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Union: St. Paul's low pay means hiring under-qualified summer teachers

During summer courses, St. Paul short-arms its teacher pay by offering a little over half the normal wage.

During summer courses, St. Paul short-arms its teacher pay by offering a little over half the normal wage. Alba Estévez G.

A good number of teachers who taught St. Paul summer school this year weren't licensed in the subjects they were assigned to deliver.

According to district data, about 30-40 of the 253 teachers who taught over the summer session were without full-time licenses that matched their class assignments. They include a gym teacher who taught high school English, a speech teacher who taught algebra, a French teacher who taught geometry, and others.

In some cases those teachers had variances -- temporary permissions from the Minnesota Board of Teaching to teach outside of their licensure area as long as the district claims that they've tried, but failed, to hire someone who is licensed.

Failing to retain teachers in their regular areas of study over the summer is a perennial problem that deprives students who have fallen behind of the best shot they could have at catching up, according to the teacher's union.

Summer school is already condensed from the regular semester's 18 weeks to just 18 days (though a student can miss three and still earn a credit). Add a teacher who is unfamiliar with the curriculum, who relies more heavily on rudimentary workbooks than classroom experience, and students aren't likely to get the rigor they require, says Harding High English teacher Lee Stagg.

"If licensed staff teach in their areas, the curriculum and instruction will be more authentically matched to student outcomes, the quality of the summer programs will come closer to meeting the requirements of the regular school year’s curriculum, and the recovery credits will mean more," Stagg says.

During contract negotiations this year, the union has asked for summer school wages that are on par with regular school in order to incentivize teachers to stay on. Currently, summer pay is just a little more than half of what they would normally make during the rest of the year.

Nick Faber, president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, says union members have complained about how much easier it is to earn the same credit over summer school than the regular year, and that lower expectations for students in addition to lower pay is what drives them away from working the summer session.

"It's always hard for really good teachers who want to be successful to walk into a place where the conditions for learning aren't right," he says.

Laurin Cathey, the district's director of HR, agrees with the union that it would be ideal to have a teacher who delivers a course year-round. However, he points out that many of those who filled in this summer taught elementary, middle grade, and enrichment courses, which are meant to prepare students for what to expect the following school year. Those classes are not as much in need of veteran teachers as credit-bearing high school courses, he says.

"When you talk about being able to bring classroom instructional approaches to a school, if they are teachers, they still have that," Cathey says. "They may not be the deepest in the subject matter expertise, but some of the qualities of teaching come from being a teacher."

Cathey dismissed the union's proposal that more money could retain more experienced teachers. Other districts do not commonly pay regular rates over the summer, and St. Paul Public Schools cannot afford to do it either, he says.

"If your motivation is internal and you wanna help kids, why do I have to increase summer school pay to get you to come?" Cathey says.

He suggests a better incentive would be to reduce summar class sizes, or alter the summer school schedule so that it doesn't come straight on the heels of the regular year, so teachers can recover and have a break in between.