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To Help 2 Struggling Schools, SLPS Gives Them More Autonomy

Meramec Elementary School Principal Jonathan Strong works with a preschool student on writing letters. Strong will have more flexibility next year to improve the St. Louis school.
File Photo | Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio
Meramec Elementary School Principal Jonathan Strong works with a preschool student on writing letters. Strong will have more flexibility next year to improve the St. Louis school.

St. Louis Public Schools is granting more freedom to two neighborhood elementary schools in hopes the formula to improve their performance lies within.

Starting in August, staff at Meramec Elementary in Dutchtown and Ashland Elementary in Penrose will report to a different board and have more say over how they run their schools.

Giving urban schools freedom from the central office and school board is not a new idea.

“It’s working,” said David Osborne, author of the book "Reinventing America’s Schools: Creating a 21st Century Education System."

Osborne is a big fan of breaking up urban school district bureaucracy in favor of more school-by-school independence when it comes to curriculum, staffing and busing, which are typically handled at a district level.

“Instead, give them the budget; let them hire and fire, let them run the school,” he said.

The model is already used in some form and name in Denver and Indianapolis, among other cities. In St. Louis, the program is being called the Consortium Partnership Network.

Meramec and Ashland have long been at the bottom of district schools for performance and have gone through other transformation efforts before. They’ve been given increased funding and brought under the wing of the central office. Now, the district is sending them out on their own.

“My vision is for Meramec to be a community-based school, meaning that we focus on educating the student, academically and holistically, and we become a resource for the parents” of the lower-income Dutchtown neighborhood, said Meramec Principal Jonathan Strong.

That could mean different staffing, “or allow me to pay teachers to write our own curriculum, to actually truly tailor it to the needs of the students,” Strong said.

A unique curriculum excites Emily Hubbard, a parent of four kids at Meramec. She sees her children’s teachers locked into teaching specific things in specific ways, even if it’s not always working.

“There are a lot of things like that that I’m very hopeful will be kind of pushed out of the way and the teachers can do what they know is good for the students and what research says is most effective, instead of having to jump through hoops to get things done,” Hubbard said.

Most of her kids have had the same teachers, which she’s grateful for, though she hopes the school will be able to further reduce staff turnover and increase support staff.

School staff will work with an outside consulting firm to develop and implement their ideas. Big changes, like staffing, will likely come in year two.

Some elected school board members as well as the teachers’ union fear decentralizing the district is a trojan horse for charter schools.

Sally Topping, president of the American Federation of Teachers Local 420, says it’s a great opportunity for the district to replicate a successful model.

“This is really exciting; we can be really innovative,” said Topping.

But she has concerns.

“On the other hand, if this turns into another (charter school), we have really let our children down,” she added. “If all we do is just turn St. Louis Public Schools into another form of a charter school, I don’t see why we’re bothering with that then.”

The schools have three years to show academic improvements from the added autonomy. SLPS could also add more schools to the Consortium Partnership Network if it’s yielding results.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org

Ryan was an education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.