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Voluntary transfer chief Ellerman tells how program changed lives of thousands

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 15, 2009 - For a decade, Bruce Ellerman has served as CEO of the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corp., which administers one of the few and perhaps the largest school desegregation program of its kind in the nation.

In 27 years, the interdistrict program has helped about 68,000 students spend part or all of their school years in integrated classrooms in St. Louis or St. Louis County. About 87 percent of the students -- 60,000 -- were city kids enrolled in county schools; 8,000 were county children attending city magnet schools.

Initially, 15 suburban districts participated in the program: Affton, Bayless, Brentwood, Clayton, Hancock Place, Kirkwood, Ladue, Lindbergh, Mehlville, Parkway, Pattonville, Ritenour, Rockwood, Valley Park and Webster Groves.

In the process, the program has helped build bridges and bonds with students, teachers and families. Compared to students who remained in the St. Louis Public Schools, transfer students from the city tend to have higher attendance and graduation rates, score higher on state-mandated tests and have higher rates of college attendance.

Ellerman played a big role in the VICC board's decision in 2007 to extend the program and take new students through the 2013-14 school term, five years beyond the time the program was supposed to have ended. As he makes plans to retire as CEO in December, Ellerman, a CPA, looked back on the program's achievements and discussed issues, including race and diversity in classrooms and beyond.

We caught up with Ellerman this week after his mishap with yellow jackets while riding his bike on the Katy Trail over the weekend. His face was swollen on Monday, but, luckily, he suffered only one sting.

What impact has the interdistrict program had on diversity and race in education?

Ellerman: It has made a difference for students in the program -- in terms of kids making friends outside of their neighborhoods and their own racial circle of friends. At the same time, students at county schools wouldn't have been exposed to (much) racial diversity because many county schools have minority populations of 3 to 5 percent. So, both the nonblack families in the county and the black families in the city benefited from that. If you look at the students in the program and teachers who otherwise wouldn't have had minority students, their attitudes certainly have changed, improved, become more inclusive from a diversity standpoint.

But has it made a difference in St. Louis? If you look at housing patterns, you wouldn't see any more racial integration now than 30 years ago when the transfer program started. In terms of translating the diversity in schools into what's happening in communities once kids get out of school, I doubt if you'd see much change.

How specifically have teachers at the receiving schools changed, become more inclusive over the years?

Ellerman: They have evolved from (seeing them as) city kids in the county schools, which kind of separates them out, to taking ownership of these kids -- not inner-city kids but resident kids, our kids.

What prompted the change?

Ellerman: Racial sensitivity training of the staffs to address issues brought into the classroom by students from different cultures, different races and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Give us an idea of a typical transfer student.

Ellerman: The typical transfer student looks like a first or second grader. In the past, districts have taken kids across the grade levels, all the way up through high school. Over time, districts found they're much more successful with students when they start with kids from kindergarten through first and second grade. These kids tend to stay in the program and perform better academically; their attendance is better.

Are these "typical" students different from those in city schools?

Ellerman: We have about the same percentage of students receiving free and reduced lunches; the average MAP scores of transfer students in the early grades are about the same as students in city schools. But when you look at succeeding grades -- 5th, 7th and 9th grades -- there is an achievement gap. That generally refers to white versus black students, but I'm talking about a gap over time between students who transfer to county schools and those who remain in the city.

That's an important finding because of criticism that the best and brightest from city schools were being skimmed off for the transfer program. The test scores in the early grades don't bear that out.

How much integration takes place beyond diversity in the same school building?

Ellerman: We'd like to see more. Some districts have been more proactive than others. Students are given some opportunities and services to help academically, but in terms of encouraging students to establish relationships on their own, that's left to chance. If you go out on a playground in an elementary school or into a lunchroom or the hallway, the kids tend to segregate themselves based on race. The classroom is where the diversity and interchange of ideas occur. But kids who are active in athletics, band and other extra curricular activities tend to have a lot of friends in both the city and the county.

