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Alumni rally to save Sumner High School

Tina Turner, Chuck Berry, and Dick Gregory once walked through these doors to attend classes at Sumner High School
(photo by Rachel Lippmann/St. Louis Public Radio)
Tina Turner, Chuck Berry, and Dick Gregory once walked through these doors to attend classes at Sumner High School

By Rachel Lippmann, St. Louis Public Radio


St. Louis –

>> Hear Sumner graduate Dick Gregory reflect on his time at the famous school

Between about 1940 and 1960, one high school in St. Louis produced a Wimbledon champion, two Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, an Emmy-winning actor and a famous comedian and activist.

Back then, Sumner High School was an educational jewel, anchoring a thriving middle class black neighborhood.

But Sumner's status as the first black high school established west of the Mississippi won't protect it from closure if academics and student behavior don't improve soon. That's prompted some alarmed alumni to try to save the school they love.

The bell ringing to end third period at Sumner High School sends its 550 students streaming through a building where Arthur Ashe, Tina Turner, Chuck Berry, Robert Guillaume and Dick Gregory once attended classes.

Cornell Andrews, cutting a figure of authority in khaki pants, a white collared shirt, and a maroon sweatshirt identifying him as an alum, is helping teachers monitor the controlled chaos in the hallways. This is the first time Andrews has actively participated in something with the alumni association since he graduated in 1976.

"When I attended school here, there was a great deal of school pride," Andrews said. "When it was mentioned that the school might close, that was just devastating to most alumni."

The Sumner that Andrews remembers had lots of clubs, a student council, and a marching band. Today, there are few extracurriculars beyond sports. Just 30 percent of Sumner's students read at grade level. Just 10 percent can do grade-level math.

Sumner's academic problems aren't unique among urban districts. The St. Louis Public Schools are under state control for that very reason. So superintendent Kelvin Adams wasn't overly concerned about Sumner until last year, when a football player was shot just outside the building, and guards had to use Mace to break up a gang fight.

Adams started looking at all of the numbers.

"Academics obviously is primary, but safety is a major, major concern of ours," he said." "The Sumner neighborhood has the highest crime rate for incidents of batteries and assaults."

Adams wanted to shutter the school at winter break. But that presented a host of logistical problems, and the $8 million in new air conditioning hadn't been turned on.

Instead, he installed an interim principal, ordered Sumner's students and staff to draft some goals, and gave them an ultimatum - meet the goals, or the school closes for good in June. By the end of the year, Sumner's average attendance must go from 78 percent to 85 percent. The number of suspensions and students failing classes must be cut in half.

"We've continued to believe that Sumner is the Sumner that existed 20 and 25 years ago," Adams said. "It is not."

Adams authorized extra staff for the school; assistant superintendents make frequent appearances. The district has also hired a police officer. But it's alumni volunteers who seem central to Sumner's attempt to survive.

1963 graduate John Abram was unhappy when Adams first threatened to close Sumner. He wasn't sure the superintendent fully understood the school's legacy. So the retired Ford engineer is making the most of the six-month reprieve - waking early to help students prepare for the ACT college entrance exam.

"I believe that with the benefits of Sumner and its legacy that those students could get everything they are looking for right here," Abram said, adding that he isn't blind to Sumner's struggles.

Senior Shannis McCollier found a home at Sumner, and worries about younger students if the school doesn't open next year.

"We are comfortable with each other, we are used to each other by now, and if we have to break away and start over again at all those other schools, it will be confrontation," she said.

Like John Abram, Shannis is aware that Sumner needs to improve, but she's not sure that the superintendent is being fair.

"There is no perfect public high school in St. Louis, but he wants Sumner to shape up and ship right like that," she said, with a snap of her fingers.

Adams agrees that Sumner's biggest problems cannot be solved in six months. The reprieve is a chance to see what might work at all the district's struggling high schools.

No one expects the Sumner of today to become the academic powerhouse it was 40 years ago. But the numbers are improving enough for cautious optimism that it will at least get a chance to rebuild on the base of that formidable legacy.