In late April, dozens of families sorted through stacks of books laid out on tables, trying to decide which ones to read immediately and which ones to take home. Other families filled their plates with brunch across the room.
It was the first Books-n-Brunch event held by Bridge 2 Hope, a parent organization that empowers parents to advocate for their children’s education and push for systemic change. Krystal Barnett, founder and CEO, picked up her phone and did a Facebook Live post urging more than 2,000 of the organization’s followers to come.
“We know that literacy is a big issue in our city, in our state, in our country,” she told her followers, as families moved to and from book tables behind her. “That’s what this is all about. What’s in them is knowledge. With knowledge is freedom.”
That same weekend, ActiveSTL held its first Parent Chapter meeting. ActiveSTL is creating new parent and student chapters to deepen understanding of education across St. Louis. The group examined data with researchers from Saint Louis University’s Prime Center that indicate how their schools are performing in reading and math.
“Parents are saying they want more quality options that fit the needs of their children and the community as a whole,” said Tiara Jordan, founder and CEO of ActivateSTL. “St. Louis is unique in its struggles, strengths and opportunities. This should be acknowledged and addressed in schooling experience so we are truly preparing and activating our youth for a better future in St. Louis.”
In June, ActivateSTL launched a student chapter, attracting high schoolers in district, public charter, and private schools who want to push for systemic change. More than 60 applied. Thirteen were selected for the inaugural cohort.
The Opportunity Trust invests in both organizations to empower St. Louis parents and teens to push district and charter schools to improve so that more children have access to a high-quality education. As a result, the organizations are creating a movement that’s pushing for justice in other areas, such as fair discipline and special education.
“Schools overlook an entire population of students who struggle,” said Kathryn Bonney, a mother of three who met Jordan at a parent’s focus group and is an inaugural member of Activate’s STL Activators – Parent Chapter.
Cynthia Scales, a grandmother who participated in Bridge 2 Hope’s first Parent Academy three years ago, has since become a resource for others whose children and grandchildren are being denied a quality education.
“There’s discrimination in the system,” Scales said. “I use my experience to help other parents whose kids are struggling. I share my story with them and they listen. I did it at church.”
‘I want to fight this’
Scales remembers how hopeless she felt when Krystal Barnett showed up in her living room. Her 16-year-old grandson had been suspended from his high school. His grades were suffering. He had an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP), but wasn’t getting the support at school he needed and was legally entitled to have.
He had been bullied for months and that week had defended himself against a group of boys after school. And now the suspension.
“Krystal said, ‘Ms. Scales, what do you want to do?’” Cynthia recalled. “I said, ‘I want to fight this. I’m not going to lay down and give up.’”
In Scales’s living room, the two of them went over the boy’s IEP and put together a plan. Krystal contacted Legal Services of Eastern Missouri, who took on the case. Ultimately, the school canceled the suspension and agreed to pay his tuition at a private school of his choice. He started at the private school in August, and is thriving.
Ever since, Cynthia has used her experience to help other parents whose kids are struggling. She helps inform and connect them.
“I thank God for Bridge 2 Hope because he’s doing so well,” Cynthia said. “Bridge 2 Hope was my life boat.”
‘I have a thing about accountability’
Kathryn Bonney moved to St. Louis from Sacramento in 2017, when her daughter was about to enter kindergarten. Her husband’s employer urged them to buy a house in St. Louis County to avoid city public schools.
”I intentionally said I’m not doing that,” Bonney said. “I bought a house in Shaw and enrolled my daughter in a charter school. I purposely chose St. Louis City schools because my thinking was, if they were good enough for my kids they would be good enough for everyone’s kids.”
Since then, her three children have attended seven different schools — district and charter. Bonney’s eldest daughter has dyslexia. She has transferred out of multiple schools due their failure to provide her with the support she is legally entitled to receive.
Bonney is working to launch a pilot tutoring program at four schools and two sites for children with dyslexia.
“The schools are not providing services, and there is a lack of dyslexic tutors in the city of St. Louis,” Bonney said. Tutoring outside the city is costly.”
The plan: provide every child the evidence based tutoring program. Upon receiving a positive dyslexia screening, each student would be partnered with a tutor for two 60-minute sessions each week during the school day. Bonney is working to line up funding and encouraging community leadership to come into the classroom. She isn’t daunted by the difficulty of getting this pilot started.
“I have a thing about accountability,” Bonney said. “The basic function of a school is to teach children to read and write. Our schools on the whole are failing children in their basic function.”