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On a recent Monday night, more than 30 parents sat on folding chairs in the J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School library. Another 40 joined on Zoom. A framed portrait of Philando Castile, who for years served breakfast and lunch in the J.J. Hill cafeteria, leaned against a bookshelf behind the parents.

Most of the parents in attendance were white, though a diverse list of names appeared on the Zoom screen. They had come, in person and virtually, to ask questions about why administrators planned to cut their school’s budget. They’d prepared for it with questions about student retention data.

But most of them turned up for one main reason: to support a beloved teacher who was slated to lose her J.J. Hill position.

J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School serves about 400 students in prekindergarten through 5th grade, at the edge of St. Paul’s historic Rondo neighborhood. About half the students are white and a quarter are Black, while other students are multiracial, Latino, Asian, and Native American. 

As a Montessori school, classrooms serve several grade levels at once. Prekindergarten and kindergarten students are combined in a class called Children’s House; first through third graders learn in the same classroom, as do fourth and fifth graders. Students often have the same teacher for several years in a row, which parents say fosters deep relationships at the school.

In late April, parents learned that budget cuts at the school would result in “staffing shifts,” including the closing of one of the seven Children’s House classrooms. And that meant that one Children’s House teacher—Shevie Brooks—would be leaving J.J. Hill.

At a table in the front of the library, Deepa McGriff, the chair of the school’s Parent Teacher Organization, facilitated a panel of St. Paul Public Schools administrators and the school principal. 

One parent, ShaVunda Brown, stood between child-sized bookshelves, behind the rows of folding chairs, bouncing a baby in her arms. She volunteered a question.

“The district says that it values retaining teachers of color,” she said. “How are we actualizing that with cutting the only Black teacher at J.J. Hill?”

In St. Paul Public Schools, 77 percent of students are people of color, while 22 percent of their teachers are. State data show that J.J. Hill employed just one Black classroom teacher last year, in a prekindergarten and kindergarten class—that is, Shevie Brooks. Studies have shown that Black children who have had one Black elementary teacher are more likely to graduate high school and attend college. And the benefits of diverse teachers extend to white students, too.

In recent years, Minnesota politicians from both parties have declared their commitment to recruit and retain teachers of color. The Legislature made record investments to address the issue in 2021, and increased those funds significantly this year. St. Paul Public Schools has made this issue a priority, too. The district developed a program to train its diverse classroom aides to become teachers, and used some COVID relief funds to employ teachers of color. 

Teacher diversity is a particularly salient issue at J.J. Hill. The school’s best-known Black staffer, Philando Castile, worked as the school’s cafeteria manager until a police officer killed him during a 2016 traffic stop. J.J. Hill students joined the protests with handmade drawings in support of their beloved “lunch man,” whom they called Mr. Phil.

So why, parents wanted to know, was it so difficult for the school to put its stated values into practice?

The reasons for the budget cuts, according to district officials, are complicated: They involve data projections, falling enrollment, a prekindergarten funding formula, and union contracts. 

But those impersonal answers fell flat to parents, who focused on the human impact of these cuts: the loss of a beloved teacher, Shevie Brooks, from the school community. 

In the school library, ShaVunda Brown shared that Brooks had taught her son the previous year. Brown recalled one incident in which her son had encountered a problem in the building. He got lost. He was bitten by a classroom pet lizard. Brooks made it her mission to find Brown’s son, she said.

“She ran around looking for him as if she were his mother—as if she were me herself,” Brown said. “We want Ms. Shevie to stay here. We need Ms. Shevie here.”

The library meeting

In the library, St. Paul Public Schools administrators attempted to explain the budget cuts to parents. They stressed that positions had been cut, not individual people.

The district has faced declining enrollment in recent years. In December 2021, the school board voted to close six schools to better align building capacity with current enrollment numbers. Many St. Paul families have opted for charter schools instead of enrolling in district schools. And a drop in the birth rate means fewer children are being born in St. Paul who might later enroll in kindergarten.

Those problems have affected J.J. Hill, too, the administrators explained.

Assistant superintendent Yeu Vang, a former J.J. Hill principal, explained that in recent years the school’s kindergarten enrollment has consistently fallen below district projections. Children’s House kids do not always stay at J.J. Hill for elementary school, she said.

PTO chair Deepa McGriff, second from left, facilitated a panel of administrators. Credit: Becky Z. Dernbach | Sahan Journal

“We really need to work on retention so we can have a solid enrollment, because budgeting is based on projection,” she said. 

She clarified that educators whose school roles had been eliminated would not lose their jobs with the district; they can find a placement at another school.

