Archives for category: St. Louis

The Republican-controlled legislature in Missouri has imposed charter schools on the state’s two urban districts (but not their own). The legislature is now considering HB1552, which will financially benefit charter schools. Emily Hubbard, a parent in St. Louis, wrote to ask the Budget Committee to stop expanding and favoring charter schools and to fund the state’s public schools equitably and adequately. She sent this email to the Budget Committee, which I am posting with her permission.

Dear Budget Committee Members, 

I am planning to come speak to you in person, so I will keep this email brief. 

I am a parent of four children in St. Louis Public Schools. They are amazing kids who have been loved and taught well from our neighborhood elementary school to the magnet middle school my two oldest attend. With my youngest in second grade, I have another decade in SLPS, assuming that the district manages to survive.

Y’all, I am so tired of certain members of the state legislature pitting charter schools against public school districts. I am especially baffled that this bill is sponsored by someone with no charter schools in his district. Who is he representing with this bill? Because of the laws y’all or your predecessors have already made, this statewide law will only affect two cities (and maybe Normandy?), and I know you know these are the cities with the most Black kids (mine included). 

My new neighborhood school (we recently moved from Rep. Aldridge’s district to the 81st) is a school that serves students who speak many different languages at home. ESOL services cost money. I don’t know if you have the time to watch this video from the October legislative committee of the Board of Education, but let me remind you that around 20% of SLPS kids do not have stable housing. That’s around 5000 children. This data is 2018-2019 (from this site) , but please look at these numbers: 

all SLPS kids: 21,814

all Charter kids: 10,109

homeless population at SLPS: 4,771

homeless population at charters: 470

SLPS homeless percentage: 21.87% 

charter homeless percentage: 4.65% (but some have zero, some are high as 13%, some have closed 2019)

SLPS serves a student population with disproportionately higher needs than charter schools, whether it’s through our fantastic ESOL programs; the difficult task of walking through trauma with kids (one of my daughter’s classmate’s mother was murdered over Christmas break); the cost incurred by the desegregation program which doesn’t seem to have done that much to integrate our schools (especially the neighborhood ones) and instead allows white and privileged parents the ability to cluster in the particular magnet schools and hoard their resources for the sake of their already resourced children; or the special education costs which we shoulder alone, not shared like in the county. 

And then there’s the whole transportation thing–did you know that some charter schools don’t provide transportation? So you can’t really choose that school if you don’t have a safe way to get your kid to school and home again.

I don’t know anything about the education system in Kansas City, so I can’t speak to that, but please please please consider the effect that passing this bill will have on the children of St. Louis. 

I am an evangelical Christian (a pastor’s wife, even), and I have seen our school be the means that does the Lord’s work: they feed the hungry, clothe the naked, take care of the orphan, minister to the foreigners within our gates, not to mention, for our family at least, providing an education that has enabled my children to grow in their faith as we take what they’ve learned at school and use it to glorify God together. 

Please don’t take away from funds that enable SLPS to do the work it does, however imperfectly.

And could we just as a state, fund education at a higher rate all together? I know the rural schools are struggling too. 

Also if we could alleviate homelessness, do what it takes to end gun violence, prioritize the health of all Missourians, raise the minimum wage, deal with our opioid addiction crisis…there are a ton of non-education things that if addressed, would significantly and positively affect not just our district, but all the districts. Just think about it, okay?

Thanks so much for your time–see you on Tuesday! I’m sorry that this wasn’t brief at all, I just care a whole lot.

With appreciation for the difficult work you do,

Emily Hubbard

Carondelet, St. Louis

An organization of business leaders in St. Louis issued a demand for more “high quality schools” (by which they mean privately managed charter schools). But it’s not clear that charters are synonymous with “high quality schools.”

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that the University of Missouri-St. Louis, which manages seven charter schools in the city, is likely to close one of them. The Arch Community Charter School opened in 2017 and has an enrollment of 95 students.

In fact, charter schools and competition has weakened the city’s struggling public schools.

