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Often seen as a hopeless cause, urban schools get more attention

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 17, 2010 - In Kansas City, the School Board voted to close 26 out of 61 schools. In north St. Louis County, the Wellston School District is going away altogether, to be absorbed by the neighboring Normandy district at the end of this school year.

Meanwhile, in St. Louis, the panel whose recommendations led to a takeover of the city schools by the state and appointment of a special administrative board is back at work, trying to figure out what the next steps should be for the long-troubled school system. And a new list of persistently underperforming schools in Missouri is made up almost exclusively of schools from the state's major metropolitan areas.

No one is promising -- or expecting -- quick results, but urban education has become a priority in a state where for a long time, the problems of city schools have seemed to be a hopeless cause.

"I can tell you from my own experience that it takes a long time to turn around a large urban school district," says Chris Nicastro, the former superintendent in Riverview Gardens and Hazelwood whose appointment as commissioner of elementary and secondary education last year was seen as a signal that city schools would become a focus.

"It's not something that can be done quickly, and not something that can be done unless everyone is pulling in the same direction."

She and others say the problems that have been built up for so long aren't likely to be solved in any less than 10 years or so, if then. But they see hopeful signs, in changes of leadership and a new perspective on what must be done.

"I think the right steps are being taken," says Robbyn Wahby, executive assistant for education for St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay. "But I don't think we have seen progress. Those are two different things.

"These things cannot have immediate impact. What we're doing today, we should be able to see the dramatic impact that everyone wants in about a decade. It's frustrating for those of us who have a sense of urgency. I know the mayor is frustrated. He wants the city to have quality schools right now."


When she and others at the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education look at troubled districts like St. Louis or Wellston, Nicastro said she thinks three areas need to be strong for the schools to succeed: finances, governance and student achievement.

When it comes to the schools that have attracted the department's attention recently, she said, different districts have had problems in different areas, but student achievement has suffered in them all.

In Kansas City, for example, the crisis that led to what the administration there calls right-sizing was primarily financial. Facing a deficit of $50 million and enrollment that has been cut in half in the past 10 years, to 17,000, new superintendent John Covington pushed his restructuring plan through the school board. (Click here to read an earlier Beacon story on closing down city school buildings.)

In St. Louis, which long suffered from a revolving door in the superintendent's office and high-profile squabbles on the board, the big concern was governance, Nicastro said. The state took over before she became commissioner, and a special administrative board was put into place.

"I think most people would agree there has been some increase in the level of stability of the governance structure," she added, "to allow the district to get a hold of its financial situation and make changes that will drive an increase in student performance."

That third factor, how well students are learning, was the focus last week when the state released its list of 52 persistently underachieving schools -- ones will be eligible for significant federal assistance under a new school improvement grant. Practically all of them were in the St. Louis or Kansas City metro areas.

Notable on the list were not only Eskridge High School in Wellston, which will go out of existence at the end of the school year when the district is annexed by Normandy, but also Normandy's high school and middle school. Asked whether it made sense to attach one failing district to another district whose schools aren't judged to be doing much better, Nicastro said that changes in the administration in Normandy have given those schools an improved chance to succeed.

"The superintendent has been there only a short time," Nicastro said, "but they are already developing programs to improve student performance. The community has come together with the administration and the board. They have passed bond issues, and they have a collective vision and effort to improve."

In St. Louis, the continued close attention from the state is welcomed by Rick Sullivan, who heads the three-member special administrative board put in place by the state in 2007.

"I certainly think the support from DESE is strong," Sullivan said. "I think at a federal level, a state level and a local level, people are very concerned about providing the best possible education for our students."

He noted that not too long after Superintendent Kelvin Adams was hired, the board accepted his recommendation to close several schools and take other steps to address financial problems. Unfortunately, it was not a one-time exercise; the same steps are likely to be taken this spring, Sullivan said, noting that some schools that were spared last year will undergo close scrutiny again this time around, particularly ones viewed as underperforming.

"Dr. Adams will take the list compiled by the state, review the results of those schools, take a look at what programs or initiatives are already in place, then make a recommendation some time in April for what he thinks the next steps should be," Sullivan said.

