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What striking St. Paul teachers are saying on the picket line

Striking St. Paul teachers
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Striking St. Paul teachers marching down West 7th Street on Tuesday afternoon.

Early Tuesday morning, more than 3,000 St. Paul teachers and education assistants gathered near their school buildings and along overpasses to picket instead of teach. 

Their union, the St. Paul Federation of Educators, finalized strike plans around 3 a.m. on March 10, following a string of negotiation sessions with the St. Paul Public Schools district that ended in a stalemate. 

At this point — with no new mediation sessions scheduled — it remains unclear how long the strike will last. In the interim, it means no classes for students and no pay for teachers who are participating in the strike. 

This uncertainty also impacts families, which are left to piece together alternative child care plans. And it’s shifted how the district operates, as it attempts to piece together school meal options, transportation and after-school programming. 

Despite the stress and inconvenience born by students and families, St. Paul educators say the need for increased student supports — for English language learners, for special education students, for those in need of mental health services — has reached a critical point.  

Teacher picketing Tuesday morning talked passionately about the need for these added support systems in their schools. 

Stepping out of the picketing queue on the sidewalk in front of Johnson High School, Mary Voigt, a social studies teacher at the school who’s in her 15th year of teaching in the district, pointed out the holes in the student support systems that currently exist. 

For instance, her school has a full-time school nurse, she says. But an elementary school that her daughter attends, in the same district, doesn’t.  

“And I know, from working with my students, that they come with trauma — beyond the issues of just being a teenager,” she said. “They come with difficulties that make it hard for me to make the learning partnership I need with them, to push them forward.”

Mississippi Creative Arts Schools educators picketing on the Larpenteur/35E overpass on Tuesday.
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Mississippi Creative Arts Schools educators picketing on the Larpenteur/35E overpass on Tuesday.
The other union demand that resonates most with her experience in the school has to do with the need for more multilingual staff hires to better enable communication with family members who aren’t fluent in English. 

At her school, nearly a quarter of the school’s student population receive English learner services, with Hmong being a predominant home language. 

Elementary teachers and education assistants from Mississippi Creative Arts School lined two Interstate 35E overpasses near their school. 

On Larpenteur Ave., Chris Baumhover, an English language learner teacher who’s been with the district for 25 years, says the multilingual needs go “hand in hand” with mental health support needs of many of her Karen refugee students.

“When dealing with crisis, you want to talk with someone in your first language. But we don’t have enough interpreters to help with that kind of thing,” she said, noting she’s often left to rely on parents to bring their own translator.

Her colleague, Timothy Dopson, an intervention specialist at the same school, says his school is understaffed when it comes to addressing student mental health needs — especially those related to trauma. State data show that 60 percent of the students at his school receive English learner services and 88 percent qualify for free-and-reduced-price lunch, an indicator of poverty. 

“A lot of our kids, part of why they’re failing academically is ‘cause they haven’t dealt with a lot of the trauma they have in their environments, or because of the life they’re living over a period of time,” he said. 

These are the sorts of things that district leaders agree on, in terms of need. But, when it comes to cost, the district says it’s just not feasible. 

“I want to make it clear: I believe our students need and deserve additional support. That has never been in question,” Supt. Joe Gothard said in a press release Tuesday. “However, we must prioritize our spending because we have limited resources. We need to place new investments where they are needed most.”

Marny Xiong, chair of the district’s board of education, came out of the last mediation session reiterating the need to stay fiscally responsible.

Teachers picketing outside of Johnson Senior High School on Tuesday morning.
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
Teachers picketing outside of Johnson Senior High School on Tuesday morning.
“We all agree our students need additional support, but we must be intentional and responsible when increasing investments in our district,” she said. “The [St. Paul Federation of Educators] proposals would have forced cuts to programs and would have been unfair to other [St. Paul Public Schools] collective bargaining units.”

The union’s proposal would add another 300 staff to build out mental health teams — to include  a counselor, a social worker, a nurse, a psychologist and a behavior intervention specialist — in every building, at an estimated cost of $30 million a year.

