St. Paul has a problem with unhappy teachers, and issues go beyond the safety concerns now being discussed at the bargaining table.
Discontent is evident in results of school-by-school surveys obtained by the Star Tribune. Many teachers in the state’s second-largest school district said they would not recommend that parents send children to their schools.
The findings showed that teachers had “weak” or “very weak” commitment to more than one-third of district schools. It was worse at sites with preschool programs, where more than half — 18 of 32 — were rated weak or very weak on teacher commitment. Those schools have been the focus of the district’s promotion efforts leading to Tuesday’s deadline for school-choice applications.
In only six of those buildings did teachers indicate a strong commitment to their schools, the findings show.
John Brodrick, a retired St. Paul teacher now in his 15th year as a school board member, said he found the widespread dissatisfaction disappointing and alarming. Teachers can be committed to their students but not necessarily to their schools, he said, making him wonder: “Is this a case of teachers being placed in a situation where they can’t do their job?”
The school surveys were administered a year ago, as teacher and parent frustration with school discipline and other issues gave rise to a campaign that propelled four political newcomers to school board seats.
Issues of school climate are not a major part of the survey, known as the 5Essentials. It is designed to show how well schools are positioned for improvement through the eyes of the people closest to the classroom: teachers and students.
In areas addressing safety, students were asked how secure they felt in their school’s classrooms, hallways and bathrooms. On average, the schools were judged to be strong on the safety measure. Sixty-nine percent of district teachers said they had some influence or a great deal of influence “setting standards for student behavior.”
Teachers also were asked pointed questions about their loyalty to their school: To what extent do they value working in their building over any other? How much do they look forward to the school day? How likely are they to recommend the school to parents seeking a place for their child?
When asked recently if parents should be worried about teacher commitment at individual schools, Denise Rodriguez, president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, countered that the findings were evidence, instead, of a need for the support staff that parents and teachers have yearned to see at the schools.
“Teachers want schools staffed so that student needs are being met,” Rodriguez wrote in an e-mail. “Frustration flows from this staffing being absent and/or from poor leadership in the building.”
On Wednesday, St. Paul will be among 19 cities that will see teachers, parents and students walking into schools together to show support for neighborhood schools that “serve all children well,” the federation said.
Wellstone, Phalen Lake
Last month, Superintendent Valeria Silva, citing ongoing concerns with student misbehavior in some buildings, deployed administrators to 11 schools. Only two have teachers who’ve expressed a strong commitment to their schools, according to the surveys.
One of the 11 schools, Wellstone Elementary on the North End, is listed as weak in teacher commitment in the 5Essentials survey. There is dissatisfaction, too, with professional development opportunities. On the plus side, teacher-to-teacher trust is strong.
Principal Angelica Van Iperen said that her teachers have pushed for more teaching assistants, and the school responded by changing its 2015-16 budget to replace two instructional coaches with a curriculum coordinator and about three teaching assistants.
She added that there are other ways to measure commitment. “I have teachers crying when they don’t see students making growth,” she said. “They are saying, ‘I want more ideas. I want more help.’ ”
Like Wellstone, Phalen Lake Hmong Studies Magnet has a high percentage of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches. Yet it is close to the Top Ten of schools in commitment, according to the 5Essentials survey. Ninety-five percent of Phalen Lake teachers indicated they could recommend the school to parents, compared with 51 percent at Wellstone.
Principal Catherine Rich credits continual work on teaching practices as well as a willingness to discuss change not as a “gotcha” but as an opportunity to grow.
Part of McKnight grant
Since 2011-12, St. Paul has asked its teachers to complete the 5Essentials surveys as a condition of a grant it receives from the McKnight Foundation. The surveys, also given to teachers and students in the Minneapolis Public Schools, are overseen by a University of Chicago nonprofit group and are designed to show how weak or strong the schools are in five “essential” areas: effective leaders, collaborative teachers, involved families, supportive environment and ambitious instruction.
At the Star Tribune’s request, Minneapolis provided a districtwide summary, but held back the school-level reports because “they contain identifiable information” about school leaders, a district spokesman said.
St. Paul released the school-level reports — minus the take on school leaders — after initially claiming that the documents were not available or had to be heavily redacted at a cost.
The school-by-school commitment level is “very powerful data,” said Joe Nathan, a senior fellow at the Center for School Change. However, he says families should look beyond a single measure in determining which school is right for their children.
At the same time, he advises district leaders to take a close look at what’s working at schools like Phalen Lake and AGAPE High, where teacher commitment is strong.
Asked if she were concerned about teacher reluctance to endorse her school, especially during school-choice season, Van Iperen said the Wellstone community is underserved and lacks economic power. She tells new hires the work “is not for everyone.”
But her teachers also visit many parents at home, she said, to glean insights into their students’ strengths and their dreams for their children.
Their visits have helped bring national attention to the St. Paul Federation of Teachers.
“If that does not show commitment, I don’t know what does,” she said.