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Historic Sumner High Lives On, Staving Off Closure Again

Sumner High School, in The Ville neighborhood, is the oldest high school in the Western U.S. to educate African Americans, having opened in 1875.
Wiley Price
St. Louis American
Sumner High School, in the Ville neighborhood, avoided closure by the St. Louis Board of Education. The school will take on an arts and activism theme.

Sumner High School has a new lease on life, backed by a commitment from arts groups and its passionate alumni base.

The St. Louis school board voted Tuesday evening not to close Sumner after this school year as part of a district-wide consolidation plan and instead endorsed a plan to improve the school’s enrollment.

“I am ecstatic,” said Warice Blackmon-Davis, a Sumner Bulldog alumna, Class of 1980, after the board vote. “We have the spirit of the Bulldogs in us, and Bulldogs do not give up.”

Sumner now will have an arts and activism theme that proponents hope will entice more students to enroll and reinvigorate the school. The board gave the school at least three years to make improvements.

Next school year, several area arts groups, including COCA and the Black Rep, will begin teaching courses in drama, music, dance and visual arts. In year two, the school will integrate an activism curriculum and courses on the Ville’s history.

“We have tried other things at Sumner. They have not caught on the way we’ve wanted to,” said Superintendent Kelvin Adams. “In this particular case, there is some degree of organization that’s coming to the table in a very real way that gives me the impression there’s a real likelihood that something positive can occur here.”

Sumner opened in 1875 as the first high school west of the Mississippi River to give diplomas to Black students and has anchored the Ville for nearly 150 years. But as the former hub of Black culture and population has declined in recent decades, so too has the school’s enrollment.

Sumner’s graduates include big names, such as rockers Tina Turner and Chuck Berry, opera singer Grace Bumbry and comedian Dick Gregory.

“Sumner has given so much to the arts over its long history,” said Tom Ridgely, St. Louis Shakespeare Festival’s artistic director. “And so, the least that we can do as the arts community is to try to invest in it.”

SLPS already has an arts-themed high school, but Sumner will not require an audition or portfolio review for admission, as Central Visual Performing Arts High School does. Sumner will not compete with Central VPA. “I think it just raises the bar,” Ridgely said.

Sumner wound up on a school closure list this winter, along with a dozen other school buildings, as part of a district-wide consolidation plan. A strong community outcry first persuaded the school board to delay the consolidation vote and then give Sumner’s alumni and other backers an extra two months to formulate a plan. Eight other schools will still close after this school year.

Sumner will also have its own advisory board, a model that has been successful at the district’s biosciences-themed Collegiate high school. Advisers could include Charles Berry Jr., son of the late Chuck Berry.

In the mid-20th century, Sumner educated more than 2,000 students. Enrollment in recent years has hovered around 200. The district proposed closing it in 2010 when enrollment dropped to about 500, yet alumni persuaded the district to keep the school open then, too.

The district aims to increase Sumner’s enrollment by 10% each year, but its future success will require it to swim upstream from severe demographic challenges for the city and school district. When Sumner’s halls were overflowing, the district had about 100,000 students. Today, its K-12 enrollment is below 20,000. The city’s population has also fallen from more than 850,000 to 300,000.

Aaron Williams, board chairman of 4 The Ville, a tourism and arts organization, said the community has the power to rebuild both the Ville and Sumner’s brand in the future.

“The one thing about Sumner’s legacy and Sumner itself is it is bigger than any demographic challenges that the neighborhood faces,” he said. “The story of Sumner is bigger than that.”

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

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