“Being cut from a program doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re not supporting them. We have positions for them,” she said. “There is not a guarantee for any staff to have a specific position.”

“Montessori positions?” one parent interjected. “This person”—that is, Shevie Brooks—“chose Montessori.”

Many parents at the forum expressed a strong affinity for Montessori learning. In the Montessori education model, teachers guide children through activities that emphasize independence and self-directed learning. 

Deepa McGriff, the PTO chair, read through audience questions off note cards from her table in front of the library. Some parents observed that J.J. Hill has a long pre-kindergarten waitlist, she said, and wanted to understand what data supported the district’s decision to close a classroom with so much demand.

Andrew Collins, the district’s executive chief of schools and learning, said that more than 500 children are on pre-kindergarten waitlists throughout the district. Lori Erickson, assistant director of the office of early learning, explained that pre-kindergarten is considered an “intervention” program in Minnesota, and receives state funding to serve kids who need an extra “oomph.” St. Paul Public Schools currently serves about 1,400 of the city’s 4,000 four-year-olds, and has neither the funding nor the building space to serve all of them, she said.

Erickson laid out how these state standards work. “We have to stay within the funding limits of what we have right now,” she said. “In order to gain access to the intervention money, we have to demonstrate free or reduced lunch, second language learner, or special education.”

Put another way, the school is not demonstrating enough “intervention” needs to fund all seven Children’s House classrooms. By some measures, J.J. Hill is a racially and socioeconomically mixed school—the school is nearly evenly divided between white students and students of color, and nearly half qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. But J.J. Hill has significantly lower percentages of English learners, special education students, and students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch than the district as a whole.

One parent argued that the district calculations did not make sense for Montessori schools.

“We’re a square peg in a round hole. It doesn’t fit the model, doesn’t fit the numbers,” she said. “Losing a teacher hits three grades. It’s a big deal. Those kids are supposed to stay with that teacher.”

J.J. Hill parents asked questions as administrators explained the budget cuts. Behind them is a portrait of Philando Castile. Credit: Becky Z. Dernbach | Sahan Journal

Finding Montessori in Minnesota

I reached out to Shevie Brooks to hear about her role at the school and her perspective on the budget cuts. Facing a precarious employment situation, Brooks declined to comment on the budget or her future school placement. She agreed, however, to speak with Sahan Journal about her career path, her passion for Montessori, and the need for Black teachers. 

Brooks is a J.J. Hill parent, as well as a teacher: Her younger daughter graduated from J.J. Hill, and her son now attends another Children’s House classroom.

“He is just thriving,” she said. “He’s only in pre-K, but he’s grown so much independently. He’s able to do so much at home by himself because he’s doing it at school.”

Brooks grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts. Before arriving in Minnesota, her family moved frequently, as her husband worked his way up through the ranks of college athletics administration. She held education jobs in Massachusetts, Vermont, and Mississippi while raising her three kids: two girls, now 16 and 13; and a 4-year-old boy.

Her younger daughter attended a Montessori school in Mississippi. Brooks saw how her daughter thrived when she was asked to experiment and work with peers to find the right answer for herself.

In 2019, Brooks’ husband, Donnie, was named the director of athletics at Macalester College, in St. Paul—a career move that allowed the family to settle down at last. Brooks sought out a Montessori school as they planned the move, and scheduled a visit to J.J. Hill.

“When I first walked in when my family visited from Mississippi, we immediately felt that the school was a big family,” Brooks recalled. “Everybody was just so nice. The kids were always happy.”

Her younger daughter started at J.J. Hill midway through the year. Brooks volunteered in her classroom and chaperoned field trips. That fall, she became a teaching assistant in Children’s House. She loved the relationships she was able to form with kids and their families, and watching the kids grow every day. Something clicked.

“It started getting my brain going: I can do this,” she said.

Brooks found a program at St. Catherine University that would allow her to specialize in Montessori education. In the fall of 2021, she was able to become a Children’s House classroom teacher with a short-term license while she enrolled in the teacher preparation program at St. Kate’s.

In the Montessori model, Brooks explained, teachers follow the child and take on the role of a guide.

For example, one four-year-old in Brooks’ class started off the year shy. But she liked to stand nearby as Brooks gave small-group lessons in reading or math to the kindergarteners. Later, Brooks watched as her pupil took the kindergarten work off the shelf and attempted it herself.

“Instead of me jumping in and saying ‘you should do it this way,’ I stood back, I watched her, and she ultimately got it on her own,” she said.

Next year, Brooks expects this girl will be a classroom leader.

“I’ll miss that if I’m not able to continue,” she said.

