Across the country, and now at home, urban school districts are drawing on door-to-door ground games not unlike those of political campaigns to recruit kids and improve the bottom line.
St. Paul Public Schools will open its doors for the 2018-19 school year with potentially dozens of new students enlisted as part of a six-week canvassing effort spearheaded by its teachers union.
Milwaukee Public Schools sent enrollment buses into neighborhoods across the city to serve as hubs from which employees could knock on doors. Teachers in Baltimore hit the streets for a second consecutive summer to catch families at home — and at farmers markets, block parties and city festivals, too.
The aim is to build enrollment at a time when charter schools and, in the case of Milwaukee and Baltimore, voucher-empowered private schools, siphon students and sap resources. And they are doing it by taking their message directly to the people.
These are no come-visit-us school fairs.
“Our country will be better off when public schools are fully funded and when we can ensure opportunity for all kids,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, which helped fund this summer’s student recruitment projects in St. Paul and Baltimore. “That doesn’t happen in an instant. It happens with lots and lots and lots of people walking their walk.”
Teachers’ contracts like those in St. Paul, which call for hiring more support staff to make schools safer and more welcoming, cost money, and educators need to be part of the solution when it comes to covering costs when times are tight, she said.
The St. Paul Federation of Teachers proposed the canvassing effort during this year’s contract talks, and secured district buy-in not only for that initiative but also for its desire to have a levy increase put before voters on the November ballot.
Lynne Bolton, a political organizer for the federation who is skilled at get-out-the-vote efforts for political candidates, was tapped to coordinate the project, “Select SPPS.” She deployed nine advocates who eventually knocked on more than 7,300 doors and enrolled 103 kids.
Twenty-one of those students have since been identified as current students looking for different schools, and in those cases, that means no new money. The federation had hoped for another half-a-million dollars in state aid. But the district still comes out ahead on its $10,000 investment.
Bolton said the real payoff is in connections made between union members — mainly front-line employees who assist classroom teachers — and families not fully aware of the district’s offerings. Among the languages spoken by canvassers: Somali, Karen, Hmong and Spanish.
Yasmin Muridi, a Somali interpreter at Four Seasons A+ Elementary, grew tearful recalling conversations with pregnant girls who did not realize, she said, that the district has a school, AGAPE High, which can serve them and their children.
“They were ashamed,” Muridi said. “That’s why we go to talk to them — face-to-face and one-to-one. It was amazing.”
St. Paul and Minneapolis have seen thousands of would-be students head to charter schools in the last decade or more. The districts compete with private schools, too, but unlike Milwaukee and Baltimore, have yet to see a voucher system put in place in Minnesota that would give more families an incentive to go that route.
Last year, Baltimore teachers knocked on 34,000 doors in a campaign that drew more than 300 new preschoolers and 17 dropouts to the city’s schools. It wasn’t enough, however, to prevent an overall drop in student numbers for 2017-18. This summer, 30 teachers and paraprofessionals canvassed the neighborhoods. The campaign ended about a week ago, with enrollment numbers not yet available, union spokeswoman Candance Greene said.
Milwaukee rolled out its enrollment buses the same week in June that the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a blow to unions by ruling that public employees did not have to pay mandatory union fees. But Amy Mizialko, president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, was upbeat about the enrollment campaign. She said members were excited about door-knocking in neighborhoods with private and charter schools, and hopefully winning back some students.
“We are committed to building enrollment with our administration and fighting for every last resource that our children deserve,” she said.
As weeks went by, the Milwaukee district ran a ticker on its website that showed enrollment increasing by the hundreds. The ticker was decommissioned, however, by the time the first wave of students reported to school, and the district is waiting on student counts to be finalized on Sept. 21 before offering new details.
“I would just say that the numbers are encouraging thus far,” Andy Nelson, the district’s media manager, said.
As a political organizer, Bolton is well aware of outside criticism of unions and public schools. There is not enough talk, she said, with actual families.
“By doing this work we are changing the way we are having a conversation about public education,” she said.
‘A good vibe’
Some parents cited incidents involving their children that they weren’t happy about, and they pulled them. But for the most part, Bolton and Muridi said, parents whose children graduated from the district spoke positively of the experience, and of dedicated staff members, in particular.
Last week, Jackie Turner, the district’s chief operating officer, said: “I think, collectively, it was a great program. Our families in the community felt a good vibe from it.”
There is talk of continuing it, perhaps with changes that have yet to be identified.
Muridi, who acknowledged there were times when not everyone was pleased to see a Muslim woman at the door, was asked if she would re-enlist.
“Of course,” she said. “The whole team would jump back in. Because we did a good job. That was the feeling. We are educators.”
Her phone number is out there, too, and as the first day of a new school year approached, Muridi said she still was getting calls from parents asking about the schools.