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The equity battle: How Rochester Public Schools became engulfed in conflict about what is best for students

The disagreement about equity could arrive at a crossroads soon with the election in November.

Equity Specialist Rodney Sharp
Rodney Sharp, an equity specialist with Rochester Public Schools, talks with seniors FaBeyona Harrison, left, and Hilda Nyibil, right, during lunch Monday, Oct. 17, 2022, at John Marshall High School in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin
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ROCHESTER — Normally a bold, confident speaker, Will Ruffin II started to struggle ever so slightly during a Tuesday evening in June. He was in a boardroom in Rochester’s Historic Southwest, giving an overview of his work over the past year.

In May of 2021, Rochester Public Schools had tapped Ruffin to lead the district's efforts on diversity, equity and inclusion . As executive director of the department of equity and engagement, Ruffin became the first cabinet-level leader dealing with equity for the school district. It was an indication of the value the district put on the work.

And as he began telling the story of his time in the position, Ruffin explained that he almost didn’t apply for the role. He’d had negative experiences during his tenure as a teacher of color in the district. He knew others who had had negative experiences as well.

He said his son convinced him otherwise.

“I got here from a place of pain — from not having an ideal experience in this school district,” Ruffin said. “Out of this pain came something beautiful. And that’s the hope that I want to be a part of. That’s the dream for this position, for this district. That’s what I want to repair for everyone who’s been harmed by the district."

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The topic of equity is not new to Rochester Public Schools by any means. However, it has become one of the most divisive concepts in the education world over the last couple years.

In spite of the controversy, equity has become woven into the very fabric of the school district. There is a department of equity and engagement staffed with equity specialists who work directly with students. There are staff members dedicated to reviewing the curriculum to make sure it is culturally appropriate. There are schools with community rooms, stuffed with clothes, canned food and other resources students can take if they need.

But as November draws near, the outcome of the upcoming school board election could theoretically change how the school district views the topic of equity. And that begs the question: What exactly would change, and how much of the discord is based on legitimate differences versus misunderstanding?

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Will Ruffin II, director of equity and engagement, speaks during a study session of the Rochester School Board.
Jordan Shearer / Post Bulletin

The definition and the divides

Time and again, the school district’s leadership has described equity as simply being the process of making sure every child has what they need to succeed.

Built into that definition is the realization that not all children need the same things. That definition also acknowledges equity is not restricted to the issue of race.

Still, the two issues of equity and race have often become entwined in the larger conversation since there are so many disparities among racial groups in the district.

The Minnesota Department of Education elaborates on the concept a little bit further.

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“The pursuit of educational equity recognizes the historical conditions and barriers that have prevented opportunity and success in learning for students based on their races, incomes, and other social conditions. Eliminating those structural and institutional barriers to educational opportunities requires systemic change that allows for distribution of resources, information and other support depending on the student’s situation to ensure an equitable outcome.”

Those barriers are plenty evident in Rochester Public Schools. Black and Hispanic students have historically scored well below their white and Asian counterparts. According to the most recent MCA test results , Black and Hispanic students scored more than 20 percentage points lower than their White and Asian counterparts in both math and reading.

Equity Specialist Rodney Sharp
Rodney Sharp, an equity specialist with Rochester Public Schools, talks with a group of students during lunch Monday, Oct. 17, 2022, at John Marshall High School in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

“We have disparities along the lines of race. They are very significant disparities. So the idea that we could address those disparities without actually acknowledging them and targeting them is really nonsensical,” said Superintendent Kent Pekel.

The Minnesota Human Rights Commission also faulted the district for disparities in the number of students of color who were being disciplined disproportionately to their white peers.

In August 2021, Ruffin said the report from the Human Rights Commission was a “blessing in disguise” since it forced a reckoning in the district about issues that were not being addressed.

“That report forced us to talk about them,” Ruffin said. “We have to have those conversations. We have to do something about these actions that are happening in our schools."

George Floyd

Another milestone in the district’s equity work happened in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.

