I've been a resident of St. Louis for six years. For the past two years, I've lived on Lindell Boulevard, just across the street from SLU's law school, where I am a student. Before that, I was a student at WashU and lived mostly in campus housing. My senior year, I ventured out into the real world and got a place in Clayton about a block from campus. I always thought of myself as a relatively well-informed citizen- I read the student newspaper and the Post-Dispatch, occasionally caught the local evening news. But I realized how sheltered my experience had been when I read this New York Times article.
The article is about a student who attends Beaumont High School, part of- as the article put it- "a city school system in which poverty, politics and mismanagement so closely conspire against the likes of her that the state recently decided to take it over." I knew the public schools in the city had some problems, I even knew that they had lost their accreditation, but I didn't know that Beaumont High School is two miles from my apartment.
Two miles away, and I had never heard of it or the problems its students face. The audio slide show accompanying the article explains that Beaumont administration officials estimate that 1 in 10 students is homeless, 2 in 10 are precariously housed, and 3 in 10 will be homeless at some point in the school year. Eighty percent of the school's students qualify for free or discounted school lunches.
Those statistics make the poverty component pretty clear, but what other problems do the schools face? A 2007 report from the Missouri State Teachers Association explains that there are 14 performance standards that contribute to accreditation. A school must meet nine standards for full accreditation and six for provisional accreditation. St. Louis Public Schools met four, and its accreditation was rescinded.
After losing accreditation, state law dictated that a three-member Special Administrative Board be appointed. The elected members of the former school board brought suit against the state, arguing against the appointed board, but the Missouri Supreme Court upheld the state takeover.
The current 2008-2009 school year has proved a testing ground for the members of the Special Administrative Board, who had to deal with, among other things, a $30 million budget deficit. This Post-Dispatch editorial explains that the Board's first priority is "restoring order, stability, and a business-like approach to the district." The editorial is a little unclear about actual steps being taken at the moment, but does make a vague reference to "long-term structural and governance changes to the system." For now, it seems like the Special Administrative Board is doing its best to keep the district minimally functional.
The problems facing the St. Louis Public Schools are extremely difficult, and there are a lot of opinions with regard to the best way to fix it. One solution that's been in the news lately: charter schools.
Late last month, the Post-Dispatch's education blog reported that the state school board issued approval for two new charter schools to open in the 2009-2010 school year, Grand Community School and KIPP St. Louis. Grand Community will be sponsored by the University of Missouri-St. Louis and KIPP will be sponsored by Washington University. KIPP is part of a national program of charter schools and plans to eventually open five schools in St. Louis.
One major obstacle standing in the way of charter schools, deed restrictions on former public school buildings, was removed just last week. District-wide sale terms were set in 2007, prohibiting the sale of shuttered school buildings to charter schools for 100 years. The Riverfront Times reported on the struggles of one would-be administrator of a proposed charter school, St. Louis Language Immersion Schools. Rhonda Broussard had found an abandoned building perfect for her school, but it was subject to the 100-year deed restriction and thus unavailable for her purposes. On April 17th, the St. Louis Public School Board voted to lift the restrictions.
Charter schools are not a magical fix. This Slate article focuses specifically on KIPP schools, but a lot of its analysis can be applied to charter schools generally: many charter schools succeed by requiring more from their students. A lot more. Long hours, a high degree of parental involvement, rigorous coursework. That makes sense, since a lot of these students begin with significant educational deficits and it takes a lot of hard work to essentially "catch them up." So even with a lottery system in place, this tends to be a self-selecting group. Families unwilling or unable to put in the time and effort will choose not to utilize a charter school.
Personally, I don't think this is an argument against charter schools. I think it's important to recognize that they are not a system-wide solution, but I also think it's important to acknowledge that they can be a solution for some students and their families. At this point, we need all the solutions we can get.
What will solve the over-arching problem? Well, I think the first step is to not be like me- blissfully unaware of the problems facing the community in which you live. A 2006 school board election drew only 12% of eligible voters. Mayor Francis Slay concluded that "there's no constituency for urban public schools." That's shameful, it really is. As residents of St. Louis, we all need to be more invested in our community and aware of its challenges. Not just because it's the right thing to do (although it is...), but because the public schools in St. Louis don't exist in a vacuum. They don't only affect the families whose children attend. There will never be any meaningful "revitalization" of the city if the schools do not improve.
Steve Patterson, who writes the excellent Urban Review STL, wrote in 2006 that the problems that plague St. Louis schools are the problems that plague St. Louis City- "concentrated poverty, lack of nearby jobs and poor housing." I realize that the City is diverse, and this is a gross overgeneralization, but the current population doesn't really provide a sustainable model. It's largely downtown businesses, young (largely single, largely childless) people in rehabs and lofts, and the very poor. That isn't a viable community; the city needs mixed-income neighborhoods with all kinds of families. Those kinds of neighborhoods attract business and investment and jobs, which in turn attract more families. But that will never happen if the schools don't improve. People who have the resources to live elsewhere will not move to the city and send their children to the city schools if they continue to under-perform.
Educational reform is a complicated topic, and there are a lot of people better-qualified to propose solutions. I'm not an educator, I have no experience in school administration. But I do think it's important for people who care about St. Louis to recognize the integral role that schools play in the life of a community. Whenever the topic of urban renewal comes up, there are a lot of ideas tossed around-improved mass transit, historic tax credits, mixed-income housing, etc. Schools need to be a part of the discussion as well.