"I think Dr. Adams and his leadership team have been very proactive in implementing programs, reading initiatives, personnel changes and other improvements at the lowest-performing schools in St. Louis."



One innovation that Sullivan singled out is the creation of the pilot school: Buildings remain part of the city school system, but the schools have more autonomy to create education programs and other operating procedures than they have had in the past.

Becoming a pilot school is one of a range of options for schools wanting to take part in the school improvement grant program from the federal government. The program requires that schools adopt one of four approaches: turnaround, restart, transform or close.

In some cases, the change may mean wholesale firing of staff. In others, it may lead to a school becoming a charter school - one that is still publicly funded but is run by its own separate board and overseen by an outside sponsor, typically a university.

Currently, Missouri law allows charters only in St. Louis and Kansas City, but backers have been pushing to broaden that authority to give more schools and more students the opportunity to try innovative approaches to teaching and learning.

Cheri Shannon, executive director of the Missouri Charter Public School Association, said such an expansion is all about providing more choices.

"We're not looking at every district in the state," she said, "but it would give underperforming districts another option. We're looking at how putting a charter in their district, even one that is sponsored by the district, can provide some options for their students and for them to have a high-quality education."

She acknowledges that the recent list of underachieving schools included some charters, and she makes no excuses for such poor performance. Schools should be good ones, she said, no matter how they are governed.

"Sponsors need to step up their accountability," Shannon said. "That's another piece of our legislative platform. Quite honestly, I know some of the schools probably should be closed, just like traditional schools. If they're not educating students, they shouldn't be open."

Some critics have charged that charter schools simply siphon off the best students that a traditional school district has, leaving poorer students behind and contributing to a spiral of low achievement. Shannon disputes that scenario.

"We have open enrollment, so we have to take whoever shows up," she said. "Who is coming to our doors in charter schools is very representative of the district. It would be nice if the best of the best showed up, and if that were the case, charters would have much higher performance than they do.

"All parents want a good education for their kids. Some know how to get it better than others."

Another option under discussion in Jefferson City would allow parents to send their children to any public school district at all. Nicastro says that approach would pose several challenges, and she doesn't see it gaining much traction in the Legislature given all of the financial problems faced by the state.

"What does that look like? How would you make allowances for special education students and make sure you don't create problems for children with special needs? How do you address issues with athletics and other extracurricular activities? I don't know that any of that is going to go very far this year. I think everybody's focused on other issues."


One change for urban education that frequently comes up is giving control of the schools to the mayor -- a model in place in New York, Chicago and other large cities. Most of the recent attention to city control in St. Louis has focused on the police department, but Wahby, Mayor Slay's executive assistant for education, says her boss would like to have responsibility for schools as well.

"When the day is done, the people of this city hold the mayor accountable for safety issues and for education, and he runs neither the police department nor the schools," she said. "It would only be reasonable for him to have that leadership role."

Wahby, who has been the go-to person for education at City Hall since shortly after Slay took office in 2001, has viewed the city school situation from several angles. She worked for the district for 10 years, served six years on the school board and was also a student in the system.

She likes the idea of charter schools, as long as they are providing high-quality education, and applauds the full-service school approach that she says Slay has backed since his days on the Board of Aldermen. Schools that act as neighborhood hubs, providing a variety of social, human and economic services as well as education, can strengthen the city in many ways, she said.

"If your children are getting into trouble after school and don't have a safe place to be," Wahby said, "after-school programs will give them more connection to their neighborhood. And mom will be more likely able to work, because her students will have a safe place to be after school."

She thinks the appointment of Nicastro as commissioner is good for the city because of her experience in St. Louis County, but she also notes that the special administrative board for the city schools was put into place under the prior commissioner, Kent King, who acknowledged that the city schools were performing poorly and was willing to do something about it.

Her own boss, the mayor, is equally ready to take responsibility, Wahby added.

"The success of the city is inextricably linked to the success of the public schools," she said. "He has never shied away from challenges. He continues to make quality schools a priority. If the powers that be said the mayor would be a good candidate to lead the schools, with either an appointed school board or any other way, he would accept that.

"When he came into office, everyone told him to run away from the schools. Not only did he get involved -- he has stayed involved."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.