On days when the cold or snow delays the start of school, some students trickle into Ryan Long’s classroom at American Indian Magnet school, while others stay home altogether.
Sadly, it’s on these rare occasions that Long and other St. Paul teachers glimpse what it’s like teaching a manageable class size of students.
“All of a sudden, you could manage your classroom,” Long said, joining a demonstration outside the school building before the start of classes this morning. “You can get things done.”
Limiting class sizes is among the key proposals Long’s union, the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, has prioritized in ongoing contract negotiations with the St. Paul Public Schools. SPFT members highlighted those priorities during “walk-in” demonstrations before class today at 55 school sites citywide, including American Indian Magnet in Dayton’s Bluff.
Parents, students and neighbors joined teachers at the walk-ins, showing their support for contract proposals the SPFT developed after months of gathering input from community stakeholders.
“We started our negotiation work with families, students and community members. It is only natural to continue that,” SPFT President Mary Cathryn Ricker said. “It’s time to make progress on a contract that ensures the schools St. Paul children deserve.”
Negotiations began eight months ago. Along with limits on class size, teachers are pushing for expanded access to pre-Kindergarten; guaranteed staffing of school nurses, social workers, media specialists and other support staff; and a de-emphasis on standardized testing.
Michele Fairbanks, who teaches at the American Indian Magnet and has a daughter in the school, pointed to research by the union indicating some students spend as much as 30 days per school year taking tests.
“One set of tests is fine,” Fairbanks said. “But three or four standardized tests per year is overkill. The tests cost a lot of money, and that takes a lot away from students, from class sizes.”
In September, the district moved the talks into closed-door mediation and out of the public eye – a decision that rankled many teachers.
“The school district makes a big deal of having ‘Strong Schools, Strong Communities,’” American Indian Magnet teacher Jason Bresette said, citing the title of the district’s strategic plan. “But when they closed negotiations, it didn’t feel like they wanted strong community input.”
“Teachers who aren’t on the bargaining committee, parents, community members – we can’t listen or watch because they walked out so early in the process,” Fairbanks added.
Union officers said teachers planned the citywide walk-in to demonstrate their “frustration with the pace of talks, but it is not part of a formal run-up to a strike … or other job action.”
Long, who splits a case load of 45 students with one other special education teacher, believes district administrators and school board members share many of the teachers’ concerns, particularly when it comes to class sizes. But his caseload isn’t getting any more manageable as negotiations drag on.
“I’m supposed to have about 10 to 12 students in my caseload,” Long said. “We run out of chairs sometimes. It’s hard to move around in the classroom.”