Rochester Public Schools has had some equity-focused employees and programs for some time. However, it expanded that work in 2020 after George Floyd was murdered on a Minneapolis street.

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That’s when School Board member Cathy Nathan, who’s currently running for re-election, suggested allocating some of the district’s COVID funding to equity-related initiatives. Specifically, she called for the creation of the cabinet-level position devoted to equity.

“The trauma of the past week is going to be something that our students are going to carry back in the fall,” Nathan said at the time. “I wouldn’t just recommend putting more money in the budget for something generic; I would really want to see it devoted to equity, and, again, at the highest levels of leadership.”

Within a year of that conversation taking place, the district announced Ruffin as the new director of diversity, equity and inclusion. Shortly thereafter, Pekel was hired as the district's new superintendent. One of the three goals the school board gave him for his first year was to develop Ruffin’s new department and the work it would do.

Equity in action

So what does that work look like on a normal day anyway? According to Ruffin, that’s sometimes a harder question to answer in words than it is to see in real time.

Equity Specialist Rodney Sharp
Rodney Sharp, an equity specialist with Rochester Public Schools, talks with a group of students during lunch Monday, Oct. 17, 2022, at John Marshall High School in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

Rodney Sharp is one of more than a dozen equity specialists spread out over the district. He’s based out of the John Marshall Community Room, which is a room stuffed with extra clothes, canned food, personal hygiene products, and other items that students can take, no questions asked.

In between classes, students would descend on the community room and cluster around the refrigerator.

Community rooms, which are located in a number of the district’s schools, are part of the district’s equity work. The rooms provide material options to help students and parents who may not have enough resources at home. At Riverside Central Elementary, the community room almost acts more like a community center.

Although Sharp works out of John Marshall’s community room, he bounces back and forth throughout the building. He talks with students over the lunch break; he meets with parents; he helps mediate encounters between principals and students.

“Honestly, I think he does more than his job title,” Fabeyona Harrison, an 18-year-old John Marshall student, said. “I’ve seen this man break up fights. He helps the kids a lot with whatever … he’s always everywhere.”

Equity Specialist Rodney Sharp
Rodney Sharp, an equity specialist with Rochester Public Schools, looks out over the cafeteria during lunch Monday, Oct. 17, 2022, at John Marshall High School in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

Staff of color

If you describe the demographics of Rochester Public Schools, it would require two polar opposite words: homogeneous and diverse. It just depends if you’re talking about the adults who staff the district or the students who learn in the schools.

Minorities make up more than 45% of the student population. At some schools, white students are the minority. At Riverside Central Elementary, minorities make up over 70% of the student body. Conversely, minorities comprise less than 5% of the teaching staff .

Willie Tipton is the equity coordinator tasked with expanding the number of teachers of color in the district. When he started his position, he had a goal of increasing the staff of color 25% within three years.

He then indicated that goal may have been a little unrealistic.

"The reality is you cannot place a percentage on creating a culture that will be beneficial to students, staff and families," he said via email. "I can honestly say that we have made great strides over the last couple of years but we have a long way to go."

Whether or not the district should even care about the racial makeup of its staff is a point of strong disagreement. During the debates for the school board election, one of the candidates, Elena Niehoff, said it’s just a theory that students perform better if they have a teacher of the same race, but didn’t provide any research to support her statement. Another candidate, Kim Rishavy, indicated it was wrong to focus on race of the staff as well.

“Why are we talking about color?” Rishavy asked. “Why can’t someone just be qualified?”

The school district’s current leadership has a different take on the issue. In February, Pekel referenced a study from Johns Hopkins University that showed having a single Black teacher in elementary school could dramatically increase the chances that a Black student would go to college.

Natalia Benjamin is a member of the Employees of Color resource group. She said it’s not about hiring solely based on race. Rather, it is important to make sure the district receives a diverse body of applications so it has the largest pool to choose from.

