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St. Louis schools cite progress toward accreditation

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 17, 2012 - St. Louis Public Schools have reversed two of the three problems that led to their loss of accreditation from the state and are well on their way to conquering the last one: student achievement.

That was the message brought Tuesday to the State Board of Education meeting in Jefferson City by Superintendent Kelvin Adams and Rick Sullivan, head of the state-appointed Special Administrative Board that took over the city schools in 2007.

At that time, state officials said the loss of accreditation and the takeover were based on three factors:

  • Unstable leadership
  • Financial problems
  • Underperforming students

Since that time, Adams and Sullivan said, the district has worked to remedy all three problems.
Compared with the frequent turnover and infighting on the elected school board, plus an unnervingly short term for superintendents, the city schools have settled into a much more stable pattern since the SAB first met in June 2007. After a nationwide search, Adams was chosen to be superintendent the following year.

Last February, his initial contract was extended by three years, through 2014, demonstrating what he called a new emphasis on accountability and continuity.

The SAB took a similarly straightforward approach in tackling the district's chronic financial problems. Information presented to the state board Tuesday showed that from a negative fund balance of $12.4 million in 2007-08, which grew to $65.5 million two years later, the district projects breaking even at the end of the current school year -- its second consecutive balanced budget.

One part of that effort was a steady reduction in expenses, including layoffs and the closing of schools, so that spending dropped from $338.9 million in 2007-08 to a projected $276.5 million this year.

But what really helped put the district into the black was a $96.1 million windfall from the area's long-running interdistrict desegregation program, announced in November. The city schools said the money would be used not only to wipe out its continuing deficit but also to make improvements in programs dealing with early childhood education, parent-infant interaction, teacher mentoring, magnet school transportation, technology and training principals.

With leadership and financial stability achieved, the district says it has continued its emphasis on raising student achievement, the final hurdle in regaining accreditation from the state. On their most recent annual performance report, the St. Louis schools reported meeting state standards in six out of the 13 academic areas judged -- up from five the previous year and just three in 2008-09.

While officials are proud of the progress, the city schools still have fallen short in making adequate yearly progress in MAP tests in math and communication arts. All six of their standards met last year came from factors such as courses offered and graduation rate, plus a one-point bonus for improved MAP achievement.

Charts provided to the board on Tuesday showed steady progress in MAP achievement from 2007 through last year, exceeding the average rate of improvement across the state.

In communication arts, for example, St. Louis schools went up 13.6 percent over the period, to 33.1 percent of students making adequate yearly progress. Statewide, the rate of increase was 10.2 percent, to 54.6 percent.

Similar increases were posted in math -- a rate of improvement of 13.7 percent to 93 percent statewide -- as well as on end-of-course tests in high school algebra and English.

Still, the scores showed the district has a big gap to bridge to reach levels where they would gain the points needed for provisional accreditation. City students lagged far behind the statewide average score in all four areas.

Numbers for the city schools' attendance rate showed similar improvement, from a low of 88.6 percent in 2008 up to 92.9 percent last year -- a figure that still trailed the statewide average of 94.4 percent.

Using another measure, for schools in the district instead of the district as a whole, Adams and Sullivan pointed out that while just 12 schools made adequate yearly progress on the MAP test in 2008-09, or 13 percent, that number was up to 16 schools, or 22 percent, by last year. During the same period, the number of schools in the district dropped to 72 from 86.

To help boost achievement in upcoming years, the city schools have added 37 pre-kindergarten classrooms and partnered with Harris-Stowe State University to provide additional professional development. Principals are trained at a mandatory summer institute, and new teachers are partnered with veterans under the St. Louis Plan, to provide much-needed coaching and improvement.

The district is also using federal turnaround funds in its program for EPIC schools -- Education Providing Innovative Change schools. Eight out of 11 schools using School Improvement Grant money from Washington have shown improvement in both math and communication arts MAP scores, the district said, with higher rates of attendance and reduced numbers of disciplinary measures.

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.