The yard signs multiplied in the snowy front yards of St. Paul, Minnesota, by the hundreds early this year, and they said, often in hand-drawn red letters, “St. Paul children deserve… Small Class Sizes!!” Or, “St. Paul children deserve… Librarians!” Or “St Paul children deserve… Teaching Not Testing!”
The answer varied from house to house, street to street, but there was tremendous unity on one point: Parents were working hand-in-hand with teachers across the St. Paul Federation of Teachers (SPFT) as they collectively bargained a new contract, and they were counting on that contract to support their children’s public education.
“This isn’t just a story of a successful contract campaign,” said NEA Executive Director John Stocks. “This is a story about parents, educators, and community leaders joining in partnership to co-create solutions. We hope the St. Paul experience becomes a model for others.”
This particular chapter of the story ends with a great union contract that supports learning in St. Paul schools and includes specific provisions around:
- Smaller class sizes, especially in schools in high-poverty neighborhoods;
- Additional access for preschool students to St. Paul’s excellent pre-K programs;
- 42 new positions for library specialists, nurses, social workers, and counselors;
- The development of school climate teams in school, which must include parents;
- Expansion of St. Paul’s innovative home-visit program;
- New language that allows teachers to initiate school redesign processes in their schools, and;
- A reduction by 25 percent to the time spent on testing and test prep.
A NEW VISION
But the story begins a few years ago, when St. Paul union leaders began to think about their union in a different way. Traditionally, it had been like a soda machine. (Or a pop machine, if you live in Minnesota…) “You put in your money, your dues, pushed a button, and hopefully whatever you wanted popped out — a pay raise, or resolution to your grievance,” said SPFT organizer Paul Rohlfing. “The problem with that is what do you do when it doesn’t come out? You kick it, right? It’s the machine’s fault!”
Membership in the St. Paul union would become more like a gym membership, said Rohlfing. If folks want results, they have to show up and participate. “If you don’t show up, you’re not going to get stronger!” he said. At the same time, SPFT began connecting their work, as a union, to the reasons that their members wanted to be teachers in the first place: To help kids learn.
In 2012, SPFT’s then-president Mary Cathryn Ricker, now the executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, invited her members, plus parents and community members, to participate in a series of group discussions about two books, The Schools Children Deserve by Alfie Kohn and Teaching 2030: What We Must Do For Our Students and Our Public Schools by Barnett Berry. “Parents, teachers, support professionals, and community members built relationships around three basic questions: What are the schools their children deserve? Who are the teachers our children deserve? And what is the profession these teachers deserve?” recalled SPFT vice president Nick Faber.
Eventually the answers to those questions, offered jointly by emboldened parents and empowered teachers, drove the union’s priorities in contract negotiations. And, while these answers were not the typical contract fodder of higher salaries and better benefits, they did represent workplace issues that deeply impact St. Paul students’ opportunities to learn.
One was the “education of the whole child.” In St. Paul, before the new contract was ratified, more than 39,000 students had access to just 10 licensed media specialists. “There is nothing like a licensed media specialist to update your collection, engage kids in reading, and help them access books and do research,” noted Faber. Schools shared nurses, getting one for just one day a week. And art, music, and physical education programs were rare at Farber.
Another issue was parent-family engagement. “We have a whole lot of parent-family engagement in St. Paul, but the problem is it doesn’t usually mean parents have been partnering with teachers,” said Faber. The new contract would not only expand the union’s excellent home-visit program, but it also would allow teachers to pilot “academic parent-teacher teams,” requiring parents and teachers to meet three times a year for at least 75 minutes a time to talk about academics.
Parents wanted more access to St. Paul’s public preschool programs, which had annual waiting lists that topped 600 kids, and teachers wanted them to get it. Everybody talked about smaller class sizes — “No surprise there. Any time you put parents and teachers in the room, you’re going to hear this is a priority for improving our schools… Our proposal allowed for differentiation so that that high-poverty schools would have lower class-size caps,” said Faber. Teachers also called for expansion of the Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) program, which helps to support and strengthen new and probationary teachers, and the need for more culturally relevant education. Everybody said, “Test less! Teach more!”
AT THE TABLE
When the union and the district sat down at the bargaining table last year, the union insisted that negotiations be open to the public. They had nothing to hide. But after a few months, the school district’s negotiators walked out of bargaining, filing for state mediation. The move to mediation automatically closed negotiations to the public, and also opened the door to a possible strike by teachers.
Things got serious: More than 4,000 signatures from parents, students, and community members were delivered to the school board, urging them to settle for the good of students. Teachers and parents joined forces around “walk in” demonstrations, arriving at school together in a red sea of color-coordinated scarves and hats. “We made over 1,000 red-fleece scarves in one week!” said Faber.
And then, the signs started sprouting up, by the hundreds. The union had provided a blank canvas for families to ponder: Each sign said, “St. Paul Children Deserve…” And then parents and children sat down together to consider their answer. Do they deserve smaller class sizes? Less testing? “It reinforced what we know our community actually thinks about teachers,” Ricker said.
Just a few days before the SPFT’s scheduled strike vote, teachers and community members met for the largest rally ever at the school district office building. The union walked into negotiations, hearing the cheers of hundreds of parents and students. No less than 23 hours later, on the morning of February 20, they walked out with a contract agreement.
Teachers, parents, and students had won on every issue, but union leaders still consider their contract a “work in progress.” It’s only a start toward building the schools that St. Paul children deserve, said Ricker. More action—collective action—is ahead in St. Paul.