While preparing to close eight schools next fall, leaders of St. Paul’s public schools blamed charter school competition and low birth rates for a seven-year downward trend in enrollment.
In a report to the school board on Tuesday, they identified another hurdle: class size limits negotiated by the teachers’ union that have been in effect since 2013-14.
Research director Stacey Gray Akyea said that with the help of a consultant, the district in 2014 predicted slow but steady growth in the years to come. Instead, enrollments fell by 2,091 in K-5 grades alone.
She said she couldn’t be sure class size limits were responsible for the decline, calling it a “possible relationship.” But four separate models from the research bureau found both real and expected associations between the caps and declining enrollment.
“We need to understand our registration situation,” Gray Akyea said. “We were projected to a very different place. “
A model starting in 2013 predicted that class size limits would now cost 47 students at a growing elementary school and 66 students at a declining school.
A language immersion school, she said, should have lost even more students – 91 – because immersion schools rarely accept students in upper grades who did not start there.
Called an “exploratory analysis,” the district report comes as district leaders try to persuade the school board to approve a consolidation plan they call Envision SPPS.
At the same time, the St. Paul Federation of Educators has made further reductions in class size a priority in collective bargaining for their upcoming contracts.
“Class size matters. The fewer students you have in a classroom, the more you are able to build better relationships with your students, you can spend more time working individually with students or in small groups. There is much more you can accomplish, ”said Pete Grebner, chemistry professor and member of the bargaining team.
The current contract includes limits on the number of students per class at all levels, Kindergarten to Grade 12. The ceilings, which have changed since 2013, now range from 20 to 40 students and are one or two students lower in the 30 poorest schools. in the neighborhood.
The union is now proposing a reduction in these ceilings by two additional students at all levels. The school district has not made its own proposal on the matter.
District negotiators “blamed teachers for the low enrollment rate without taking any responsibility for their lack of effort to increase enrollment or the funding issues, which have plagued our schools for years,” said Rene Myers, member of the bargaining team, in an Oct.7 video update.
Board member John Brodrick suggested on Tuesday that the district that failed to meet enrollment expectations may have been more linked to concerns about safety and standards of behavior at the school and a failure to provide a full education.
Gray Akyea said she didn’t disagree with other factors, but the systemic nature of the enrollment decline suggests class size limits are to blame.
“It’s not isolated in some schools,” she said.
Board member Jim Vue found the analyzes compelling.
“With class size limitations, I wonder if St. Paul’s public schools can increase their enrollment? My answer is no, on that basis, ”he said.
The teachers’ contract authorizes the creation of ad hoc committees involving union and district representatives, which can lift ceilings for certain classes. Head of Schools Andrew Collins said committees don’t agree to make room for another student most of the time.
LITTLE EFFECT ON ACHIEVEMENT
The district study was limited to the possible effects of class size limits on enrollment. But researchers elsewhere have found little evidence that caps are good for students.
While popular with parents, downsizing class sizes appears to bring little benefit at great expense, according to research from the Brookings Institution, a non-partisan think tank.
Their 2011 report concluded that large reductions in class size – from 7 to 10 students – “can have significant long-term effects on student success,” particularly for low-income and early-grade students. years.
But the costs of hiring additional teachers are high. Reducing single-student classrooms in schools across the country would cost around $ 12 billion, roughly the equivalent of what the U.S. government typically spends on Title I programs for low-income students. discovered Brookings.
The report suggests that school districts and states would be better off spending that money on more effective interventions, such as “computer-assisted instruction, inter-age tutoring, early childhood programs, and increased time.” teaching ”.