Earlier this year, Superintendent Kelvin Adams invited stakeholders across St. Louis to engage in a citywide planning process for education. As the process moves forward, The Opportunity Trust hopes it will include a number of elements that will improve its likelihood for success.
In January, St. Louis education leaders began discussing a citywide plan for schools – a blueprint for creating a high-quality public education system that includes both district and public charter schools. In October, at the first meeting of the Board of Education’s citywide planning committee, leaders stated that the primary goal should be the “number of schools, location planning, shared services, and advocacy.”
The Opportunity Trust believes we must aim higher. The primary goal of this process should be increasing access to high-quality public schools for the most marginalized children, and centering the voices, experiences, and aspirations of the children and families currently not served well by our public schools.
To be sure, there is much to celebrate about our public schools. Every day, thousands of talented and hardworking educators show up for children in heroic ways. Selective enrollment schools such as Metro and Collegiate are providing the City’s most high-achieving students with top-ranked schooling. Public charter schools such as City Garden Montessori and Kairos use innovative learning models that enable hundreds of children to learn in new and different ways. All told, about 2,300 St. Louis students attend public schools—either district and charter—where math and reading proficiency rates meet or exceed that of the state.
Sadly, this leaves the majority of students in a public school where proficiency rates are below 25%. Not surprisingly, thousands of families leave St. Louis each year out of frustration and for higher performing schools elsewhere.
This process must be a collaborative effort to provide high-quality schools for every child in the city. This process should catalyze us to do things differently, and address root causes of why such a system does not yet exist in St. Louis.
Even if designed and executed perfectly, these types of processes often lead to yet another report that holds no one accountable. That must not happen. We believe a citywide planning process will have the greatest chance at success if it includes the following elements:
1. Identify a credible third party facilitator with a track record of success to facilitate difficult but necessary conversations and develop standards of conduct that all participants agree to abide by. The group of educators, civic leaders, not-for-profit organizations, parents, and students that need to come together to work on this plan undoubtedly reflect varying viewpoints. But we believe we all share the goal of high-quality public education for all children. Any chance at meaningful change requires us to move beyond factions and divisiveness. Research has shown that groups in conflict can establish new ways of working together when they share a goal and have an independent mutually-respected facilitator who has no personal or professional stake in the outcome of the process. To be sure, there is an enormous amount of good the Board can accomplish on its own for the students of St. Louis Public Schools. But for this plan to chart a course toward an entire system of public schools in St. Louis, we must do what’s required to establish trust among those working toward that goal. There must be a commitment to proactively build authentic relationships across stakeholder groups with different experiences and points of views, to assume the best in others, and seek to learn from and more deeply understand these different viewpoints.
2. Identify, learn from, and build upon successful schools and systems that are realizing the learning and personal growth goals that we aspire to for all of our children. Froebel Elementary had the highest student growth rate in Missouri in 2019. What is happening at Froebel that could be replicated at public schools across the city? Kairos Academy is a non-selective public school that is at capacity and launched as enrollment fell in many other city schools. It was featured on the Today Show for how it monitors the mental health of students. What can we learn from this approach to wellness? The Newark Public School system, which serves children with higher incidences of trauma and poverty than St. Louis Public Schools, has substantially improved 3rd-grade reading scores for Black children. What accelerated student learning so rapidly across that system? We believe that a critical early step in this citywide planning process is exploring these and other models to see what can be learned. If we had all of the answers in St. Louis, we’d likely already have a system performing very differently than it has been for many years.
3. Most important of all, the experiences, aspirations, and priorities of the most marginalized families must be at the center of a citywide plan. St. Louis Public Schools has been losing about 400 students on average every year since 2011. Far too many parents are not finding what they’re looking for in district schools. We need to actively engage a diversity of families in this process, including those who have left; those with pre-school age children who are beginning to consider their options; students in charter and district schools; and recent high school graduates who can provide feedback regarding their readiness for postsecondary success. Parents and students from neighborhood, magnet, and charter schools should be meaningfully involved in a human-centered design process that places their aspirations at the heart of the citywide plan. Most importantly, we need to center and design for those who are at the margins—the children and families who are least served and face the greatest challenges, such as our homeless students, those who have dropped out, those who are the furthest behind academically. Too often, those with the most privilege have the voices that are heard. Solutions must address our most vulnerable.
Through these steps, the citywide planning process could transcend conversations about district versus charter schools. Listening to the voices of students and families might compel us to address issues that affect public schools throughout the city, such as the teacher shortage. More than 500 St. Louis public school teachers are leaving district and charter classrooms every year. As a result, many of our most vulnerable children do not have a consistent or well-prepared teacher.
As has been the case since early conversations with Superintendent Kelvin Adams began almost one year ago, The Opportunity Trust stands ready to partner with St. Louis Public Schools and others on the development of a shared vision and plan for ensuring every child has access to a high-quality public school. At the same time, we will continue to support families desperately seeking better options, and the intrepid educators courageously working to provide those opportunities.