What are the reasons families want to participate in the transfer program?

Ellerman: The top reason was that parents valued the diversity (according to a survey). Quality of education was second. But the third reason -- this surprised us -- was the safety (of county schools). This was a particular concern for (black) parents as kids went from (city) elementary schools to the high schools. Parents visited those schools and saw metal detectors, police officers, and the perception of safety, gangs and guns were much more of a concern to them.

What is the status of the voluntary transfer program?

Ellerman: Future funding is probably the biggest challenge. Under the 1999 settlement, the funding from the state of Missouri is simply money that would have gone to kids going to city schools and is redirected to kids in the program. We will come to a point when the money we're getting for each kid will not be sufficient for a school district to cover the cost of having the program.

Are you close to reaching that point?

Ellerman: We haven't reached it yet. If the districts can get tuition of $7,000 a student, they can economically justify the program's cost. If funding drops below $7,000, some districts won't be able to cover their costs. Right now, our funding level is $8,000-$9,000 a student, so we're in good shape. The transfer program is authorized to continue through the 2013-14 school year. After that, the interdistrict board would have to take action if the program is to be extended beyond 2014. But up to 2014, kids who come into the program can stay in the program until they graduate.

How many of the original 15 districts have dropped out?

Ellerman: In 1999 when a new settlement agreement was reached and current version of the program began, Ladue opted out. Two more districts, Pattonville and Lindbergh, opted out last year. The 1999 agreement was a 10-year settlement to ran until 2009-10. A five-year extension was approved in 2007 and that's how we got to extend the program to 2013-14. We serve about 6,500 kids: About 6,300 from the city go to county (schools), and about 200 from the county attend magnet schools in the city. We normally get about 5 or 6 times more applicants than we have space.

Has the emergence of charter schools had an impact on the program?

Ellerman: We've noticed no impact. We still get thousands of applications for a limited number of seats. We know of 3,500 families trying to get into the transfer program and only 500 made it in this year. So what about the other 3,000? Well, the charter schools give parents additional opportunities. There are always more families looking for places to go than space available. I guess the dissatisfaction with city school hasn't shown any signs of subsiding.

What's your hope for the future, after 2014 when the program might stop taking new students.

Ellerman: My hope is that the city system will eventually have quality schools, that the city schools regain their accreditation and that parents perceive them as being just as good as those in the county. That doesn't work in the favor of the transfer program, but the nature of this program was limited from the very beginning. It was a court-ordered program to achieve racial balance because the state had intentionally segregated the races for educational purposes.

Education in city schools is not the same as it was 27 or 30 years ago when the transfer program started. City schools were accredited 30 years ago. Now they are unaccredited, and the quality gap between county and city schools has grown. I'd like to see that gap closed so families have the same options the county has. Is it going to be there by 2013-14? That would be a big turnaround. I'd like to see the (transfer) program in a position to extend for a few more years beyond 2013-14 to give city schools more time to get the quality back up.

What does a CEO like you do in his spare time -- besides riding bikes on the Katy Trail?

Ellerman: I have many outside interests and hobbies, but the major ones are motorcycles, old muscle cars from the mid- to late '60s and early '70s, cooking, reading and staying fit (cycling, running and weight training). I grew up on a small farm in central Missouri. My parents still live on the old home place, and I suppose that's where I get my love of the outdoors and nature in general.

What are your plans after the VICC?

Ellerman: I plan to relax and travel for the first year but then go back to school. I'm particularly interested in math, science and physics. My eventual goal is to build a workshop or laboratory to tinker around in like a modern day Franklin, Edison. I guess all that mechanical work I did on the farm -- rebuilding engines, repairing equipment -- may come in handy after all!

What about your family, any children?

I commute to work from Defiance to Clayton, about 35 miles, every day. I have three children ranging in age from 19 to 24. They all graduated from Wentzville High School, and the oldest recently graduated from Mizzou with a chemistry degree. They all live within a couple of hours of St. Louis.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.