families in Nepal often send their children to boarding school—leaving public schools with minimal enrollment, and only from poor families.
“I saw how public schools can have success, and how fast they can deteriorate and be like a haunted house,” she said.
She sees parallels to her own experience in Nepal as many families opt out of the public school system in St. Paul. “Public school is the way for middle-class and lower-middle-class families’ children to climb the ladder,” she said. “If this disappears, if this becomes really nothing, it impacts children.”
Zeitler works as a public health nurse, and is a union member. She has volunteered for her children’s charter school and for the American Cancer Society. She also works at the family business: Urban Forage Winery & Cider House in Minneapolis.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Why are you running for St. Paul school board?
My kids went to charter school, K–8. Now they’re in 10th and 11th grade, in public school. I really feel like public schools need more help. My son is good in math, and he wanted to do math IB [International Baccalaureate]. He wanted to do some extra math classes in the summer. They didn’t have any extra math classes for him.
I feel like public school enrollment is going down. All my neighbors’ kids go to charter schools. I’m an immigrant. I came to this country 26 years ago, but I have a bachelor’s degree, I have a master’s degree, my husband’s from Wisconsin. Still, it’s so difficult to navigate.
At the same time, I feel like education is not a priority in the schools. I feel like there is a disconnect; a lot of people on the board are not connecting the dots of what kids and parents really need to achieve.
I’m worried the public school will disappear. There should be students. That’s how our teachers get paid, that’s how the teachers union survives, that’s how neighborhoods will stay strong. So public school really needs to offer both catch-up and advanced classes, and have mental health services. As a mom, it’s so important to me.
In 30 seconds or less, why should voters choose you?
I’m the only candidate who believes in improving our school system by offering catch-up classes and advanced classes, and hiring and retaining core teachers. We need counselors, all these things, but we need to hire and retain good teachers.
Other candidates want to dismantle the testing system. I believe in the testing system because our graduates have to compete with students from all over the world in the job market. We need to give our children tools—science, math, technology, advanced classes, and have tutoring centers so people who fall behind can catch up.
List three things you think are going well in St. Paul Public Schools.
I see the diversity as a really good thing. Our students experience different ways of thinking, different people, different worlds, different cultures, different values. That’s the reason we decided to send our kids to Central. At Central, they offer a lot of classes—advanced classes, an International Baccalaureate program. I really like that part. Another thing I like—they have a good amount of extracurricular activities, like the cross-country Nordic team. I feel like St. Paul can do better for the winter sports. Otherwise, those are three good things.
St. Paul Public Schools has historically seen many kids from immigrant families leave the district for charter schools. What do you think the district is doing well to attract and retain immigrant families, and how should it improve?
Immigrant families come with a big dream, and they want their kids to succeed. They really need advanced classes. If there are no advanced classes, immigrants are not going to come to public school. My circle will stay if there are more advanced classes and technology classes offered. The district needs to have an outreach program so parents can call and say, “When do my kids need to apply to college?” or “My kid’s score is low, what can I do, what kind of resources do you have?” One central place they can get help, instead of calling so many places. A problem-solving center, family-focused outreach.
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?
One thing I really highlight is mental health. Schools should have an on-site mental health center with a professional mental health provider license. That way they can help students control their anger or frustration.
I’m wondering if schools could have a voluntary group of retired nurses or teachers, and if other parents could join, just to help with the behavior. If the kids see more volunteers walking the hallways, that might help them to be safe.
What’s another issue that would be a priority for you on the school board, and how would you approach it?
I really feel the school board is not aware of the global market. We cannot just be emotional and dismantle whatever system we have. We need to focus our research on the global market, instead of just being more emotional and taking things out.