Salt Lake City mayor's new adviser focused on ending ‘school-to-prison pipeline’

(Al Hartmann | The Salt Lake Tribune) Angela Doan is Salt Lake City's new Senior Advisor for Education, a position that's new to the Mayor's Office. She grew up in Salt Lake City and taught in the Salt Lake City School District for four years before moving to Massachusetts to get her law degree and work for students and child advocacy groups.

Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski’s new adviser on education says she felt the Utah school system was working against her during the four years she taught at Glendale’s Edison Elementary School.

Angela Doan often found herself choosing between meeting students’ needs and adhering to standards set by elected leaders with no experience in the classroom. That teaching stint at Edison, she said, led her to refocus her career on education policies more centered on teachers and students, an approach she is pushing now as Biskupski’s senior liaison for schools.

“I was getting tired of being considered that ‘elementary school teacher,’ when that stereotype doesn’t foot the bill for any teacher I know,” Doan said. “I hated that feeling of being dismissed or being perceived as having no credibility.”

The 30-year-old Glendale native will be City Hall’s chief contact with Salt Lake City School District, with an emphasis on reforming school-discipline policies and enhancing early-childhood education. Doan will also work closely with Salt Lake City Police Department’s student-resource officers.

It was her combined experience with city schools and education policy that caught the attention of Biskupski, who said in an interview she hopes Doan can foster more trust between the mayor’s office and school district officials.

“We need to be able to look at where we are still seeing gaps in our education system and making sure that all kids have equal opportunities to be academically successful,” the mayor said.

‘A good partner’

At Edison, Doan and fellow teachers created remedial programs to bring students’ skills up to grade level on several topics, including reading comprehension, as part of a federal Title I improvement grant targeting economically disadvantaged kids.

After leaving the classroom, Doan pursued dual law and masters in education leadership degrees from Boston College in Massachusetts, graduating in May. During her studies, Doan worked for the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights; Massachusetts Advocates for Children and the New England Innocence Project.

Salt Lake City’s position of mayoral advisor on education had previously been jointly paid for by the school district and the mayor’s office. District spokeswoman Yandary Chatwin said prior advisers also have managed a grant-supported panel of school, city and nonprofit leaders to review and address issues facing the district, in what was known as the Cap City Group.

“The city has been a good partner to us,” Chatwin said, “and that partnership will only be stronger with an education advisor.”

But the adviser job is now fully paid from the city budget, with school discipline — and ending what Biskupski refers to as “the school-to-prison pipeline” — now central to Doan’s portfolio.

Motivations for that shift track back to 2010, when city police led a “gang sweep” at West High School in Salt Lake City, during which officers unlawfully detained between 14 and 40 students of color for questioning and falsely accused them of being gang members.

The incident sparked a civil-rights lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union on the students’ behalf that ultimately forced sweeping changes in school disciplinary policies. And as that federal case progressed, a 2014 study identified key school policies it said funneled some students from public schools into the juvenile and criminal justice system.

The report, using federal data, found that Utah students were being disciplined at extremely high rates, starting as early as elementary school. The report also found that disciplinary steps, such as suspension or expulsion, made students more prone to landing in the criminal justice system.

New approaches

Salt Lake City School District has since sought to improve its disciplinary policies. Rather than punitive measures that are exclusionary, including suspension or expulsion, the district favors practices that identify what may be motivating a student’s behaviors, such as trauma or a difficult home life.

Mindi Holmdahl, director of student services for the District, said teachers and administrators are now trained frequently on such tactics. The district has also set clearer boundaries on who administers discipline in schools and how student-resource officers stationed at schools work with students, faculty and staff.

In addition, Holmdahl said home visits to speak with families are more common and many teachers now set aside time to work on calming strategies with students.

“The whole point,” Holmdahl said, “was to reduce excessive exclusionary discipline and improve school law enforcement and relationships with schools and the community.”

District data show that school-based citations have declined significantly since the 2014 report was released. Citations fell from 503 during the 2013-2014 school year to 112 last year in Salt Lake City schools.

Doan said that although the mayor has no direct control over education, her work can help foster support for schools from city officials in ways that help the district meet its goals.

Her first months on the job have included meetings with police officers, whom, she said, welcomed her warmly.

‘Symbiotic relationship’

Another goal of hiring Doan, Biskupski said, is to build more relationships between the city, the district and a variety of community organizations, particularly with United Way of Salt Lake and the Rotary Club. Both already do valuable philanthropic work in school districts across the valley, but the mayor said she believes building those ties can only improve the prospects of helping students and teachers.

James Yapias, director of the district’s Education Foundation, said he also supports developing more district partnerships with nonprofit groups to bolster academic or enrichment programs, particularly in the district’s community learning centers and widening opportunities in early childhood education.

Doan said that taking the job has given her a sharper sense of how a variety of city policies intersect with district goals. Affordable housing, for example — currently billed as a top priority at City Hall — has a direct impact on students, families and teachers by providing stability, she said.

“It’s all tied together,” Doan said, “in a symbiotic relationship.“

Empowering Salt Lake City’s students “could be a norm in our city, that everyone has an opportunity to become successful. ” Doan said of her position. “And I want kids to feel that when they get a job or a career, that it’s what they chose and what they wanted for themselves — not just something they got stuck with.”