Educators armed with clipboards and iPads will fan across select neighborhoods in St. Paul this summer with a frank pitch to families: enroll in St. Paul Public Schools.
In an effort to tackle the school district’s declining enrollment and budget woes, the district and teachers union are teaming up in a new campaign starting Monday — door-knocking to directly ask families who moved their kids to other schools, especially charter schools, to consider returning to their neighborhood school.
Modeled after a door-knocking campaign in Baltimore, Md., that signed up more than 300 pre-kindergarten students last year, St. Paul’s new $41,000 initiative, called Select SPPS, will pay 10 educators to do the same.
Over six weeks, they aim to knock on 10,000 doors near nine schools that have room to add students. They hope to get feedback from families on what they are looking for from the public schools and sign them up on the spot.
“We think we can provide the best education for your kids,” Nick Faber, president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, said Thursday at a news conference to announce the campaign. “It’s about getting out, talking about the great things that are happening in St. Paul Public Schools, seeing what we can learn more from our parents and community members and encouraging them to come back to St. Paul.”
Besides boosting enrollment — and the state funding that comes with each student — union leaders are also looking for support from local corporations and nonprofits. And this fall, the district is planning to go to voters for a referendum.
From 2013-14 to last fall, the school district’s K-12 enrollment has dropped by nearly 1,200 students. And for the 2018-2019 school year, the 36,000-student district faces a $17.2 million budget shortfall.
Across the Mississippi River, Minneapolis Public Schools face the same situation, while elsewhere in the Twin Cities, suburban districts such as Wayzata and Anoka-Hennepin are building new schools to keep up with booming student enrollment.
The reason for the divide, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said, is less about urban vs. suburban schools and more about the fact that certain communities face increasing competition with charter schools.
“Charters are viewed as the panacea,” she said. “There have been real bites taken out of [public school districts’] budgets.”
That’s why, in 2011, then-Superintendent Valeria Silva led a similar marketing effort, canvassing St. Paul neighborhoods with district employees. But the effort didn’t achieve its goal of boosting enrollment by 3,000 students by 2014.
Faber said they hope this year’s effort, which came out of the union’s contract negotiations with the district, is more successful because it’s a collaborative effort. The district is paying $10,000 of the $41,000 cost for the initiative, with the rest provided by the American Federation of Teachers.
“Our arms are open, our doors are open and our hearts are open to how we can work together as a community to strengthen our school district,” Superintendent Joe Gothard said.
At Hamline Elementary School, Principal Kristin Reilly said the school is 80 percent full after losing students a few years ago when it transitioned from being a magnet language school drawing students from all over the city to a community school, enrolling students from the neighborhood. Now, with the Green Line light rail and Minnesota United’s new soccer stadium being built nearby, she said new families are moving into the neighborhood, and the school has the opportunity to make its case.
“Schools have been considered the centerpiece of a community,” added St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter, who is also a district parent. “We are a growing and rapidly changing city, and families in St. Paul are looking for something different, something new from our schools.”
It may be a tough sell for some families. On Thursday, Kelley Murray and Felicia Winkler, both educational assistants, carried clipboards as they walked through the neighborhood outside Hamline Elementary.
“Do you have a moment?” Winkler said to a man with an infant strapped to his chest as he walked his dog.
She asked him what his impressions were of the school district. He told her he’s heard of a lot of families going to schools elsewhere and that he and his wife were concerned about reports of violence in St. Paul Public Schools. They were considering sending their child to a German immersion school. But Winkler said she wasn’t discouraged by the feedback.
“It plants the seed,” she said. “Maybe in five years he’ll say ‘I live in this neighborhood and I should go to this school.’ ”