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District looks to cut SAFE program

After four years, Rochester Public Schools plans to cut the Student and Family Engagement program, or S.A.F.E. , next year.

The college and career readiness program is for underserved youth and their families, according to the district, and features weekly "talk the talk" sessions to make connections with community members through service learning and focuses on financial literacy and civic mindedness.

But some in the community are questioning the district's proposal to cut the S.A.F.E. program from next year's budget, especially as the district is ramping up its equity efforts to cut disparate discipline against students of color .

"If you have a program that's working, why eliminate that," said Don Barlow, a pastor with Rochester Community Baptist Church and a school board candidate. "The S.A.F.E. program, and (its coordinator) in particular, have demonstrated a proven success track and record. It's a program that has helped extend the educational profile of the Rochester Public Schools."

The decision to cut the program comes after last fall, when the district entered into an agreement with the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights, which found the district disproportionately disciplines students of color. The agreement requires the district make some very specific moves in an attempt to remove the disparity, such as hiring three equity specialists and a principal to specifically review discipline data.


The district added these equity specialists and Afolabi Runsewe, principal on special assignment, as well as an American Indian liaison position this year.

Assistant Superintendent Brenda Lewis said these positions won't replace the S.A.F.E. program but will do many of the same things. She also pointed to recently implemented listening circles, which are a time for students to gather in small groups with equity specialists and talk.

"It will look different, but I feel through other programming we'll still be able to ensure that our students are successful," Lewis said.

But S.A.F.E. program advocates say it's a proactive approach, whereas the other new positions are reactive approaches, which attempt to address issues after they already have come up. Each week, students, teachers, school counselors and community members gather to work on academic, leadership and career and college readiness goals, while the equity specialists have a greater focus on discipline.

They say the S.A.F.E. program has a greater emphasis on academics than the other positions, such as pushing kids to take upper level honors and AP courses.

Much of the program was financed by grants from Mayo Clinic, United Way of Olmsted County and Olmsted County Community Services. If the budget is approved, the program's coordinator, Regina Seabrook, won't be employed with the district.

"As you know ... the district every year has to make some difficult decisions with respect to being fiscally responsible and balancing our budget," Lewis said.

But others say this comes after the district said it would be able to avoid budget cuts after a referendum was approved by voters in November .


"I think it does send a kind of potentially confusing message to the community when decisions like this are made," Barlow said.

United Way of Olmsted County President Jerome Ferson said the organization has no other plans for the $37,000 set to be disbursed to the district in July to fund the program and "anticipates being partners until we hear otherwise."

Ferson said all of the United Way's programs are evaluated for effectiveness every six months, including the S.A.F.E. program.

"They have always met their milestones and have been effective in helping students overcome barriers in entering college or the workforce in their chosen career area," Ferson said.

With a July deadline, the proposed budget likely will be voted on and approved at the board's June 21 meeting.

School board chairman Gary Smith said he doesn't necessarily see any relation between the OCR agreement and the work of the S.A.F.E. program.

Those efforts are going to continue; that's not predicated on one program or one approach," Smith said. "There's other things the district is doing to work with all our students."

But others say the program has shown success, and The Commission, a young professionals' organization, works with the S.A.F.E. program and has done events such as mock interviews and career panels.


Sunny Prabhakar, the organization's co-founder, said the program has been "really valuable," and he's seen students respond really well to events with The Commission.

"I kind of subscribe to the old adage, 'if it's not broke, why fix it?'" Barlow said. "There was a working system, and that was a known, so you're eliminating a known in favor of adopting an unknown."

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