St. Paul schools grapple with growing pains

  • Article by: ANTHONY LONETREE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 4, 2013 - 11:44 PM

Early-year changes are “typical,” said St. Paul district officials, who pointed to the plus side of having more students, too.

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Kids go to school in St. Paul

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October has arrived, and for the St. Paul Public Schools, that means firming up student numbers and easing classroom crowding that’s found as many as 56 kids in one high school social studies class.

New teachers have been hired and student schedules shuffled, and while some parents aren’t happy, the changes are “typical” for a school district, officials argue. Teachers never can be sure how many students they have until they walk through the door.

Minneapolis, too, has made staffing adjustments — $2 million worth in its case, according to Ryan Fair, the district’s enrollment director. He seconds St. Paul claims that early changes based on large class sizes are to be expected, but he was not aware of any classrooms that had reached 56 students in the Minneapolis Public Schools.

Oct. 1 is an important date because by then students — some of whom enrolled at several different schools — have settled in, giving district administrators a firmer handle on how many students there are and the revenues that follow. A school district’s budget is a work in progress, adjusted based on how many students actually show.

As of Thursday, St. Paul’s preliminary enrollment count stood at 37,842, essentially unchanged from the 37,840 students in 2012-13, district spokeswoman Toya Stewart Downey said.

Officials say that enrollment is near projections, but unexpected surges in some classrooms or at some grade levels, such as ninth grade at Highland Park High School, have forced changes there that include the hiring of a full-time English teacher and half-time social studies and career and technical instructors, and schedule changes for 250 to 300 students.

At Murray Middle School, an “administrative mishap” (the failure of the school’s previous leaders to complete a 2013-14 master schedule for its incoming students) forced an early scramble to get individuals in the right places while meeting overall class-size goals. That process is “both an art and a science,” said Steve Unowsky, the district’s assistant superintendent of middle schools.

The school’s new principal, Stacy Theien-Collins, had Murray on track by mid-September, he said. As of Wednesday, all but two of about 200 classes met the district’s new class-size goals for grades six through eight, he said.

Beth Commers, a Murray parent, said she likes what she has seen from Theien-Collins, particularly her work to create a calmer school environment. But, she is concerned, too, about there being 42 students in her eighth-grader’s English class. “I don’t think the answer is bringing in more desks,” Commers said.

She has spoken with parents whose kids have had three to five schedule changes thus far this year, she said.

St. Paul, this fall, completed a Strong Schools, Strong Communities reorganization that emphasizes neighborhood schools and puts students on tracks taking them through their elementary to middle school to high school years. The reorganization included transitioning from two-year junior highs to three-year middle schools.

Highland Park High is the destination for Spanish immersion learners, and how that program fits into the school as a whole provides one example of the complexity of the scheduling process.

For grades nine and 10, students in the Spanish immersion program take both language arts and social studies courses. Those class sizes are low, but can’t be used to solve crowding elsewhere, such as the school’s 56-student social studies class. You must be in the Spanish immersion program to be in those language arts and social studies classrooms, said Theresa Battle, assistant superintendent of high schools.

Having to make class-size adjustments and shift students around early in the year “is not something that is unique to St. Paul Public Schools,” said Jackie Turner, the district’s chief engagement officer.

New to the district this year, however, are separate class-size targets for what it defines as high-poverty and low-poverty schools, based on the percentage of students who receive free or reduced-price lunch. Murray, as a low-poverty middle school, aims for 30 students in grade six and 34 in grades seven and eight, but accepts maximums of 33 in grade six and 37 in grades seven and eight. For the high-poverty schools, the ranges are 26 and 31 for grade six, and 30 and 35 for grades seven and eight.

Since the school year started, the district’s had to add three teachers at Humboldt Secondary, two teachers at Washington Secondary and one apiece at Battle Creek and Farnsworth Upper — at a total cost of about $500,000, Unowsky said.

Despite some parental fears that Murray’s student count could soar past 900, the school has fallen short of its 850-student projection, requiring no additional staffing, he said.

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