Here is some useful information from the story in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch:

The potential closure comes as city leaders focus on the fluctuating public school landscape, including a sharp population decline among school-aged children, which dropped to 45,000 from 60,000 over the last decade.

On Thursday, the Education and Youth Matters Committee of the Board of Aldermen will discuss a resolution to support a moratorium on opening new schools and the development of a citywide plan for public education. The resolution would amount to a symbolic ban on charter schools, which are governed by state law.

But after looking at the Arch’s academic records, the school does not have the numbers and planning to meet students’ needs, Marino said.

In 2019, the most recent state data available, 3% of students at the Arch tested proficient or advanced in English and none in math.

UMSL’s decision about Arch follows the closure several months ago of Clay Elementary School, one-half mile away in the Hyde Park neighborhood. That was part of a St. Louis Public Schools downsizing. Enrollment below 200 students was among the criteria considered for closure, and Clay had dropped to 128 students last year.

The aldermanic resolution says: “The local, state, and federal support for school choice programs continues to create a system of schools and programs that fight over a declining population of children and a shrinking pool of resources, leading to duplicated services and system-wide inefficiencies.”

Charter schools enroll close to 12,000 students in the city, while St. Louis Public Schools enrollment dropped below 20,000 last year. The district has lost more than 50% of its enrollment since the first charters opened in 2000.

Open the article to see the graph, which demonstrates the folly of expanding the charter sector, which drains resources and students from a weakened public sector.

The average annual performance score for local charter schools, which includes factors such as attendance, academic achievement, and high school or college preparedness, was 80% in 2018, the most recent figures available. St. Louis Public Schools scored 79%, according to state data.

Of the 30-plus charter schools that have opened in St. Louis since 2000, about half have been shut down for academic or financial failure. Carondelet Leadership Academy was the latest to shutter in June 2020, displacing 400 students and 50 staff members.

One new charter school will open in 2022, sponsored by—wait for it—the Opportunity Trust.

The St. Louis Board of Aldermen endorsed the moratorium on new schools and agreed on the need for a master plan for schools. However, the state legislature decides what happens in St. Louis to St. Louis schools. The Republican legislature does not believe in local control..

The board voted 24-1 for a nonbinding resolution that notes that charter schools and the city public school system have been fighting “over a declining population of children and a shrinking pool of resources.”

Supporters included Alderman Marlene Davis, a former city school board president, who said charter schools were forced upon the city by the Missouri Legislature.

Any new restrictions on the opening of additional charter facilities also would have to be imposed by state lawmakers.

“It’s a sin,” said Davis, of the 19th Ward. “We have gone through trauma after trauma” when some charter schools have suddenly closed.

She also complained about the performance of many of them, while acknowledging that there have been a few with adequate or superior records.

“Nobody can tell me that there’s appropriate oversight of these schools,” Davis said.

The resolution also won support from a critic of the city public schools, Alderman Carol Howard, 14th Ward.

“We need a master plan” for all types of schools, said Howard, a retired school principal in the city school system. “We need to all agree — Black, white, whatever — that our children are important.”

A coalition of organizations in St. Louis combined to promote a new vision of education. Even the superintendent of schools added his name.

But when the school board realized that the “new vision” was funded by Opportunity Trust, a pro-charter outfit, they insisted on a moratorium.

Once again, an astroturf group was planning to hasten the pace of privatization. The city currently has 18,000 students in its public schools, and 12,000 in charter schools. The charter industry is never satisfied. It always wants more.

This article was co-authored by a group of educators who oppose privatization. They have identified the primary driver of privatization in their different communities: The City Fund, subsidized primarily by corporate “reformers” Reed Hastings and John Arnold. The City Fund is led by experienced privatizers who have tried their hand in places like Tennessee and New Orleans, where the PR was great but the results were not. It opened its operations with $200 million in hand from its funders. Lots of money, no members, and a charge to go out into the nation and find cities where they could disrupt the local school board elections by underwriting advocates of privatization. They are undermining public schools and democracy at the same time. They should hang their heads in shame. They won’t.