“We don’t hire people because of what they look like,” Benjamin said. “It’s insulting to have people say that the color of my skin is the only reason why I got a job. I think it’s important for people to understand that through the hiring process, the best candidates are going to be hired.”

The election

Eventually, the school district began to face challenges for the equity-related initiatives it was putting into place. In a standing-room only July 2021 school board meeting , members of the public expressed their distaste for what they perceived to be happening in the district.

That meeting spawned a response from community members who supported the district’s efforts. They held a small rally outside the school district’s building during a subsequent school board meeting.

“The district has come far on their equity goals and plans, but we need to take a stronger stand against the national agenda groups are pushing to advocate for a whitewashed version of history and general education,” said Yasmin Ali, an RPS student at the time.

The controversy moved forward. In September 2021, the school district received a large-scale data request from a Minneapolis-based law firm on behalf of the anonymous organization “Equality in Education.” The data request asked for text messages, emails, PowerPoints and curriculum related to equity, social justice, cultural competency, race, intersectionality, and/or critical race theory.

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The disagreement about equity could arrive at a crossroads soon with the election in November. Four of the school board’s seven seats are up for election. Three of the candidates are incumbents, and one has been endorsed by an incumbent who has chosen not to run. These candidates have expressed their continued support for the district's current direction in dealing with issues related to equity/

There also are four challengers who are running as a self-described group. If all of them succeed, their unit would represent a majority of the board. And, among other issues they say need attention in the district, they have taken a stance with the issue of equity.

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The candidates for Rochester School Board, Elena Niehoff, John Whelan, Rae Parker, and Kim Rishavy are presenting themselves as a conservative, united front to voters.
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The various members of the bloc have often compared the concepts of equity and equality. Equality, they say, is making sure all students have equal opportunity to succeed. Equity, they say, has to do with forcing certain outcomes.

“Equity, white privilege and the theory of oppressed and oppressors (is) one of the most dangerous ideas pushed on our children," one of the bloc’s candidates, Elena Niehoff, said during a School Board debate.

Moving forward

So, what would actually change in the district’s approach to equity if the bloc of candidates gained a majority of the Board? It’s a little hard to say. Members of the group did not respond to questions from the Post Bulletin about whether they would make any changes to the equity policy, the district’s strategic plan or the department of equity and engagement.

When you strip away all the sound bites from the debate stage, you start to see that the two sides may not be as different as they seem at first. Although the bloc didn’t respond to specific questions about what they would change, they did release a joint statement, saying they support providing additional resources to those who need them.

“If you need help in any area: mental health, class work, transportation issues, home issues, whatever, we will get you the help you need, no matter your race, income level, gender, or anything else,” the statement said in part.

Either way, Pekel said he would work hard to find common ground with whoever ends up being elected to the school board. While clarifying that it’s not a direct comparison, he used the example of the district’s work on school resource officers, which had been a very divisive issue.

Over the course of a year, the district worked with the Rochester Police Department to revise the contract and listen to the concerns being expressed. And ultimately, the school board approved the revised contract with a unanimous vote.

For all the controversy that has accumulated around the issue of equity, School Board Chairwoman Jean Marvin is trying to play the long game and look to a future where it will be so ingrained into the system that they won’t have to pay attention to it anymore.

“I won’t live long enough, but it would be wonderful if we got to the point some day where we don’t need a focus on equity because it’s just who we are,” Marvin said. “It’s just the culture that we cheer.”

Equity Specialist Rodney Sharp
Rodney Sharp, an equity specialist with Rochester Public Schools, talks with a group of students during lunch Monday, Oct. 17, 2022, at John Marshall High School in Rochester.
Joe Ahlquist / Post Bulletin

Jordan Shearer covers K-12 education for the Post Bulletin. A Rochester native, he graduated from Bemidji State University in 2013 before heading out to write for a small newsroom in the boonies of western Nebraska. Bringing things full circle, he returned to Rochester in 2020 just shy of a decade after leaving. Readers can reach Jordan at 507-285-7710 or jshearer@postbulletin.com.
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