by ALEXANDRA RETTER
A group charged with examining Winona Area Public Schools’ (WAPS) student support services recommended that the district hire cultural liaisons, new staff positions dedicated to supporting students of color. The group also recommended that the district create support groups or clubs for Black students, Latinx students and Asian American students in high school. The recommendations will go before School Board members this Thursday. As the district develops next year’s budget, however, questions remain about how and whether WAPS will fund those recommendations.
At an anti-racism protest last summer, hiring a cultural liaison was one of the main demands from citizens. School Board members have had several contentious split votes on the cultural liaison, as well.
The student support services study group’s recommendation that the district establish support groups for students of color arrives as WAPS tries to make its schools more welcoming to minority students and after a current group for students of color — Our Voices — decided to part ways with the district.
The student support services study group will also recommend that the district work to expand how students receive mental health services, put a mental health screening tool in place, have student support groups that address topics such as grief and depression, and support students learning about social interactions and their emotions. The group will recommend that WAPS implement inclusive curriculum and improve how it helps students move from elementary to middle to high school and post-secondary life, as well, among other recommendations.
WAPS Superintendent Annette Freiheit wrote in the group’s report that the district plans to consider the recommendations as it develops the budget for next year. However, she said, WAPS may remove some of staff members’ current responsibilities while adding new ones to bring the recommendations to fruition.
The group consisted of representatives from WAPS and the Winona community. It studied the district’s student support services, such as counseling and social work. School Board members unanimously approved the student support services study last June.
Consideration of a cultural liaison position became part of the student support services study after the School Board voted 4-3 on two separate occasions last year to not establish a cultural liaison position. The district’s Diversity and Equity Committee also recommended last September that the board consider establishing a cultural liaison position. Ultimately, board members voted 5-2 last October to tack a review of a cultural liaison position onto the support services study.
Some School Board members said they wanted district leaders to have enough time to develop a proposal for the position. “I believe that it’s wise to take a look at it closely, see how it intertwines with the rest of our district organizational structure, so that this can be a real, effective position, impactful position,” School Board member Jim Schul said at the board’s September 17 meeting. “So basically, our superintendent is going to be trying to build something on the ground as opposed to something in the sky. Right now, we have something in the sky.”
Others said they would prefer that the district hire a cultural liaison sooner than later. “I understand we’re going to have budget issues because of the pandemic, but this is absolutely something we cannot be waiting for anymore,” former School Board member Allison Quam said at the board’s September 3 meeting. “People have waited way too long to be represented. It’s really time, it’s past time, that we have different people in positions of leadership, in terms of who our students see every day. I was in college the first time I went to a school where someone wasn’t white. That’s wrong. I don’t want my kids to become adults and to have never had a staff person of color. I think that’s just a loss.”
Some community members have also called for the district to hire a cultural liaison. Community members voiced their support for the position at a rally last June following the killing of George Floyd. During the rally, current WAPS students and alumni spoke of instances of discrimination they faced in the district. Some community members also advocated for the position in public comments they submitted at School Board meetings. “I believe that BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color] students need a person they can bring their concerns to who understand what they’ve lived … Other public school districts have cultural liaisons for these purposes, and those that I’ve spoken to all have expressed that creating this position has nothing but positive results,” community member Jovy Rockey wrote in her public comment at the School Board’s October 1 meeting. “The time is now to serve our families in more meaningful ways so that the students are supported and feel they, too, can thrive equitably in the WAPS school district.”
The School Board will meet on Thursday, February 18, at 6 p.m. The meeting may be viewed at https://winonak12mnus.finalsite.com/district/school-board/live-stream. Public comment may be submitted on Thursday between 5:15 p.m. and 5:45 p.m. at https://forms.gle/AsjSw84r3NHyyN4L7.