The authors of the following are: Dr. Tracee Miller was an elected member of the St. Louis Board of Education. Dr. Keith Benson is president of the Camden Education Association. Christina Smith is Secretary of Indianapolis Public Schools Community Coalition. Dawn Chanet Collins, East Baton Rouge Parish School System Board Member and Candidate for Metro-Council 6. Bobby Blount is a San Antonio Northside ISD Trustee. Don Macleay is a member of Oakland Public Schools Action 2020.

They wrote the following article:


Education Privatization: Eerie Similarities in Stories from 15 Major US Cities

A new education reform movement has made its way across the country whose goal is not reform, but privatization. That coalition is led by billionaires forcing their extreme market bias onto our school system. Its framework steers tax dollars away from the public schools and toward their chosen consultants, partner groups, curricula, and other products and services without oversight from elected officials. The movement manifests in the expansion of charter schools and their enrollment, division of public districts into factions, incubation of community advocacy groups, promotion of anti-public school legislation, and influencing of state and local campaigns. 

To say that the proponents of this model engage in deceptive tactics would be a gross understatement. Aside from disguising their approach with buzzwords like innovation, transformation, and social justice, they funnel money through PACs, then through individuals and groups, to make their funding difficult to trace. This shroud of financial and ideological secrecy also makes the money, desperately needed in public education, easier for schools and organizations to accept.

One major national funder of this reactionary education philosophy is The City Fund. The City Fund distributes money from corporate school reform philanthropists, such as John Arnold and Reed Hastings, to local city organizations to accomplish the goals listed above. Its political organization, Public School Allies, makes campaign contributions to local school board candidates who are likely to adopt the same philosophy. “Reform” money has changed what used to be $1,500 local campaigns into $20,000 races for school board.The model being promoted by The City Fund and its affiliated organizations has been seen nearly to fruition in New Orleans and Indianapolis, and the stories being played out in other cities where The City Fund operates are eerily similar. 

We are education experts and advocates who represent cities and schools across the country that are being impacted by this movement and we refuse to be complicit. Our stories from Camden, Oakland, Indianapolis, San Antonio, Baton Rouge, and St. Louis account for only a fraction of the cities where these movements are underway, and we hope that sharing our experiences will help others recognize the tactics wherever they appear.

Recent articles about The City Fund and its influence in St. Louis and in local school board races inspired us to contact each other. What we discovered is unsettling. The organizations funded by The City Fund present themselves as local grassroots organizations when nothing could be further from the truth. While propping up these local organizations with millions of dollars, The City Fund also places its own supporters on the organizations’ boards to influence their ideology and decision-making. These groups and their partner community advocacy groups have equivalents in at least 15 cities. A few examples of umbrella groups sponsored by The City Fund include The Mind Trust in Indianapolis, the Camden Education Fund in Camden, City Education Partners in San Antonio, redefinED in Atlanta, RootED in Denver, The Opportunity Trust in St. Louis, San Joaquin A+ in Stockton, REACH in Oakland, and New Schools in Baton Rouge. 

Naming more equivalent organizations here would be unhelpful, but recognizing their actions is critical to identifying their influence. In addition to the strategies listed earlier, organizations affiliated with The City Fund have engaged in a variety of similar behaviors. In most locations they have created a school-finder tool and promoted a common application for traditional and charter schools. These groups host community events or support the publishing of reports where skewed data imply the deterioration of public education, and often push the idea that charters are the only solution. They make similar demands of school boards and of individual board members to conform with their ideals, and react with similar misinformation when confronted by the public or the media.  The uniformity across cities is so striking that on several of our joint calls there was audible relief when one of us realized we weren’t the sole target of this deception.

These organizations are not home-grown local groups established to solve local problems, but are experts at pretending to be. While they employ well-meaning advocates who  are energized  by words like equity or opportunity and promote themselves as organizations who seek to understand community sentiment, these groups are the local arms of The City Fund, whose model seeks to, and has experienced frightening success in, advancing the privatization of public education. With privatization comes the loss of local control and democratic ideals. 