Last Thursday, the federation offered to phase this demand in over a three-year period, to bring the cost down to an estimated $10 million in new spending each year.

This pressure comes at a time when school funding shortfalls — resulting from state contributions that haven’t kept pace with inflation and unfilled special education and English language learner funding commitments from the state and federal governments — are impacting districts across the state, including St. Paul. 

In an attempt to set some parameters at the outset of negotiations, the district set a target amount of $9.6 million in new spending over the next two-year contract, which included an offer of pay increases for union members of 1.5 percent in the first year and 2 percent in the second. The union is seeking more aggressive pay increases: 3.4 percent the first year and 2 percent the second.

St. Paul teachers are some of the highest paid in the state, at an average annual salary of just over $75,000. Teacher pay, however, hasn’t been a huge talking point at press conferences and at teacher rallies. In these public spaces, the narrative has stayed focused on advocacy for increased student support services — a key attribute in a growing wave of teacher walkouts, nationally. 

Tuesday afternoon, St. Paul teachers marched down W. 7th Street from the Global Art Plus-Upper Campus to district headquarters. In a show of solidarity, state and national union leaders addressed the crowds. 

Ahead of the impending strike, they held a press conference outside of Washington Technology Magnet School the day prior.

“No one believes that a strike ought to be inevitable. Strikes are last resorts. Strikes happen when educators are at tables begging, trying to get the services that children need,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said. “We’re basically saying, ‘We need to focus on children’s well-being first and foremost.’”

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen Garcia, and Education Minnesota President Denise Specht
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen Garcia, and Education Minnesota President Denise Specht speaking outside of Washington Technology Magnet School on Monday.

Comments (28)

  1. Submitted by Joe Smith on 03/11/2020 - 10:37 am.

    The reason children are not learning the basics of reading, writing and math is because how schools are teaching them. Period. When public schools have well over half of their students NOT at grade level in reading, writing and math, you have a major problem. Teaching Timmy, who is a below average learner, with the same curriculum as Tommy, who is an advanced learner, is terrible for both. One is lost and one is bored. Public schools are broken, just ask the parents. Teachers have been making excuses instead of changes, for too long now.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/11/2020 - 12:22 pm.

      Although your post has the requisite amount of teacher-hatred, what you are saying is not far off from what the teachers want. Different approaches tom teaching students with different needs requires additional support.

  2. Submitted by ross savage on 03/11/2020 - 12:35 pm.

    Our public schools are a reflection of the society at large. They are no more broken than American democracy. Schools face new challenges all the time and teachers scramble with limited resources to meet these challenges, often reaching deep into their own pockets to supplement materials for their classrooms be that pencils ,tissue ,lotion, hand sanitizers, clothes, even food. Teachers of English as a second language (many other teachers as well) have been called upon to be sometime nurses, counselors, police officers, coaches, social workers, as well as surrogate parents in some situations for years. It is unbelievably exhausting. Without the proper tools for educating our students, teachers are set up for failure. Period.

  3. Submitted by tom kendrick on 03/11/2020 - 12:42 pm.

    OK, Joe, you say Timmy isn’t at grade level. You say that is because of how he is being taught. Judging by your strong opinions and familiarity with Timmy’s classroom, I’d say you must be a teacher, or you volunteer in a classroom a lot.
    I’m a teacher and I know Timmy. Let me tell you about him and his life. Timmy and Jimmy always horse around, because in first grade Timmy’s dad left after beating up his mom and mom left dad. So he’s got no father in the picture and mom’s just trying to survive and Timmy is traumatized and can’t focus on the words on the page and he learns that being a class clown is very affirming and way easier than reading, so he readily embraces the class clown role because he could not find success with learning to read.

