ST. PAUL, Minn. – Aaron Benner knew he couldn’t stay in St. Paul Public Schools as a teacher any longer.
But after dedicating 14 years of his life to the children of the district, he still wanted to help. So he decided to stay involved by running for a post on the St. Paul school board.
Benner, who taught elementary grades in the St. Paul district, made headlines over the past two years for speaking publicly about what he considers a frightening lack of student discipline in the city’s public schools.
Benner, who is black, was particularly critical of a breakdown in discipline for black students, particularly boys.
He said district administrators were determined to dramatically decrease the number of out of school suspension for black students, and as a result ended up creating an environment with very few repercussions for bad behavior.
That has resulted in a chaotic, unruly and dangerous atmosphere, where very little learning takes place in many classrooms, according to Benner.
Benner said the problem can be traced to the school district’s three-year-old contractual relationship with the Pacific Educational Group, a radical San Francisco-based organization that makes millions of dollars in consulting fees every year from public schools throughout the nation.
PEG’s philosophy is based on the controversial theory of “white privilege,” which is the notion that the American K-12 education system (and society in general) is skewed against people of color.
The organization teaches that black kids frequently lag behind academically because lessons are taught in white cultural terms they don’t understand. PEG also teaches that black kids get into a disproportionate amount of trouble because school officials don’t understand their cultural norms.
PEG’s answer is for educators to adjust their academic and behavioral expectations of black students, stop suspending or expelling them for bad behavior, and literally roll with the punches, according to Benner.
That philosophy destroys the chance for many black children to gain the discipline and structure they need to succeed in life, Benner said.
“You are not doing kids any favors by making excuses for them because they are black,” Benner told EAGnews in the spring. “It’s not a matter of culture if you’re talking about norms that all cultures need to abide by – you cannot throw things or attack your teacher, regardless of your race.”
After turning to administrators and the school board with his concerns for the past few years, and getting very little positive response, Benner finally resigned from his teaching position over the summer.
This week he started a new job at Community of Peace Academy, a charter school in St. Paul. His title is African-American Liaison/Behavior Coach.
He will be working with the school’s growing population of black students as they work to make the adjustment to a charter school, where academic and behavioral expectations are typically higher than in traditional public schools.
“They sought me out,” said Benner, who worked at the school in the past and said he had a positive experience. “In the last 10 years they’ve had a great influx of African-American students. There is nowhere near anything like the types of things that are going on in St. Paul schools. They are just a lot more proactive here.
“I’ll be working with all students and all teachers in a preventative role. I will be able to co-teach, I can pull a group of students and work with them. I’m very excited.”
But even with the job change, Benner still worried about conditions in his old district. That’s why he decided to jump into the race for the school board, which will have four vacancies to fill.
Benner is one of six candidates in the November election. The top four vote-getters will earn four-year terms.
“It crossed my mind about a month ago,” Benner said about running for the board. “I was actually on a treadmill watching the moving The Untouchables. It’s about Elliott Ness and how he was assigned to rid Chicago during the prohibition era of Al Capone and his cronies.
“It reminded me of St. Paul Public Schools and the arrogance, how they are not only corrupt, but are going to throw it right in your face and challenge you to do something about it. I thought to myself, somebody needs to be an Elliott Ness.
“I think I have a unique perspective. St. Paul is getting rid of all of its incumbents (on the board), and without me and four other teachers complaining, that would not have been the case. I was thinking, I’m already part of this.”
Benner said he initially was just thinking about getting his name on the ballot and leaving the outcome to the voters, with little or no campaigning. But he said he’s since been contacted by citizens who want to help promote his candidacy.
“I’m not a politician, but a lot of people think I can win,” Benner said. “I didn’t plan on actively campaigning, but I’ve been talking to people who want to donate money. I’m not sure what’s going to happen, but it’s exciting.”
Benner added one note of caution. He said his first priority is is new school and new job, and if the school board campaign starts affecting that, he could decide to drop out.
“I want to bring my passion and energy to the kids at this school,” he said. “Between now and November if I find that I’m not giving my new job 100 percent of my time and energy I will pull out. This job deserves my attention.”