The City Fund does not make it clear when it is investing in a city; fortunately, we have the opportunity to learn from each other and to stop the corruption before it becomes so deeply embedded in our systems that it can’t be reversed. The individuals peddling their agenda under the guise of education equity will continue to steer public dollars toward their private programs and gain financial and political capital until we decide public education is too important to jeopardize for a scheme. We are all complicit in the perpetuation of inequity if we choose to let this continue now that we know the truth.

Co-authored by: 

Dr. Tracee Miller, former member of the Board of Education for St. Louis Public Schools; 

Dr. Keith Benson, President of the Camden Education Association and author of Reform and Gentrification in the Age of #CamdenRising: Public Education and Urban Redevelopment in Camden, NJ; 

Christina Smith, Secretary of Indianapolis Public Schools Community Coalition; 

Dawn Chanet Collins, East Baton Rouge Parish School System Board Member and Candidate for Metro-Council 6; 

Bobby Blount, San Antonio Northside ISD Trustee; 

Don Macleay, Oakland Public Schools Action 2020.

Tracee Miller, a member of the St. Louis Board of Education, writes that she was shocked and dismayed to discover that a proposal to raise taxes for early childhood education was actually a disguised effort to divert more public money to charter schools. The truth leaked out:

Emails exposed via public records requests revealed that not only did the proposal lack specificity around fund distribution, but also that the funds could be redirected to economic projects unrelated to ECE. These articles also named local individuals and organizations affiliated with the deceit, illustrating the depth and breadth of political corruption connected with one ballot measure. Only it isn’t just one ballot measure.

The individuals peddling their agenda under the guise of education equity will continue to steer public dollars toward private programs and gain political capital unless we decide that public education is too important to jeopardize for the sake of private gain. We will all be complicit in the perpetuation of inequity if we choose to let this continue when we know the reality. I feel compelled to ensure, to the extent that I am capable, that the public is as aware of the even broader reach of these local actors. In reading about my experiences, I hope that St. Louis citizens will gain further awareness of the corruption at play in our education system and choose to eradicate that corruption once and for all. The same shadow groups who publicly say one thing yet do another behind-the-scenes, as they did with the ECE proposal, are working to restructure our city’s entire public education system without input from the larger community. It is incumbent upon residents of the St. Louis region to fully unearth the far-reaching influence of these groups, to assess the impact of their operating with impunity for so long, and to ensure that the community leads the way in making decisions that will impact the city’s children and its future.

Because of intense personal pressure, both public and behind-the-scenes, I spent countless hours trying to better understand the connections between groups and the strategies they were using. What I learned will strike fear into the heart of any public education advocate. Since 2018, The Opportunity Trust has funded new charter founders, has steered these founders to specific charter sponsors, and has paid for start-up and strategic planning costs to launch new charter schools or expand existing networks in St. Louis City. They do this even as St. Louis Public Schools (SLPS) struggles with under-enrollment and the possibility of school closures. This work has been executed through tactics similar to those used in their attempt to push through the tax increase allegedly for ECE, and for similar self-serving purposes.

In addition to their work in the charter sector, The Opportunity Trust has launched numerous local non-profits and supported three cohorts of fellows, including many individuals connected with the SLPS district and Board of Education (BOE), to study other school systems that have implemented similar reforms. The Opportunity Trust is not a home-grown Missouri organization, and it and its associated organizations are not here to solve Missouri problems. The Opportunity Trust is the local arm of a national organization, The City Fund, whose model seeks to expand the number of charter schools, increase charter enrollment, fund the election of school choice advocates to elected school boards, divide public school districts into factions by treating schools as independent entities that function without the oversight of an elected board, and fund the election of school choice advocates to elected school boards, including at least one current member of the SLPS BOE. The City Fund does not make it clear when it is investing in a city, actively maneuvering funding through non-profits and PACs so that the money and their motives are harder to track.

