To cap or not to cap class sizes in Saint Paul Public Schools


The Saint Paul Federation of Teachers (SPFT) is asking, in ongoing contract negotiations, that that the district agree to class size caps for high poverty schools and low poverty schools. The District agrees that class size limits are needed, but doesn’t want to be tied to specific numbers by contract. 

According to SPFT president Mary Cathryn Ricker there are three things they are taking into consideration when coming up with their proposal. First, they took into account the district’s definitions of high poverty and low poverty schools. Second, they looked at the class size ranges recommended by the Strong Schools, Strong Communities plan. Finally, they took into account the class size requirements of the federal Investing in Innovation (I-3) grant, which targets pre-K- 3rd grade.

The main difference between the two proposals comes down to the caps that the union is asking for. “The district’s proposal are merely suggestions that no one actually has to listen to,” Ricker said. “We want dependable class size numbers. We want to guarantee those numbers.”

According to Tim Caskey, Executive Director of Human Resources at SPPS, the district is using the Strong Schools, Strong Communities strategic plan as its guide over the next several years in regard to class sizes. The plan, he said, has a set of ranges in it that the district is working toward achieving.

If 71 percent or more of a school’s population qualify for free or reduced lunch, the school is considered high poverty. If less than 71 percent qualifies for free or reduced lunch, it’s considered low poverty.

According to the SPPS District’s Strong Schools, Strong Communities recommendations, the limit for a fourth grade class would be 24 in a high poverty school and 27 in a low poverty school.

“We’ve come to an agreement that smaller class sizes do help close achievement gap and improve teaching and learning, said Ricker, “which is, in and of itself, a very exciting place to be to continue these discussions.” 

Ricker said high poverty schools need lower class sizes because “there is a great deal of recognition that students living in poverty can benefit from greater support in a school environment to make up for what they don’t have access to,” she said. 

“Our district has provided additional funding for students in poverty,” said Ricker. The union isn’t advocating tapping into new sources of funding but rather they hope the district will use “money sent to our district in support of students in poverty.” This compensatory education money, she said, can be used effectively through class size caps.

The I3 grant, according to Ricker, is based on a Chicago longitudinal study that showed that when high quality preschool education is followed by high quality K-3 education, the gains students made in pre-K are best maintained. Ricker said the union proposes class size caps reflective of the I3 grant.

Under the union’s proposal, the district would have a “soft implementation” during the 2013-14 school year, so that schools would have a full year before a “hard implementation” in 2014-15. As the I3 grant is scaled back, Ricker said, the district would make a commitment to replicate that policy across the district.

Ricker said the union’s proposal would have required class sizes with “reasonable flexibility”, which means that by October 15 of each school year, classes are at their caps or lower. After that, “knowing that enrollment is a living breathing thing,” Ricker said any class would be able to grow by 10 percent, or one or two students.

Caskey said that conversations with the union have been productive. He said the district proposes ranges, instead of caps, to “allow for fluctuation of student enrollment,” and to allow for schools to have the ability to accommodate those students. “The issue with a hard cap,” he said, “is that when you go one student over, it creates another class. The class may lose another student over the course of the year.” Because the union’s plan doesn’t allow for fluctuation until after October 15, the district might have to create new classes at the beginning of the school year.

“I believe the goal of both parties to keep class size at manageable level,” he said, and that the district and the union continue to make progress. The next negotiating session will be on January 25, but he can’t confirm when they will be concluded. “We’re getting close to finishing it,” he said.