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.”