Who might these “shadow groups” and individuals be? As Miller says, “The Opportunity Trust” is the St. Louis branch of the national group called “The City Fund.” The City Fund started life with $200 million from billionaires John Arnold (Texas) and Reed Hastings (California). It took a few minutes of scouring its web pages to find its list of “investors,” which include familiar names: The Walton Family Foundation; the NewSchools Venture Fund; the Silicon Valley Community Foundation; and other less familiar names, such as the California-based Intrepid Philanthropy Foundation, which supports innovative approaches to teaching, such as Teach for America; also George Roberts, San Francisco-based billionaire and founder of the powerhouse investment fund KKR.

Their agenda is to demand more charter schools, more scrutiny of public schools, and less scrutiny of charter schools. They are there to destroy public schools, not to help them.

Miller writes:

These organizations have made a practice of using distorted data to fundraise and garner support from individuals and organizations who champion the school choice movement. A salient example of this unethical use of data is the past year’s presentation hosted by ednextstl in collaboration with WEPOWER, EdHub STL, Equity Bridge, Forward Through Ferguson, and The Opportunity Trust. The data presented at this community event, where the audience was primarily composed of charter school employees, philanthropists, and self-named equity advocates, was so slanted that a third-party representative subsequently presented on that bias during a meeting of the SLPS BOE.

It is also critical to consider the motives of WEPOWER’s education advocacy campaigns. While budget transparency and community engagement should be pillars of any public education system, these tenets are not specific to traditional public school districts, though WEPOWER treats them as such. As recipients of public tax dollars, charter schools also have a responsibility to the community they serve, yet the group has not included any charter school in the demands they have issued; to-date, SLPS has been the sole target of WEPOWER’s demands. If what they seek to achieve is truly high-quality education for all students, this same level of scrutiny must be extended to charter schools as well. Instead, they have worked harder to push their agenda than they have to truly advance the quality of education in St. Louis, as was made evident in the ECE tax proposal.

Really, it is quite disgusting to see these elites circling the neglected and abused public schools of St. Louis with their discredited solutions that have such an empty track record. Their propaganda is powerful; their track record is abysmal. Will they trick another urban district into abandoning its public schools?

Tom Ultican writes here about the charter vultures descending on St. Louis to pick over the bones of their once glorious public schools. He notes that student enrollment in the district has fallen precipitously since the mid-1960s, when it was 115,543. The drop accelerated since then and it is now under 20,000. Ultican tells the sad story of the reformers who wasted money and opened charters to further enfeeble the district.

 From 2000 to 2020, the student population in St. Louis has again fallen by more than half from 44,264 to 19,222. Some of that decline can be attributed to the continuation of migration to the suburbs which now includes Black families. However, a large portion of the drop is due to the growth of charter schools. The charter school enrollment for 2020 was at least 11,215 students which represents 37% of the district’s publicly supported students. 

Like the national trend, the privatized schools chartered by the state, educate a lower percentage of the more expensive special education students; charters 11.4% versus SLPS 15.1%.

The “reformers” have had their “fun” with the St. Louis public schools. The one thing that they have not done is to improve them. They are raiders of the public schools.

Because of declining enrollment, 11 additional public schools are on the chopping block, candidates for closure. In a recent article in Medium, St. Louis parent Emily Hubbard called on politicians and civic groups to take some pro-active steps to save these 11 schools and what remains of public education. In case they didn’t know how to help the struggling public schools, she offered some ideas:

Here are some suggestions:
* Demand commitments from all your big donors to create an endowment that will fund north city schools for years to come
* Use your strength and connections to demand that county entities pay a white flight/greenlining/educational reparations tax (perhaps that can fund the endowment?)
* Demand a charter school moratorium; refuse to sponsor or delight in these entities that play such a big part in SLPS’s struggles
* Get right to the root cause of another of SLPS’s struggles and provide universal basic income for district families
* Before giving us coats and backpacks, make sure all the parents in the district are being paid fair wages at a job that doesn’t take hours to get to
* Create more non-slummy housing for families that need three bedrooms
* Demand whoever is in charge of it to create a more equitable funding situation than property tax 
*refuse to let charter schools get access to tax breaks and capital that SLPS is unable to access because they are just a plain ol’ public school district
* do what it takes to re-do the de-seg order so that the majority of Black children are able to benefit
* Put your children in St. Louis Public neighborhood schools (and not just the majority/plurality white ones) in a demonstration of solidarity with the families you claim to speak for.
* work out a deal with the city to do something about the unused buildings, free the district from the millstones
* If you want to dismantle the public school system, please just go ahead and say so instead of being all devious 
* if you think your family is too good for SLPS, please just go ahead and say so, instead of dancing around the issue
* repent publicly for not doing the things that you should’ve to care for the children in SLPS’s care, and for doing things that harm the children in SLPS’s care

