Union ambassadors make case for public schools in St. Paul

Members of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers are helping their district reverse declining enrollment by doing what unions do best: organizing.

Over 100 families living in the district enrolled children in the St. Paul Public Schools this fall after conversations with SPFT members, who canvassed neighborhoods for six weeks, touting the benefits of local public schools.

Union and district officials called it a successful launch for the Select SPPS project, a collaborative effort with the American Federation of Teachers.

“This partnership allowed our members to go door to door and share some of the fantastic things that happen every day in St. Paul,” SPFT Vice President Erica Schatzlein said. “It also gave us a chance to hear from families about what they are looking for from their children’s schools.”

Said Superintendent Joe Gothard: “I commend the SPFT advocates who worked over the summer to increase the enrollment in SPPS. Through our combined efforts we were able to connect with thousands of families to tell them about our great schools and all we have to offer.”

Yasmin Muridi, an educational assistant at Four Seasons Elementary, was one of nine SPFT members who participated as “family advocates” for the Select St. Paul initiative. She said the experience was rewarding.

“Parents were happy to hear from us, to see someone from St. Paul Public Schools coming to their house,” Muridi said. “It made a big difference. It let them know we care about them. We care about their kids. We want them to be successful.”

A Somali and Arabic interpreter for the district, Muridi had the most success when talking with immigrant families, a population in which many parents, she said, are not familiar with American school customs.

“They came from countries where, maybe, schools start at age 7,” she said. “How do you tell him he has to send his kid to school at 4 … in a way that he feels comfortable?”

The enrollment drive was born out of the last round of contract negotiations between SPPS and SPFT. The district’s projected budget shortfalls – a product, in part, of declining enrollments – loomed large over those talks, but the union pressed for investments and alternative approaches to bringing in the resources students need to thrive.

The district and union also are jointly lobbying for more funding on a state and national level, and partnering to seek additional funding from large corporations and medical and higher education nonprofits in St. Paul.

Muridi said she hopes it won’t be the last time the district and SPFT reach out to families together.

“Imagine if we have that program twice a year,” she said. “It makes me so proud of my union.”

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