    Jimmy’s dad is in jail and Jimmy doesn’t even know that he’s so angry he could spit nails, so instead he revels in off task behavior that gives him a high. His other high is bullying Johnny which he does every day. Jimmy also doesn’t know that he needs to bully Johnny out of his own shame. He just needs to make sure someone/ANYONE is beneath him in his world. But Johnny’s dad has taught him to punch back when anyone pushes you, which he does with Jimmy, at which point they fight (again) and the teacher has to call the office for help (again), which he does. But the behavior specialist, who must triage his work every hour of the day, can’t help because he is in the 5th grade class where Billy is throwing chairs (again). So the teacher stops the lesson (which had stopped anyway) and sits everyone in a circle to talk about this inappropriate behavior and try to restore some semblance of order and, if really lucky, might get apologies. Meanwhile all the other kids who are usually on task and making a good effort, have just sat through the tenth circle talk in a month and everyone knows this disruption has nothing to do with them.

    What does the teacher do in this situation? The kids desperately need counseling – one on one and small group – but there is no one to do it. Or, if the teacher offers the counseling they cannot teach the material for which they have been hired.

    Our public schools merely reflect what our society is, at least those areas where families choose to remain in public schools out of their life’s vision or who have no choice because of their zip code. Society will pay for this, at one point or another. I say fix it now do we don’t read about Timmy and Jimmy in the evening news in 10-15 years.

    • Submitted by Joe Smith on 03/11/2020 - 05:17 pm.

      Tom, rules for the classroom that ALL children must follow. If you have 2 children disrupting the classroom, they must be removed for the sake of the 28 other children that want to learn. If you cannot command a classroom of 7-10 year old children (age were you get the basics of reading, writing and math), you need to find another job that requires no leadership qualities at all. These are children you are teaching not a group of 25 year old prison inmates. With learning rates so low in public schools you would think teachers would be trying to improve their teaching and leadership capabilities, not blame unruly kids.

      • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/12/2020 - 09:40 am.

        What happens to the two disruptive children? Do we try to get them some help, or do we just push them out on the street and wait for them to become 25 year old felons?

        • Submitted by Joe Smith on 03/12/2020 - 10:03 am.

          That is the problem, you are more concerned with the 2 disruptive children than the 28 children trying to learn. When well over half of the kids graduating are not able to read, write and do math at a basic level, current system is not working. When teachers claim they can’t control the classroom, current system is failing. I don’t know why you and so many others are programmed to back public schools and teachers. The current system is not working and throwing more money (leftists go to move), has not worked and will not work. Having orderly classrooms worked for years and still works in non public school classrooms all over America!

          • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/12/2020 - 12:24 pm.

            You are not even coming close to answering my question. Concern for the two disruptive children does not mean a lack of concern for the rest of the class, or even more concern for them over the others. It’s a recognition that the two disruptive children are more than likely to grow up to be “disruptive” adults, with the concomitant effects on the rest of society (even on the non-disruptive parts).

            The rest of your reply is just bog standard public school/liberal bashing that does not merit any further response.

            • Submitted by Joe Smith on 03/12/2020 - 01:10 pm.

              No, it is a fact that 2 children can disrupt a classroom of 30, just ask the teachers. It is a fact that calm, productive classrooms turnout educated children. It is a fact that public schools are in decline with regard to educating our children. Change is needed.
              As far as the 2 children who disrupt the rest of the class, they get multiple chances to change their behavior but as soon as it disrupts the class they are out of the classroom. Now for the interesting part, the defenders of teachers, who say teachers are great people who just want to help kids, now claim teachers are picking out children of color for more discipline. Which one is it? With the new equity agenda (keeping track of the color of the child being disciplined) teachers have quit trying to control classroom and teach, they are just moving unprepared children along the 13 year cash pipeline. Again, it ain’t working!

              • Submitted by Brian Nelson on 03/12/2020 - 02:32 pm.

                Joe, to what extent is your 28 willing learners and 2 disruptors a realistice scenario?

                Based on your classroom expertise in SPPS how does the average teacher contend with not just 2 disruptors, but the 6 students who come to school 2-3 days a week, the 5 students who sleep in class because they work late into the evening helping to support their family, etc., etc. I could go on if you would like…

                Could you please share concrete solutions that you have used to teach accordingly?

