Jere Hochman was most recently the superintendent of the  Bedford Central School district in New York State (his third superintendency). He then became the education advisor to Governor Cuomo, where he seemed to have a calming effect on the governor. He went home to St. Louis and took a position within the school system. He writes here about what he sees as the success of what was once a very troubled school district, threatened from all sides because of low test scores. St. Louis, he writes, is back, even though its population is declining and under-enrolled schools must be closed. State takeovers seldom improve schools. In St. Louis, the story is different, perhaps because of the steadiness of local leadership, which did not try to destroy the school district. Public confidence is on the rebound. He explains why.

 

The Surprising Success of the St. Louis Public Schools

Jere Hochman

December 2019

Startling mismanagement,” “emergency managers,” “charters galore,” “Academic Distress Commissions,” privatization maneuvering, dismal student performance and graduation rates and other descriptors cited in Dr. Ravitch’s blogs have characterized state takeovers including those in Detroit, Houston, Providence, Youngstown and most recently, Rochester.  

In St. Louis, words like “trust,” “direction and focus,” “fiscally responsible and economical stable,” “confidence,” and “accredited” describe the outcomes following a state takeover.  

Last summer, Dr. Ravitch asked me “Why did St. Louis work?”

In 2007, the State of Missouri declared the St. Louis Public Schools “unaccredited.”  A news article summarizing the circumstances cited: “The district was graduating just 56 percent of the students it was supposed to. District leaders were staring down a budget hole more than $24 million deep that had been dug out of a $52 million surplus just five years before. The district would force out or say goodbye to six superintendents in five years. The district was meeting only five of 14 state accreditation standards.” (St. Louis Post Dispatch, January 11, 2017).

 At that time, the school district governance was transferred from an elected board of education to a three-person Special Appointed Board (SAB).  The Mayor, the President of the Board of Alderman, and the Governor each appointed a Board member. Subsequently, and, perhaps their most noteworthy accomplishment, was the SAB’s hiring an outstandingsuperintendent who is still leading the district garnering confidence and results.  

Under the appointed board’s governance and the superintendent’s leadership, the district restored fiscal responsibility, balanced budgets, operational efficiency, and long-term financial stability.  The district achieved state accreditation in 2017.   Among the accomplishments during this period, the district:

Upgraded aging facilities, new science labs, playscapes, and more.
Passed a 75% community majority vote on a $155 Bond Issue and a ballot proposition to support early childhood, safety and security, equipment, character education, and curriculum advancements.
Minimized obstacles of student mobility and homelessness, partnered with dozens of community agency supports; reduced suspensions, and improved student attendance.
Implemented with teacher union support, a plan for first year teachers to be coached and evaluated by fellow full-time “consultant teachers.”
In 2018, the 4-year graduation rate was 78%.  Two and Four-year college entrance rates were on par with the State average.

And, while academic performance improvement afforded re-accreditation, all concur with optimism and determination, there is much work to be done.

 Throughout this intervention process, local control remained intact and stability in governance and district leadership provided growth, capacity, and sound foundation for the future.  Having attained accreditation, on July 1, 2019, governance transitioned from the SAB to an elected seven-person Saint Louis Public Schools Board of Education. 

It Worked.  Why?

When asked, “Why did St. Louis work?” my response was immediate: 1) A temporary appointed board governance model,2) the individuals serving on the three-person board, and 3) the superintendent all under a microscope.  

It worked because the governance model inherently required the board’s unflinching and self-disciplined attention to policy, protocols, and oversight.   The board scrutinized and directed the district’s operations for efficiency, productivity, and accountability. It worked because these board members left their egos at the door, adhered to the model’s roles and expectations, and did their homework.  

 They stayed the course through initial opposition and they stayed, literally.  They served the interests of the children and the district.  They did not jump on the sweeping educational reform bandwagon or allow infiltration of political interests.  Moreover, they cleared the way for their newly hired superintendent, Dr. Kelvin Adams, to lead, to genuinely lead, the school district.

From day one, Dr. Adams provided direction, focus, and disciplined operations.  He exemplified a relentless mission for every students’ success, equity, and accountability and he held all staff to the same standards and expectations.

 There were no promises of a splashy quick fix turnaround or “take no prisoners” authoritarian posturing. (witnessed by short-lived tenure of superintendents and boards in other districts).  Any concerns about a privatization movement, charter takeover, or special interest board seat takeover were alleviated.  Charter schools popped up, however approximately one-third eventually shuttered their doors.  And, today, Dr. Adams continues to serve with stick-to-itiveness, integrity, and sights set on high expectations for students and employees.

In every meeting, the appointed board stuck to protocols and their responsibilities.  Through the challenges, highly scrutinized decisions, and response to concerns, they supported and protected the superintendent to perform his responsibilities.  Were there problems, unsuccessful efforts, and criticism?  Of course.  They were matched, however, with research-based endeavors, “data driven” goals and accountability, confidence-building audits, and determination.

The governance model kept board members focused on what boards are supposed to do which in turn allowed the superintendent to do what superintendents are supposed to do. Which in turn provided clear direction and allowed district leaders and staff, principals, and teachers to do what they are supposed to do.  They did so well.

In addition to continuous academic improvement in the schools, the district worked with local corporate, and agency partners; religious institutions and faith-leaders; on-a-mission employees and the union; necessary watchdogs and critics and wary but caring parents; and innovative local philanthropists, an academically focused Foundation, and numerous support agencies. 

 Now, as the elected Board of Education resumes governance, the St. Louis Public Schools currently enrolls approximately 22,000 students, a decline from approximately 26,000 in 2009 (overall city population has decreased).  There are 17 charter school entities in the city, enrolling approximately 10,000 students..  

This past year, the “new” elected Board of Education immersed themselves in orientation, development, and preparation to resume governance.  Their preparation and determined effort could serve as a model for board orientation in any school district.  Now, they govern a district where there is confidence in the superintendent; academic, operational, and financial stability; a comprehensive Transformation Plan (3.0); and a solid foundation upon which continued academic growth is occurring.  

In a reform world, particularly in an urban district, stability and success are unusual.  Board stability with “constancy of purpose” is uncommon.  A long-term superintendent methodically leading academics and operations particularly is rare.  A superintendent leading deliberately, instilling confidence, and inspiring all around her or him is as rare. 

In all categories, St. Louis is an outlier upon which to build continued success. Whether it was the appointed board governance model and respective roles of the board and superintendent or it was the individuals who filled the positions, or a combination of both (no doubt the latter), it worked. 

(Disclosure:  I am an employee of the district with a unique lens.  After serving as a superintendent in three school districts for 19 years, I serve as a network superintendent in SLPS).

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