Liz Keenan

Liz Keenan, the former Assistant Superintendent of St Paul Public Schools discusses addressing the challenge of disproportionality in St Paul Schools and how adaptive leadership helped lead to systemic change.

Defining the Problem Since the inception of special education, race has been connected to disability, and disproportionality has been an issue (Losen & Orfield, 2002). Disproportionality in special education is the over- or underrepresentation of students with specific disability classifications by race, ethnicity, and gender who are educated in segregated environments, and/or restrained, suspended, or expelled.

  • 31% were Asian Americans
  • 30% were African American
  • 24% were White
  • 13% were Hispanic
  • 2% were American Indians

Just under 19% of SPSS students received special education services, higher than the state and national averages of 13%. During this time, SPSS saw disproportionate representation in classification rates and in the amount of time students spent in general education classes. The relationship between African American students classified with emotional/behavior disorders (EBD) and White students classified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is perhaps most revealing:

  • While 30% of the general student population was African American, 60% of the students classified with EBD were African American, indicating an overrepresentation of African American students classified as EBD.
  • While 24% of the general student population was White, 60% of the students classified with ASD were White, indicating an overrepresentation of White students classified as EBD.


  • African American students classified with EBD made up 76% of the student population spending the majority of their day in a separate special education program and 70% of students classified with ASD, primarily White students, spent the majority of their day in a general education setting.

This meant that if you were a White student with ASD in SPPS, it was more likely that you would be educated in the general education classroom setting and if you were an African-American student classified with EBD, it was more likely that you would be educated in the special education classroom setting.

Confronting the Issues

St. Paul Public Schools was not proud of this data, and as the then new assistant superintendent for the Office of Specialized Services, it was critical that I correct the overrepresentation of ethnically diverse students in special education and focus on academic outcomes for all students. Systemic change with substantive transformation was required to address the deep-rooted issues underlying the disproportionality. As a leader, I knew that resolving this challenge could not be done in a simplistic way, and specifically, as a special education team, we had to address the issue by intentionally discussing race and our own belief systems.

One of the ways we confronted the complex issue of race and disproportionality was to move away from solving issues with technical solutions to solving issues with sustainable and adaptive solutions. Adaptive leadership, according to Heifetz, Grashow and Linsky, “is an approach to making progress on the most important challenges you face in your piece and part of the world” (p.3).

  • Adaptive solutions focus on looking deeper into the root causes and the human impact on the system.
  • Technical solutions look at the issues through a lens of protocols and procedures. Issues are solved by checklists, prescriptive procedures, and policies (Engestrom & Sannino, 2010). Technical solutions focus on surface level changes, and they rarely produce long-term solutions that address the root causes of a complex issue.

Addressing disproportionality in SPPS’s special education department required that the entire system adapt:

  • We needed to create a system that fostered a culture of inclusion and focused on academic outcomes.
  • As a leadership team, we had to uncover our own prejudices towards students and examine and understand that the issue was not poverty, but race.

We examined the danger of masking disproportionality as a result of poverty, rather than a result of systemic racism. Masking disproportionality as poverty instead of race places the focus on economics and diminishes the role that the social and political environment has on the special education system. It also challenges the knowledge that the special education system cannot be thought of as a singular entity.

  • Address our core beliefs around changing a system that perpetuated disproportionality
  • Redefine what academic success looked like, especially for our African American students identified as having EBD

Addressing these issues was not easy. Scrutinizing our own racial lenses, as well as the policies and procedures our department had established that allowed for such predictable outcomes, forced us to re-examine our entire system. We all believed we were working in the best interest of our students, but our adaptive work helped us to see we were really perpetuating segregated systems for our African American students. We were not looking at how the systems were actually working and what outcomes they were producing. This conclusion led us to the technical issue that we were not, but we needed to be, looking at our data by race.

Making Changes

As the leader of the Office of Specialized Services, I started with my team of supervisors, leading them to understand that to create long-term changes for our most marginalized students in special education, African-Americans, we needed to believe that (1) they were, in fact, marginalized, and (2) this really was an issue of race.

Next, we worked with SPPS principals, school psychologists, and special education coaches to look for patterns where race was impacting identification and, thus, student outcomes.

These individuals then worked with teachers and paraprofessionals to create systems where students, and African-American students in particular, were included in the general education environment as much as the White students were. We developed a system for looking at our data by race on a quarterly basis.

The changes for addressing disproportionality were difficult. I had to be personally introspective while also advocating for the changes that would support all students with disabilities, especially our students from ethnically diverse backgrounds. As a leadership team, we had to determine how to examine our systemic practices and then make the necessary changes to support students who had been marginalized, even when those changes were not popular.

Final Thoughts As a leader in special education, addressing disproportionality was especially challenging because it required interrupting old systems and providing students with new opportunities. But providing equity in order for all students to access high-quality education is what all educational leaders strive to achieve.

The special education system in SPPS is not perfect, but it is continuously improving to positively affect the academic outcomes for all students in special education. That is what adaptive leadership is all about—looking at the challenges, disrupting systems, continuously reexamining data and student outcomes, and facing complex problems with the willingness to address the root causes of those challenges.


Dr. Elizabeth Keenan began her position as the new Director of Special Education and Deputy Chief for Chicago Public Schools. Dr. Keenan earned her PhD at Marian University in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. Her role has been in both special education and general education throughout her career. Elizabeth was the Director of Special Services and moved into the role of Director of Teaching and Learning in a suburban district outside of Minneapolis/St. Paul. Dr. Keenan was the Assistant Superintendent for St Paul Public Schools for the past 5 years prior to starting her new position for the nation’s 3rd largest school system, Chicago.

Q & A

What lessons from SPSS are you bringing to your new role in Chicago?

The lessons I learned from being in St Paul was understanding how race impacted special education. For many years, I looked at how to support special education students instructionally. However, I learned very quickly by being in St Paul, that race plays a major role in special education. Being an educator, I have to make sure that all students are supported equally and that our race should not be a factor on who receives access to general education and who does not.

What are your words of wisdom to share with district leaders?

For any new leader moving into a new district and moving into a urban district, you need to understand who you are as leader and remember you’re the focus on students. I also have learned that you have to learn the culture of the district but offer other perspectives. Finally, I have learned that it is very important to not lose a focus on special education and making sure students are not marginalized.

What are your final thoughts?

Special education directors, no matter what district you are in, need to focus on instructional practices for special education and to understand how race is playing into your data and where students are placed.