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Schools need 'visionary plans' to help children learn, says education secretary

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 28, 2009 - Education Secretary Arne Duncan says St. Louis is "putting all the right building blocks in place" to become a successful school system. His assessment came during a visit Thursday to high-performing Lexington Elementary School, 5030 Lexington Ave.

The visit was the result of an invitation from Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who made St. Louis the first stop in her eight-city "Back to School" tour. She asked Duncan to join her here.

Lexington is one of the few city schools to make adequate yearly progress on the Missouri Assessment Program test. One initiative that drew Duncan's praise was the school's pre-K program, which union officials say will help the school build on its MAP gains.

Duncan also learned about the St. Louis Plan, a collaborative effort by school officials and AFT Local 420 to improve teacher quality by matching new teachers with mentor teachers. Duncan also was told of a growing number of school partnerships -- involving universities, businesses, health clinics, food and housing groups, and local government -- that give the district more resources. Duncan embraced these ideas.

"Our schools have to be open 12 to 14 hours a day with a wide variety of activities, not just for children but for parents," he said. "Our children can't learn if they are not safe, they're not fed, they don't have clothes on, they can't see the blackboard."

At Lexington, Duncan praised Superintendent Kelvin Adams and Local 420 President Mary Armstrong, and he acknowledged the work of state education officials and the mayor's office. He also called himself a "fan of good charter schools," but added that bad ones needed to be closed. He urged the district to tap into the Education Department's $3.5 billion in Title 1 grants "to help schools that are becoming dropout factories." He said money would be available to replicate the Harlem Children Zone involving collaborations between schools in Harlem and community partners and agencies.

"We are going to look for visionary plans, folks willing to challenge the status quo. Please stay the course. Continue to collaborate. This city can do something very special, not just for the city but the entire country."

Those attending the afternoon session at Lexington included Mayor Francis Slay, and state Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro. In the morning before Duncan arrived, union leaders showcased several student-centered programs at two other schools. The first was the Innovative Concepts Academy, an alternative education program for juvenile offenders at Blewett School, 1927 Cass Avenue. It's the brainchild of St. Louis Family Court Judge Jimmie Edwards.

"The school represents a second chance for our children, those deemed to be incorrigible, those deemed by some to have been thrown away," the judge said. "This is an opportunity for them to come back in, to learn, become educated and have a decent and productive life."

After leaving Blewett, union and community leaders and public officials held a roundtable discussion at Clay Elementary School, 3820 North 14th Street. There, Slay said the city wanted to do all it can do -- short of provide money, he said -- to help city schools serve St. Louis.

Armstrong says the union had pushed for full-service community schools because "we realize in the classroom that students have more needs than academics, and that if we can address those other needs, address their parents' needs, then it's going to bode well for children, and we can't do anything but be successful."

Special Administrative Board member Richard Gaines praised ties between city government and the school system, but wondered whether the two sides might be missing some potentially good collaborations. He noted city initiatives for two new recreation centers, one south and one north, and he wondered whether it might have been more effective to consult with schools about where to locate these centers.

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