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Prospect Of Nonprofits Running Low-Performing St. Louis Public Schools Continues To Draw Criticism

Tim Lloyd
St. Louis Public Radio

Updated Sat., March 29, at 2:09 p.m.

A proposal to bring in nonprofits to run low-performing St. Louis City schools continued to draw criticism during a public hearing at Central Visual and Performing Arts High School on Saturday.

With comments similar to those made at a forum on Thursday night, members of the elected school board reiterated their opposition to the idea.  

“The recommendation to contract out our schools for years to strangers is a disgrace and an insult to the community without compelling evidence they can do better than we can do,” said Bill Haas, an elected school board member.

Currently, the district is being run by the Special Administrative Board, or SAB. The elected school board has no oversight power.

St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams introduced the idea during a Special Administrative Board meeting this month as part of the “St. Louis Public School District Transformation Plan.”  Under the plan, 18 schools with the lowest level of academic performance are grouped into a category called the “Superintendent Zone,” which Adams has been monitoring directly since the fall.    

The plan calls for funneling roughly $6.4 million to the 18 schools that would pay for tutors, added social workers and teacher training. If one of the schools fails to show improvement during the coming school year, a nonprofit operator could be brought in during the 2015-16 school year and would have control over hiring staff and setting curriculum. 

Adams said during the forum that he wants to keep all options on the table.

“These schools that we’re looking at have received three years of school improvement data, another year of support from the superintendent,” Adams said.  “They will receive, if the board approves this, another $6.3 million of support, as well.  So, after five years of consistent support, am I looking at some other options? Yes, period, no ifs, no ands, and no buts about it.   That’s what that’s really about.”

Mark Kasen, who teaches history at Vashon High School, said he’d like to have teachers from his and other schools in the “Superintendent Zone” meet with Adams on a regular basis to share best practices and strategies.

“My suggestion is that we find a way to engage the teachers with you directly to think about ways in which we can make this achievement that you want, and everybody wants, happen,” Kasen said.

Adams will present a final version of the plan to the SAB on April 10.

Thursday’s Forum

Teachers, parents and others spoke against a proposal to bring in nonprofit organizations s to run low performing schools in the St. Louis Public Schools during a public hearing on Thursday evening.

Credit Tim Lloyd / St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Public Radio
President of the elected school board, David Jackson, speaks during a public forum at Vashon High School on March 27, 2014.

“Outsourcing and bringing in a nonprofit organization that can set the curriculum won’t work for our students,” said Susan Jones, a member of the elected school board. She said that giving curriculum authority to an outside vendor would be too disruptive for students who require stability in the classroom.

David Jackson, president of the elected school board, said he agreed with more support of struggling schools, but he expressed concerns over handing over operations to outside groups.

“The elected board cannot and will not support any outsourcing of management of its schools to any outside entity or nonprofit,” Jackson said.

Other speakers said a year simply wasn’t enough time for schools to move the academic needle before handing over operations to a nonprofit operator.

“If progress is being made, then give that time to take root and expand,” said Mary Armstrong, president of the local chapter of the American Federation of Teachers.   

That was a sentiment shared by Valarie Williams, president of the St. Louis Public Schools Parent Assembly.

“Even when you start a business, you can project anything within a year,” she said.  “You’ve got to give it at least three years to figure out, is this going to work?  What can I do differently?  You have to give at least three years.”

About 100 people filled the auditorium at Vashon High School during the forum, and Adams acknowledged that none of the speakers favored the idea.  He reiterated after the meeting that nothing has been decided.

“You’d have to be a fool not to listen to comments from credible people,” Adams said.  “If I didn’t take their recommendations into some consideration, why even go through this process?  My intent is to listen to comments and to see what we can possibly do to address what their comments are.” 

Adams said he’ll continue to gather feedback through the weekend and then take a week to look at the comments with district staff before submitting his final proposal to the SAB on April 10.

“We have to look at every single option,” Adams said.  “I can’t take an option and put it on the side and say, ‘oh, I’m blind to it.’ And that’s what this plan is saying.”

Several speakers at the forum questioned whether data support the view that bringing in nonprofits really is effective in bolstering academic achievement in low performing schools.

After the forum Adams pointed to the Apollo 20 program in Houston, put in place during the 2010-11 school year, as an example where nonprofits have been able to move the academic needle.

The project is the brainchild of Harvard Economist Roland Fryer, who concluded in apaper published last December that the approach was working.

“All statistical approaches lead to the same basic conclusions,” Fryer wrote, “Injecting best practices from  charter schools into low performing traditional public schools can significantly increase student achievement."

review by the Houston Education Research Consortium, a research partnership between Rice University and the Houston Independent School District, concluded that the approach yielded mixed results.

“Taken together, these strategies had positive effects on math gains but negligible effects on reading gains,” according to the report published last month. “The reported effects were stronger when the analyses included students who were zoned to, but not actually enrolled in, Apollo schools, and there was no evidence that these effects persist over time. There was also no evidence of improved human capital among teachers or principals. The strongest evidence reported is from the small group, high-dosage tutoring, which we recommend expanding to include reading as well as additional grade levels.”   

The plan also calls for creating three additional “tiers” of schools based on academic performance, with the better performing schools having the greatest flexibility on how they’ll go about meeting five overarching goals in the plan. They include aligning curriculum with “Common Core” standards, making better use of student data and ensuring schools have welcoming and safe environments.  

Tim Lloyd was a founding host of We Live Here from 2015 to 2018 and was the Senior Producer of On Demand and Content Partnerships until Spring of 2020.

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