Is anyone listening? Does anyone care? Will the leaders of the city allow the Wall Street bankers, the hedge funders, and billionaires from California and elsewhere to buy the public school system and close it down?

The founder and headmaster of a charter school in St. Louis admitted to skimming $2.4 million in public funding by inflating enrollment.

This is to be expected when private companies obtain public money without accountability or transparency.

The former head of a failed charter school has pleaded guilty to federal wire fraud charges in a scheme that cost taxpayers $2.4 million.

Michael Malone, who founded St. Louis College Prep, inflated attendance numbers for years as a way to collect more government funding for the struggling school.

“What the former headmaster did through his deception, repeatedly over many years, was take advantage of the Missouri taxpayers, while obtaining an unfair advantage over the St. Louis Public Schools and other area charter schools,” U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Missouri Jeff Jensen said in a news release. “This was not a mistake. Evidence proved Michael Malone’s actions were intentional and, unfortunately he got away with it for years.”

Malone, 44, opened the school in 2011 and served as headmaster until November 2018, when he resigned after an internal review and an investigation by Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway showed he was cooking the books. The school closed in 2019.

As a charter school, St. Louis College Prep was funded through the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. The funding is calculated through daily attendance records, and Malone routinely jacked up those numbers to increase funding. At times, those numbers exceeded even the total enrollment by as much as 124 percent…

The fraud meant money that rightfully would have gone to St. Louis Public Schools went to the charter school to educate phantom students, authorities say.

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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Jeff Bryant writes about the obstacles faced by districts where state control is coming to an end. 

He takes St. Louis as his prime example.,

One urban district that faces an especially steep climb out of the abyss of oppressive rule is St. Louis.
 
When I first reported from St. Louis in 2017, I found a school system which had been designed to be the gem of the Midwest had instead been decimated.
 
First, waves of policies from local, state, and federal governments imposed racial segregation on the system. Chronic underfunding hobbled progress. When the system eventually crashed, a wave of “reforms”—hiring consultants, cutting services, outsourcing to corporate contractors, and opening the system to privately operated charter schools—plundered what was left.
 
At the lowest point in the decline, in the early 2000s, St. Louis was the number one most shrinking city in the world. Today, the school system is a shell of its former self, down to fewer than 29,000 students compared to 115,543 at its peak in 1967. The district lost its accreditation in 2007, which led to a state takeover that nullified the authority of the locally elected school board and handed governance over to officials appointed by the state, who often ruled with impunity.
 
But on July 1, St. Louis has a historic opportunity to turn a corner when governing authority transitions from the state-appointed board to a locally elected one. With a newly elected board, a return to full accreditation, and a supposed clean slate to write its future, can St. Louis show how democratic governance can overcome years of corrosive politics and genuinely reflect the desires of local citizens?
 
In my conversations with locals, answers are mixed.
 
‘Very Concerned About the Future

I am very concerned about the future,” Susan Turk tells me. Turk, a former St. Louis public school parent and a relentless school board watchdog, has been a studious observer of the past 25 years of district history. Her periodic newsletter is a brash alternative to a generally uncritical local press.

When I first interviewed Turk nearly two years ago, she described local politics as “run with an iron fist” with “only certain people” in the local power structure. She welcomed the return of the district’s accreditation but lamented the lack of significant improvement in academic performance. “We’re no better than we were ten years ago,” she said. “It’s really hard to see something positive.”