                • Submitted by Joe Smith on 03/12/2020 - 03:25 pm.

                  Yep, it’s easy, you work with the kids that want to work by having three levels of learners advanced, average and low. Three separate classrooms for the 3 levels, used to work, works now, will always work. Not too hard.

                  • Submitted by Brian Nelson on 03/12/2020 - 03:44 pm.

                    Joe, you didn’t answer the question. Aren’t the above-mentioned attempting the sort of differentiation you are advocating for? Please explain.

                    • Submitted by Brian Nelson on 03/12/2020 - 03:45 pm.

                      I mean below-mentioned:

                      If you have a St. Paul high school offering IB Higher Level, IB Standard Level, Advanced Placement, SpEd Co-taught, ELD-Co-taught, how does the Joe Smith “three groups” rule apply? Who goes where based on your expertise?

                    • Submitted by Joe Smith on 03/12/2020 - 05:08 pm.

                      RB, it is a novel idea of personal responsibility, I know that is a foreign concept to many. If you save 4 out 5 lids from a disruptive classroom and they go on to graduate with actual skills that will allow them a lifetime of productivity, you have succeeded. Graduating 50+% that are not proficient in reading, writing and math is losing. The students that refuse to learn or change a behavior will wash out. Again, not that hard to understand.

                    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/13/2020 - 02:23 pm.

                      So kick the disruptive kids out of school, and we can make them get their GEDs as a condition of probation. Real smart move.

            • Submitted by Brian Nelson on 03/12/2020 - 08:00 pm.

              Joe, again I am wondering about your strategy. You know, divide students up into 3 groups. But, Saint Paul high schools already offer 3-5 different levels per core discipline. With that in mind approximately 35% of SPPS students receive ELL services.

              Again, based on your experience in the SPPS classroom how should teachers adjust their curriculum considering that there is already the sort of differentiation you approve of? Please be specific.

    • Submitted by lisa miller on 03/11/2020 - 06:49 pm.

      Bingo. I agree. However, therapists in the school only go so far. Again, you also have to treat the family. These services are voluntary and no despite what some think this is not grounds for child services to get involved. So it goes back to also how to engage the parents and caregivers as the child is at home more than in school and that carries over to school. Therapists at school are a start but are a limited solution. Families are also responsible and most want better for their kids. We keep throwing money at schools and social services and while we have some gains, I feel like much of the money goes towards highly paid managers and others vs real results. There has to be a clear plan–act out means a therapy referral, failure to follow through mean parent and child need to meet at the school and then progress to talking about a higher level of care if that does not work. Along with funds to offer in home parenting work.

  4. Submitted by Dennis Litfin on 03/11/2020 - 01:14 pm.

    Joe…..the essence of this goes way back to when your boy, Timmy (too little) Pawlenty and his republican-controlled legislature stole money from public school education funding to pay for “more important” needs, such as tax breaks for the wealthy which amounted to ‘ no new taxes’.
    Thanks to Governor Walz education is now beginning to get back some of that republican stolen money.

  5. Submitted by Betsy Larey on 03/11/2020 - 01:43 pm.

    I have a friend who teaches HS in the district. She has been punched, spit upon and harassed daily. Called every 4 letter word you can think of. She is not able to remove the students from her class. How do you teach with that going on? They used to have a school for problem kids. They shut it down. Now the teachers are told they need to be more multicultural and learn more about their students.
    You want to fix the schools? Build a school for those kids and get them out of regular classrooms. Go walk the picket line and ask any teacher and they will agree with that statement. I am sick and tired of schools being “politically correct”
    And now we have Minneapolis shipping kids from Kenwood/Lake of the Isles/southwest Mpls to North High School. Those parents will move to the burbs. I certainly would. I feel sorry for parents who can’t afford to move to a nice suburb

  6. Submitted by Mike Schumann on 03/11/2020 - 03:07 pm.

    As a taxpayer, I am fed up. We are spending $17+K / student per year. For a class of 20, that works out to $340K / classroom. What are we getting for that? #45 in the nation in minority achievement? It’s pathetic.

