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As student transfer program wins last extension, supporters continue working for opportunity for all

school buses
Mo. Gov. Jay Nixon announced the release of funds for public school busing today. (via Flickr/wheany)

After area school superintendents voted Friday to phase out the current race-based student transfer program – and possibly replace it with a new one down the road – those who have been part of the program so far cited a lot of reasons it should continue.

Harlan Hodge, a city resident who graduated in 1992 from Parkway North High School, put his experience this way:

“The kids at our school, the teachers lovingly embraced us the same way they have everywhere else. It really became about excellence. I’m as committed to Parkway as I was 25 years ago when I started. I believe in the school district. I believe in teachers. I believe in our education. It was a great experience.”

The superintendents who are part of the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corp. (VICC) voted unanimously, with little discussion, to approve a final five-year extension of the plan that grew out of a 1972 lawsuit filed by St. Louis mother Minnie Liddell. Students who enter kindergarten at the end of that final extension could remain in the program through graduation, so transfers could last through 2036.

Now that the extension has been approved, local districts plan to get the word out in as many forms as possible, to make sure people understand that the end is coming, but not for a while.

In the meantime, a study of possible ways to continue the program could come up with new guidelines and criteria for moving the transfers into a different phase. The study is being conducted by Jerome Morris, an education professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and is expected to be complete in about one year.

Kelvin Adams, the superintendent of the St. Louis city schools, said he is glad that any changes the program might undergo will be determined well in advance of when they are needed.

“The VICC board has been really, really smart in terms of making decisions early,” he said following the vote at the headquarters of EducationPlus. “So I would suspect that whatever decisions might be happening in 2023 will also be done early enough so that families in the community can make decisions.

“There’s a commitment from superintendents and also from boards in the community to look at some other options to give kids great opportunities.”

Closing the gaps

Opportunity played a big part in comments after the VICC board vote. Adams noted that while the goal of the plan is to make sure all students have the chance to succeed, underlying it all is providing choices to help reach that goal.

“It’s really about opportunity,” he said. “We talk a lot about the achievement gap, but it’s really an opportunity gap. So this opens the door to give kids some opportunities that they would not otherwise have.”

Rockwood Superintendent Eric Knost said that giving students the chance to learn next to peers from other backgrounds is an invaluable asset.

From left, Rockwood Superintendent Eric Knost, St. Louis Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams and UMSL Professor Jerome Morris discuss the future of the voluntary student transfer program, Nov. 18, 2016
Credit Dale Singer | St. Louis Public Radio
From left, Rockwood Superintendent Eric Knost, St. Louis Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams and UMSL Professor Jerome Morris discuss the future of the voluntary student transfer program

“What all students gain is a realistic look at life,” Knost said. “We have a very diverse world, and I think the VICC program has allowed students very rewarding experiences to be educated in populations that are more diverse than what they would otherwise be.

“In the Rockwood school district, we have 86 countries represented. Our kids deserve diversity in all aspects, because that’s what they’re going to experience in the world. That’s what they’re going to see in the workplace. So it’s very valuable for kids to not only go to school with those right next door to them but with kids who come from all walks of life.”

Expanding the program to include criteria of family income, not just race, would provide another aspect of that diversity, Knost said.

“In our country, the thing we struggle with is educating kids in poverty,” he said. “So anything that we can do to better evolve the VICC program in the future – whatever we could call it, whatever it would look like – to address the needs of all kids and create opportunities for all kids, would be a great thing.”

Support for equality

For Hodge, the Parkway North graduate, the transfer program provided stability that he didn’t have growing up, when his family moved 10 times before he left high school. They came to St. Louis from East St. Louis and took advantage of the choice that VICC provided, choosing Parkway because of its high graduation rate.

“Our mother, thinking about our future and what the world would look like for us, thought that diverse environment would be great,” Hodge said. “And we liked the idea of riding the bus for school.”

Hodge said his experience gave him lifelong friends from all backgrounds -- including his classmate Eric Greitens, who will serve as Missouri’s next governor. Hodge took part in the inaugural class of a FOCUS leadership program for students and he is now co-director there.

“What I experienced in Parkway,” he said, “I have become as an adult. So I do credit VICC with creating that opportunity for me, but I’m also grateful for the individuals who helped me develop into the person that I’ve become.

'What I experienced in Parkway, I have become as an adult.' -- Harlan Hodge, 1992 high school graduate who took part in VICC program

“I’m an advocate of teachers. My experience was not so much through VICC as it was through the teachers I encountered in school. I don’t think that VICC was designed to be the manager of each of those relationships, but the facilitator of opportunities. The facilitation of that opportunity was tremendous for me.”

He noted that he was named for former U.S. Supreme Court John Marshall Harlan, who was the lone dissent in the 1896 case of Plessy v. Ferguson. It established the separate but equal doctrine that stood until it was overturned by Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954.

Hodge said Harlan’s view was correct, but he said the need to recognize race as an issue remains as well.

“There is a difference,” he said, “and as long as that difference exists, we need to have some kind of advocate that says, hey, let’s build a temporary support system until we get things right.”

William Douthit, the Liddell lawyer who has seen the case through decades of court filings, certainly agrees. He noted that it’s been quite a journey, from the threat of consolidating all suburban districts because of legal violations to the vote by VICC to extend the program.

Whatever criteria are used in the future, he said, the goal has to be the same as it has been for more than 40 years: good schools for as many children as possible.

“We need to address it as a community issue,” Douthit said. “Certainly race is a priority for me, because those are the clients that I represent, but we know that every child should have a high quality, integrated education, and not be in an isolated setting.

“How do we impact that? How do we make it happen? That’s what I hope the new VICC will address.”

Douthit said Minnie Liddell’s youngest son, Michael, who attended county schools as part of the program that her mother’s lawsuit started, now lives in the city, where his children attend class.

And he’s heavily invested in making sure the city school is the best that it can be, Douthit said.

“The apple is not far from the tree,” he said. “Mr. and Mrs. Liddell would be very happy with what’s happening with the grandkids.”

Follow Dale on Twitter: @dalesinger

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.