‘We have to abide by those rules’

In the school library meeting, as administrators shared data to explain their decision, parents pushed back on why those numbers should result in Brooks losing her position.

ShaVunda Brown reminded district officials of Philando Castile’s legacy of providing lunches to children, even when they could not afford to pay. His mother, Valerie, started a foundation to pay off lunch debt and was integral to Minnesota’s successful push to provide free school meals for all children, a law that will go into effect next school year.

“How do we honor that legacy and cut the school budget, and cut the only Black teacher?” Brown asked.

Andrew Collins assured the room of the district’s commitment to retaining teachers of color, though he could not comment on individual personnel matters. He recommended that the parents watch a presentation about a plan for systemic equity in St. Paul Public Schools to be shown at the next St. Paul Public Schools board meeting.

Collins cited the teachers’ union contract as a key factor that shapes staffing decisions during budget cuts.

“Part of the reality is we live in a unionized environment,” he said. “So from a district perspective, we have to adhere to issues of collective bargaining. And I know that may not sound like a great answer, but it’s an accurate answer that we have to abide by those rules.”

What’s more, Collins said, the district cannot make hiring or firing decisions based solely on race: It’s a violation of federal law.

‘I think the district should listen’

When a position is cut from a school’s budget—for example, one of the seven Children’s House teachers at J.J. Hill—the school and district often do not have discretion about which teachers should remain and which should go. Those matters have been negotiated ahead of time in union contracts.

Caitlin Reid, lead organizer for the St. Paul Federation of Educators, explained that the contract requires administrators to make cuts based on “districtwide seniority within a licensure area.” By this, Reid means that the teachers who have worked for the district and held the appropriate license for the longest period of time will keep their positions. The teacher with the least seniority would find a new position within the district, she said.

Sometimes the teacher might be reassigned to another teaching job within the same school. And sometimes principals are able to rearrange budgets to keep their teachers. Not in this case, Reid said. “The district is saying, no, you can’t shuffle your money around.”

As St. Paul Public Schools has diversified its teaching ranks in recent years, teachers of color are more likely to be relatively new to the district. This means that on average they have less seniority—like Brooks, a second-year teacher still working toward her professional license. In turn, teachers of color are disproportionately affected by seniority-based retention policies. That’s why, following a March 2022 strike, the educators union and district officials in Minneapolis Public Schools agreed on new contract language aimed at retaining teachers of color while still ensuring teachers’ seniority. St. Paul has made no such agreement.

Leah VanDassor, the president of the St. Paul Federation of Educators, said the union brought forth “quite a few proposals” on this matter during their own spring 2022 contract negotiations. “In the end, the district was unwilling to have those conversations on a very deep level,” she said.

A recent survey about member priorities for the next contract negotiation shows that “it continues to be an issue that our members and our union care about,” VanDassor said. “So we will be continuing to explore that.”

VanDassor pointed to a new increase in state funding, and said the district should allow schools more flexibility in the budget process. 

“I think that the district should listen to the parents and the teachers at the school who are coming up with solutions, and they should keep the classroom,” she said.

Lasting impressions

The complex funding formulas and policy issues that determine a school budget may be bureaucratic and impersonal. But those questions may miss something more fundamental and harder to quantify: the value of a Black educator in the school, for children of color and white children alike.

Shevie Brooks still recalls the two Black teachers she had, growing up in diverse Springfield, Massachusetts. Miss Dorothy taught her in pre-kindergarten, and Mrs. Budd taught her in third grade. She stayed in contact with this favorite teacher until college, when Mrs. Budd passed away.

“They were like family,” she said. They called her mom if Brooks needed extra help, inviting her to sit with her child at lunch or volunteer in her classroom.

“That relationship-building really left a lasting impression,” she said. “They were not just great teachers, but they were awesome humans.”

When her children attended school in a nearly all-white town in Vermont, they did not have any Black teachers. That changed when the family moved to Mississippi. Her older daughter attended a performing arts school. Many of her teachers were Black, and Brooks estimates about half held doctorate degrees. They pushed her daughter to be her best, and inspired by example, Brooks recalled.

“She was able to see her potential,” she said.

At J.J. Hill, Brooks said, she represents the only Black teacher not just for her class, but for the entire school. She thought about how much Miss Dorothy and Mrs. Budd meant to her.

“I carry them with me every day when I’m with my students,” she said. “And I hope they could talk about me like this one day.”

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Becky Z. Dernbach is the education reporter for Sahan Journal. Becky graduated from Carleton College in 2008, just in time for the economy to crash. She worked many jobs before going into journalism, including...