St. Paul teachers deal heads for union vote

Pending contract focuses on stronger ties with students, officials say.

While the push to shrink class sizes grabbed much of the attention, the tentative deal between St. Paul and its teachers offers other ways, too, for teachers to build stronger relationships, officials say.

And not just with students, but parents, too.

The two-year contract, headed to a teacher ratification vote Tuesday and, if approved, school board action March 18, would allow for expansion of the district’s Parent Teacher Home Visit Project and the creation of new school-level academic parent-teacher teams.

The team concept is a twist on the traditional parent-teacher conference. Instead of having teachers meet one-on-one with parents, they would meet with a classroom of parents in a group setting. The collaborative approach has led to student suspension numbers falling sharply in some cities, said Nick Faber, secretary of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers.

The idea was promoted by the union during negotiations and welcomed by the district. But the two sides were not always so agreeable.

They wrapped up talks Feb. 21 after a near-24-hour session, and with a strike-authorization vote looming. The resulting deal calls for giving teachers an 8.6 percent wage-and-benefit increase over two years as well as class size relief, which the union has seen as essential to developing the teacher-to-student bond.

And what of the relationship between the union and the district?

“The process did have its ups and downs for each individual along the way. There were some tough moments. It will take some time to recover from it,” said Matt Mohs, the district’s chief academic officer. “But, in the end, there is a recognition that this is part of the process and in the end we worked in service of the kids. That helped.”

Faber, who also was part of the negotiations, agreed that there were some difficulties but no hard feelings.

“Both sides have made it really clear that this is not about personalities,” but about differences of opinion on how to go about doing what’s best for students, he said. “Sometimes, it takes a little more pressure to get to that point.”

Al Oertwig, a former school board member who served before and after the district and the union narrowly averted a strike in 1989, said that the issue then was about teacher mistrust of the administration. Relations between the union and current Superintendent Valeria Silva are not as strained, he said. But they also are not perfect, and her administrative team would be well advised to keep communications open, he added.

“The teachers in the classroom are the ones that have to make things happen,” Oertwig said.

Moving ahead

The union set out in the current round of bargaining to move beyond wages and benefits to other goals like class-size reduction and the hiring of additional nurses, social workers, counselors and librarians. Those hires, the union said, would help to educate “the whole child.”

Last week, Mohs said the 42 new staff members would include 10 media specialists, 10 elementary school counselors, seven nurses and five social workers in 2014-15, and another five media specialists and five counselors the following year.

It is not yet known, he said, where those people would be deployed. The district also must determine how new class-size limits will affect student placement in 2014-15 and the location of new preschool classrooms.

On the family engagement front, the union has drawn national attention for a program in which teachers arrange home visits to speak with students and ask parents about their “hopes and dreams” for their children. The program offers a $50 stipend for each visit and is built on the premise that teachers and parents are better partners in a child’s education when they know each other. The new contract would raise total funding for the stipends from $50,000 to $75,000.

The new academic parent-teacher teams would be launched on a pilot basis at any school in which at least 60 percent of teachers support the plan, Faber said.

At the group meetings, parents would discuss achievement goals and learn about activities they can do with their children at home. In 2011-12, the program was launched at several Washington, D.C., schools. Student proficiency rose and suspensions fell at higher rates than at nonparticipating schools, a Flamboyan Foundation study showed.

 

Anthony Lonetree • 651-925-5036

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