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Meet the candidate: Zuki Ellis

School Board candidate   

What are your three biggest priorities if you are elected? 

  • We need to increase student achievement so our young people have access, opportunities, and resources for the best academic outcomes. 
  • We need to increase critical support services for our students so they come to school mentally and physically ready to learn.
  • We need to find more ways to effectively engage our students and families making them full partners in our educational strategies.

The School Board recently passed a $1 billion budget for St. Paul Public Schools for the 2024 fiscal year, the first budget of that size for any district in the state, with a plan to increase the number of teacher and support staff in the district. The increased budget includes an increase in state funding, a substantial portion of general reserve funds and federal COVID relief funds that will sunset at the end of next year. Do you approve of the plan for this budget? How will you prioritize budget items in future years as funding sources reduce, sunset or become otherwise unavailable?

Yes, I approve. Advocacy for fully funding our schools will need to continue at a state level. It’s the largest allocation for schools, but it’s the kind of commitment we need from the federal and state governments to invest in education for our students and staff across SPPS. We can’t just have it in one-time money though, we need to know that the programs showing successful outcomes can be sustained for more than a few years. We need to support our people in SPPS with professional development opportunities in more holistic ways. Supporting them supports our students. The impacts of COVID will be felt into the foreseeable future in education. Understanding where and how to combat the results of it comes with experience. To move the needle towards consensus on action takes relationships built over years not months. I have that experience and I’ve built trust and credibility over two terms. People know me and what I stand for. They know I’m student and family centered. They also know that I am knowledgeable and come prepared because they’ve known me in my roles as board chair, vice chair, state and local boards and committee member, and fighting for our kids at the capitol. I’ve also been in the schools talking to students, staff, and service providers. I show up. That’s how I learn, that’s how I understand complex choices, that’s how I prioritize budget needs, and that’s how I decide how to vote on these important issues.   

As we emerge from the COVID pandemic, test scores are continuing to show students tracking behind pre-pandemic levels. While test scores aren’t the only measure of academic success, what are your thoughts on the district’s response to the learning loss experienced by students during the pandemic?

The pandemic was a tragedy for the world. It was honestly the hardest time our educational system has seen. Everything changed drastically overnight. We had to reinvent how we taught, how we connected to students, how we assessed their progress. We were connected, but disconnected boxes on screens, often without faces. How to educate, govern, connect on social emotional levels was altered for all of us. We did what we thought was best, but it was not enough. Our community was overwhelmed. We’ve learned a lot from those difficult days that we’re putting into play moving forward, but it will take years to recover. I am still unsure what real recovery looks like, so much has changed, but I believe we’re making progress. We’re regaining the trust of our students and families as shown by the increased enrollment this year. We’ve implemented successful new programs like WINN to promote literacy. We’ve expanded our pre-school classes, opened a new East African Magnet School, introduced a Critical Ethnic Studies class that is required for graduation, and more. We are making academic gains for our students and that is encouraging and important. As I said, it won’t happen overnight, but I’m confident we are on the right path.

Student’s need to feel safe to learn their best, yet St. Paul Public Schools has had a number of high profile violent incidents in recent years. In fact, a recent survey by SPPS found that about a quarter of families reported one or more of their children being involved in a violent incident. What is your position on how the district is addressing violence in St. Paul’s schools and ensuring student safety?

I have to point out that only 8% of our 31,000 families responded to that survey, but that’s still too many incidents. Unfortunately, there is violence in our communities and some of our students struggle with that in our schools. This is first and foremost a problem that needs to be addressed in cooperation with our entire community using their collective influence and support. The survey, which also went out to students and staff, was an important step in getting our arms around the extent of the problem by engaging our educational community. We’ve taken other steps by introducing new measures in our schools to increase security and safety, including improved technology for monitoring school entrances and hallways; more School Support Liaisons with deep community connections; and staffed calming spaces in 30 of our schools where students can recharge when they are feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, or simply need a quiet spot to prepare for their day. Ultimately, knowing our kids and making them feel they belong and are valued starts when they’re babies. We all need to be a part of that solution.

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