Today, she sees in the elected board an opportunity for real progress but has concerns that years of state-appointed oversight and corrupt influencers still entrenched in the system will thwart authentic democratic governance.

 

St. Louis will get four new charters, including another KIPP and a private school that turned charter so families would no longer pay tuition. A charter plagued with financial mismanagement and suspicion of inflated enrollment will close.

Kairos Academies is enrolling sixth-graders for its personalized learning-themed middle and high school opening in the Marine Villa neighborhood. It’s the only entirely new school opening in August. Founders Gavin Schiffres and Jack Krewson are Teach For America alumni who taught briefly in north St. Louis County districts. Krewson is the son of St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson.

St. Louis College Prep closed in May after it wound up in financial trouble mid-year following revelations of possible attendance inflation by its founder and executive director. Lafayette Preparatory Academy, a nearby elementary school, tried to step in and purchase the building to add its own high school. The deal to purchase the building fell through and plans for a high school have been postponed, according to Susan Marino, Lafayette Prep’s executive director.

The Soulard School, which had been a private school in south St. Louis, is converting to a charter school this fall.

Creative destruction continues to roil St.Louis, aided by TFA.

 

 

St. Louis once again has an elected board after 12 years of state control. It’s hard to know what factors led to the district’s improvement but one factor stands out: the same superintendent Dr.Kelvin Adams has been in charge since 2008. The implicit message appears to be about the value of continuity and stability, which are anathema to Disrupters.

The following commentary was posted by St. Louis Schools Watch, a civic advocacy group:

 St. Louis Schools Watch

Susan Turk,
Editor and Reporter

Congratulations Are In Order!

April 16, 2019—St. Louis–This morning the Missouri State Board of Education voted unanimously to approve termination of the transitional school district superimposed on the St. Louis Public School District at the end of its current term, June 30, 2019.  As a result, on July 1, 2019, the elected St. Louis Board of Education will return to governance of the St. Louis Public Schools after twelve long years.

Commissioner of Education Margie Vandeven recommended the termination of the transitional district because the Special Administrative Board which has governed the SLPS for the duration has accomplished the purposes for which it was established.  Vandeven spoke about four concerns which motivated the State Board to revoke accreditation and institute the transitional district in 2007.  The four concerns were financial status, accreditation history, student performance and leadership instability.

Vandeven reported that while the SLPS had a $24.5 million deficit representing a negative fund balance of 5.79% in 2007, SLPS now has reserves of $78.6 million or a positive fund balance of 22.24%.  Having less than 3% reserves puts a district in financial stress and allows the State Board to dissolve a school district. Their Annual Performance Reports and accreditation status has improved and stabilized and leadership has been stable.  Improvement was noted in the dropout rate, 13.9% in 2007-8 to 8.2% in 2017-18 and the graduation rate, 55.9% in 2007-8 versus 78.2% in 2017-18, among other factors.

Prior to 2007 there had been no less than 6 superintendents in the preceding 5 years as compared to Dr.Kelvin Adams serving as superintendent since November 2008.

The elected board was credited with having undergone 50 hours of extensive training in preparation for regaining governance. State Board Vice President Victor Lenz declared them ready to resume governance. Commissioner Vandeven reminded the State Board that they had two statutory options, either continuing the transitional district and the SAB or returning the elected board to governance, There is no statutory allowance for a hybrid board of both elected and appointed members. At least one state board member, Peter Herschend, had spoken of a preference for a hybrid board option previously.

State Board President Charlie Shields asked State Board VP Victor Lenz to make the motion to terminate the transitional district and return governance to the elected board effective July 1, 2019. Shields then  asked Board Member Mike Jones to second the motion.   After they did so, Shields asked, Jones, Lenz and Board Member Peter Herschend to offer remarks, which they did.