    Enough is enough. What’s wrong with having parents bring their own translators? How about having some of the kids in the school act as translators?

    I think we should throw down the gauntlet. Get back to work, or clean house. Fire everyone from the top down and start over. Quit paying teachers for useless degrees and start paying for performance. If you are a good teacher and can motivate you students, you should be well paid, regardless of your educational background. If not, you should find a new profession.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/11/2020 - 04:28 pm.

      “What’s wrong with having parents bring their own translators?”

      Excellent idea! The parents of children who do not speak English as their native language are all wealthy enough that they can afford to hire translators.

      “How about having some of the kids in the school act as translators?”

      Why not take it a step further and have some of the kids in the school act as the teachers? Think of the money we could save by getting rid of some of those parasites!

      • Submitted by Mike Schumann on 03/12/2020 - 08:18 pm.

        Nobody should be hiring translators. If the Hmong community cares enough about the education of their children, then let them organize volunteers to help with the translations. A lot of these families have kids who are bilingual. Why can’t they help out? Last question: If you are a Hmong parent in the US, why are you not learning English? If you don’t want to take the time to learn the language, why are you here? Why not go live in some other country where you can use your native language?

        • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 03/13/2020 - 02:22 pm.

          “If the Hmong community cares enough about the education of their children, then let them organize volunteers to help with the translations.”

          Speaking for myself and, I’m sure, most of the other members of the Minnesota community, we care about the education of all children.

          “Last question: If you are a Hmong parent in the US, why are you not learning English?”

          Maybe they are, but haven’t learned it well enough to feel confident interpreting their children’s schoolwork (perhaps due to their own lack of education, perhaps due to working for a living). Linguists tell us that immigrants worldwide tend to communicate in their native languages, while their children use the new country language, speaking their parents’ tongue only at home. Grandchildren learn the language, if at all, as a cultural thing.

        • Submitted by Brian Nelson on 03/14/2020 - 04:32 pm.

          “Why not go live in some other country where you can use your native language?”

          This comment not only shows contempt for fellow human beings but also an astonishing ignorance of recent history.

  7. Submitted by tom kendrick on 03/11/2020 - 08:00 pm.

    OK, Mike – Come on into school and work your motivational magic on the punchers and chair throwers and we’ll see how your performance pans out.

    Public schools mirror the larger society. All teachers are saying is that they are being called upon to be teacher, nurse, counselor, daddy, friend, police and confidante, all at once. We’re just saying we want to teach and we’d appreciate a little assistance with all the other things.

    • Submitted by Joe Smith on 03/12/2020 - 09:38 am.

      Tom, if you do not establish what behavior is acceptable when kids are 5-10 years old, you will not get it when they are 14-18 years old. Get back to separating children to 3 different groups, advanced learners, average learners and below average learners, then teach accordingly. I agree with you that disruptive 16 year old kids are hard to manage in a classroom situation but curbing that behavior has to start at 5.
      Bottom line is simple, public schools are failing and hearing teachers say how undisciplined classrooms are just goes to show how far we have fallen.

      • Submitted by Brian Nelson on 03/12/2020 - 02:20 pm.

        “Get back to separating children to 3 different groups, advanced learners, average learners and below average learners, then teach accordingly”

        If you have a St. Paul high school offering IB Higher Level, IB Standard Level, Advanced Placement, SpEd Co-taught, ELD-Co-taught, how does the Joe Smith “three groups” rule apply? Who goes where based on your expertise?

        • Submitted by Matt Haas on 03/12/2020 - 08:32 pm.

          Save your breath, Joe ain’t been in a school in 60 years. A better question would be why he’s so focused a school systems in a state in which he no longer resides? Or did ya think we forgot about that, Joe?

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