Smaller classes in St. Paul schools mean less room for diversity

The St. Paul teachers’ contract may have an unwanted side effect: Limiting school spots for the city’s integration effort.

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St. Paul schools Superintendent Valeria Silva.

Photo: Joel Koyama, Star Tribune

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The class-size lim­its her­ald­ed as a key fac­et of the new St. Paul public schools teachers contract are com­pli­cat­ing ef­forts to boost en­roll­ment and blunt­ing an in­itia­tive de­signed to in­te­grate some of the district’s most popu­lar schools.

That initiative, Re­flect­ing St. Paul, was launched this school year and seeks to open seats in 11 schools to stu­dents from neighborhoods with low­er in­comes, high­er per­cent­ages of non-Eng­lish-speak­ing families and low­er test scores.

Under the program, the stu­dents, many from mi­nor­i­ty groups, are en­ti­tled to one-fifth of the avail­able seats in each school. A­vail­a­bil­i­ty hing­es on how many seats remain open af­ter first be­ing al­lo­cat­ed to chil­dren liv­ing within each of the re­spec­tive school com­mu­ni­ties.

With the new class-size lim­its, however, the schools had fewer seats to be­gin with in plan­ning for the 2014-15 school year. For Re­flect­ing St. Paul, in particular, the school-choice lottery results, as of last week, reveal a 41 percent de­cline in stu­dent place­ment at the 11 schools — from 378 stu­dents in April 2013 to 222 stu­dents this year.

District of­fi­cials say that be­cause the teach­er con­tract talks co­in­cid­ed with the school-se­lec­tion proc­ess already underway for fami­lies, there was no time af­ter a set­tle­ment was reached in late February to change rules gov­ern­ing the lot­ter­y sys­tem — if any chan­ges were de­sired. They also were quick to not as­sign blame.

“This is no­bod­y’s fault,” Superintendent Va­ler­i­a Silva told school board mem­bers re­cent­ly.

Shrink­ing class sizes is “some­thing we as a com­muni­ty want­ed to do,” said Jackie Tur­ner, the dis­trict’s chief en­gage­ment of­fi­cer.

The push to lock in low­er class-size lim­its proved a vi­tal ral­ly­ing point for the St. Paul Federation of Teachers. Par­ents backed the un­ion in events out­side schools and dis­trict headquarters. A Face­book group, “I Stand With SPFT,” topped 1,500 mem­bers.

Re­flect­ing St. Paul stu­dents account for a small per­cent­age of over­all en­roll­ment in the St. Paul dis­trict, the state’s se­cond-larg­est with 37,756 stu­dents.

Jim Hil­bert, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Center for Ne­go­ti­a­tion and Justice at Wil­liam Mitchell College of Law, was tapped by the dis­trict to serve on a group that ad­vised it on in­te­gra­tion is­sues as it launched Silva’s Strong Schools, Strong Com­mu­ni­ties stra­tegic plan, which placed new em­pha­sis on neigh­bor­hood schools.

It’s a ‘start’

Earli­er this year, he said, the dis­trict sup­plied him with data show­ing 447 stu­dents e­ven­tu­al­ly were placed at the 11 schools this year un­der the Re­flect­ing St. Paul in­itia­tive. Out of near­ly 38,000 stu­dents, 447 is a small num­ber, he not­ed, but it is a “start,” he said.

He added, however, that he was dis­ap­point­ed with the 2014-15 pro­jec­tions.

“It’s a step away from the com­mit­ment they made to re­duce seg­re­ga­tion,” Hil­bert said.

Said Jeff Mar­tin, pres­i­dent of the NAACP’s St. Paul chap­ter, “We are not pre­par­ing chil­dren for the world if it’s in a ho­mo­ge­ne­ous class­room.”

In de­cid­ing who can fill which classroom seats where, the dis­trict ad­opt­ed en­roll­ment cri­teria with six pri­or­i­ty lev­els. Students who fall with­in Re­flect­ing St. Paul pa­ram­e­ters have se­cond pri­or­i­ty, ahead of chil­dren of dis­trict employees, for ex­am­ple, and behind only those stu­dents who liv­e with­in a school’s geographic boundary.

In 2013-14, ac­cord­ing to the data pro­vid­ed to Hil­bert, 34 stu­dents in the Re­flect­ing St. Paul program were placed at Randolph Heights El­e­men­ta­ry, where 72 percent of stu­dents are white and 26 percent qual­i­fy for free or re­duced-price lunch­es, according to state data.

Un­der the new con­tract, which trim­s kin­der­gar­ten class sizes from 30 to 26 stu­dents, Randolph Heights will have 78 kindergarten seats avail­able for 2014-15 across three sec­tions. Seventy-two were spok­en for be­fore Re­flect­ing St. Paul stu­dents could qual­i­fy for one of the re­main­ing six seats, Tur­ner said.

“Should Re­flect­ing St. Paul come first?” she won­dered a­loud dur­ing a re­cent inter­view.

That discussion, she said, would involve school board mem­bers, the teach­ers un­ion and the com­muni­ty at large. Board Member Jean O’Con­nell, who was chair­woman dur­ing the fi­nal two years of Strong Schools, Strong Com­mu­ni­ties plan­ning, said that board members need­ed school-choice lot­ter­y re­sults be­fore they could con­sider moves such as creating ad­di­tion­al classroom space or chan­ging school boun­dar­ies.

Tur­ner said that she ex­pects those dis­cus­sions to take place in 2014-15. Total en­roll­ment is likely to be on the a­gen­da, too.

Silva, who has made en­roll­ment growth a pri­or­i­ty of her Strong Schools, Strong Com­mu­ni­ties plan, said last week that hopes for an enrollment in­crease in 2014-15 will be “dif­fi­cult to meet.”

 

Anthony Lonetree • 651-925-5036

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