Mike Jones, who never lacks for eloquence, heaped praise on the SAB. He spoke about how hard it is to govern. He said there should be special recognition for their success. That theirs was a story about how to do things the right way, which should be documented.  Jones also addressed the elected board members present, Dorothy Rohde Collins, Susan Jones, Donna Jones, Dr. Joyce Roberts and Natalie Vowell, telling them that they did not represent the community but the 22,000 children in the school district who can’t represent themselves. He implored them to listen to the advice and concerns of the adults in the community but not to take orders from them, to make up their own minds about what is best for the children and trust their own judgment. He said that the hardest part of leadership was making the least worst choice sometimes. He also told them to figure out how to do what the SAB did. He ended with a riff on becoming a team and trusting one another.

Dr. Lenz also praised the SAB, and spoke about the need to trust each other and the superintendent. He acknowledged that the 12 year length of the SAB’s governance was unusual and advised them to learn the difference from people who were giving good advice versus giving them orders.

Herschend revived the old meme of the 5 superintendents who served during a 2 year period. He criticized that Board as a board that was trying to operate as opposed to make policy. He claimed that was the difference between failure and success, told them their most important job was the selection, maintenance and evaluation of the district’s leadership. “If you do that well, the district will succeed,” he said.  “If you fail, it will revert to where it was.” He implored them to care about the kids and ended by saying they were being handed an opportunity to create a flagship district that others in the country would look up to as an example.

Shields added that in Missouri we believe in local control which is why we have state standards but not a state curriculum. So there is a commitment to elected governance. He said governance by an appointed board was always meant to be temporary. He told them he had never seen a process where people were better prepared for the challenge and said he expected them to do a fabulous job. A voice vote on the motion was then taken and all said, “Aye”.

It was anticlimactic. It was surreal.  I should have been happy.  But the bovine excrement being served up spoiled the moment.

First, the data they were using to explain their reasons for taking over the district came from the 2007-2008 school year. That was the end of the first year the SAB governed the district. It is difficult to cull data from 12 years ago on dese,mo.gov.  Software incompatibility prevented this reporter from accessing the data but memory reminds that achievement data was lower after the SAB’s first year than it had been under the last year of the elected board’s governance. Perhaps that is why it was tempting to use as an illustration. Then again, superintendent at the time, Dr. Diana Bourisaw was insistent that SLPS data supported the district keeping its accreditation.  Perhaps using the 2006-2007 data as compared to the lower 2007-2008 data would have been embarrassing.

Second, although Commissioner Vandeven expressed concern that student achievement did not show improvement, that was barely touched upon.  In truth, the ELA proficient and advanced score of 22.8% and math proficient and advanced score of 18.4% from 2017-18 can be brushed aside as inconsequential because of the annually changing tests over the past 4 years. But, during the tenure of the elected board and even some years during the SAB’s governance, achievement on the MAP has been as high as 35% on ELA and 28% in math. Academic achievement has suffered under the SAB. But this may be a blessing in disguise for the elected board. Achievement scores can only rise from where they currently are.

And third, it was difficult to sit through praise of the SAB’s success and criticism of the elected board when Darnetta Clinkscale sits on the SAB. She was president of the elected board during the period of time that the district ran through those 5 superintendents. How could one board be excoriated and the other upheld as the epitome of boards when she participated in both? Cognitive dissonance ran rampant.  But it has been this way through this entire 12 year period. The SAB has been the good board and the elected board has been the bad board and damn any evidence to the contrary.

It is good that the elected board is returning to governance.  But 12 years have been lost. That’s an entire generation of students.  Back in 2003, when a multiracial group of parents from the Parent Assembly coalesced around the idea that electing parents to the Board Of Education could have a positive impact on student achievement, they could not conceive that our civic leaders would react to their electoral success by advocating that the governor implement a state takeover of the SLPS. Twelve years later, with achievement scores dismal, we will finally get to see whether a board informed by parents can make a difference.
_________________________________________________________________________

The editor encourages readers to forward The Watch to anyone you think would be interested. Our city and our schools need as much public awareness and public engagement as we can muster at this time.
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Calendar

April 18 2019, Thursday, monthly meeting of the Special Administrative Board, 6:00 p.m., 801 N. 11th Street, room 108

April 23, 2019 Tuesday, 6:30 p.m., meeting of the Board of Education, 801. North 11th St. room 108, St. Louis, MO 63103.

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