Why class size has been a sticking point in discussions with teachers

Pete Grebner recalls what it was like to juggle a Como High School classroom with too many students, teaching chemistry lessons in which half the room did lab work while the other half was reading a textbook.

He considers it a triumph that the St. Paul Federation of Educators set class size limits in its tentative contract agreement with the second-largest school district in the state. Until now, class size caps have been a regular part of stand-alone memoranda of understanding between St. Paul’s public schools and its teachers’ union.

“It was meant to be a permanent thing,” said Grebner, now a teacher on special assignment for the St. Paul district and a member of the union’s bargaining team.

Similar contract language is also being negotiated in Minneapolis, where teachers remain on strike. But if class size caps are passed there, the Twin City districts will be the first in the state to limit the number of students in their classrooms through contract language.

Districts typically avoid setting hard caps because sudden changes in enrollment a year can force a school to hire another teacher, giving them less flexibility to adjust on the fly, Kirk Schneidawind said. , executive director of the Minnesota School Boards Association.

“There’s definitely a cost to the district in doing this,” Schneidawind said.

The negotiations in St. Paul and Minneapolis echo a larger national conversation and reflect the scattered approach to limits on class size.

In some states, including Texas and Arkansas, class sizes are dictated by state law. California limits pre-kindergarten enrollment to third-grade grades, but allows unions to negotiate limits in higher grades. Until January, Oregon prohibited teachers’ unions from negotiating with their districts on class sizes.

Grebner said educators were prepared to strike over class sizes at St. Paul because they had been a source of contention in contract negotiations for at least the past half-decade.

“Every contract was one of the best things,” he said.

St. Paul district officials have agreed to create class size committees at each school that will allow a teacher to negotiate terms for accepting another student above the cap, according to the union. The teacher can request the support of a teacher’s aide or any other number of resources to ensure that the new student does not fall through the cracks.

“It’s a way for us to recognize that there may be instances where allowing a class to go over the limit may be good for the program or a school,” Grebner said.

Set class caps

Negotiations continue in Minneapolis, but the St. Paul school board is set to review the tentative agreement ratified last week by the teachers’ union.

The agreement contains slight reductions in class size limits for some elementary school teachers. Kindergarten enrollment in high-poverty schools cannot exceed 24 students starting this fall. From the first to the third year, this number is capped at 25.

St. Paul will also guarantee that freshmen will not attend classes with more than 36 students. The cap for other high school classes will be 40.

These caps are mostly in line with what was already spelled out in the less formal memorandum of understanding, reducing class size by a few years by a student or two.

In Minneapolis, class size limits will likely end up in the final labor agreement between union and district leaders in the state’s third-largest district, Superintendent Ed Graff said last week.

Minneapolis principals said in a March 16 update that the district had, for the first time, offered to include class size caps in the contract. Those caps would focus on core subjects and in schools with the most needy students, the district said.

Similar to St. Paul, educators in Minneapolis also have a memorandum of understanding with limits on class sizes in high-poverty schools. It asks the district to limit class sizes at those schools to 18 students in kindergarten through third grade and 24 students in fourth and fifth grades, but does not specify for older students.

And there is no such directive in other buildings.

It’s time to teach

Cynthia Zwicky, who directs the elementary education program at the University of Minnesota, said it takes a lot of time and effort to build a relationship with students at the start of a new school year.

“To know a child well, if the child and I don’t have a relationship, the learning won’t happen,” Zwicky said.

In one overcrowded kindergarten classroom, for example, Zwicky said something as simple as having a bunch of kids outside for recess is essentially five or six cramped little lessons in the space of three or four minutes.

The issues for middle school and high school teachers are just as complex.

In a writing-intensive class, such as an English class, teachers spend as much time reading and grading as they do teaching. And if the classes have an average of 35 students, that makes 140 children if an educator teaches four periods a day.

“Let’s say you assign an essay. It’s a big book you read,” Zwicky said.

School districts in Minneapolis and St. Paul are losing students as families choose to enroll their children elsewhere. Compared to the last academic year, Minneapolis has lost nearly 2,600 students and St. Paul has lost about 1,500, according to state data.

Grebner, the St. Paul teacher, pointed out that class size can be a selling point when families choose schools.

“If you look at the website of a private school or a charter school, what’s the first thing you’re going to see?” said Grebner. “Small class sizes.”

Editor Mara Klecker contributed to this report.

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