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Empowering Families: Parent Voices Catalyze a New Organization Helping to Evaluate School Options

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The city’s history of segregation and subsequent attempts to integrate schools have left St. Louis with a fractured school landscape full of options but lacking in transparent and accessible information. Navigating this school landscape to find a good fit for a child is challenging even with those who have resources and time. For those furthest from opportunity, navigating and interpreting the data can be overwhelming. Building a more equitable system of schools requires that we level the playing field for families seeking to access a quality education. Newly launched online resource and parent advocacy organization, Navigate STL Schools, does just that.

In 2014, parents frustrated with the school search process started the website STLcityschools.org. Run by a small group of committed volunteers, the platform provided parents with basic school data, enrollment guides, and parent reviews. Based on The Opportunity Trust’s strategy of catalyzing and sustaining community demand for more diverse, quality school options, and the success of other cities in building localized school finders, The Opportunity Trust committed to expanding the work of these intrepid parents. Parents and other stakeholders underwent a year-long iterative design process that identified the needs of families of color living in our highest poverty communities. In April of this year, STLCitySchools.org was relaunched as NavigateSTLSchools.org. Key features include a mobile-first design enabling easier access for those who utilize their smartphones for internet and the translation and simplification of multiple data sources into more easily understood measures of quality.

Meet two parents and education leaders who answered the call to join the Executive Committee

To guarantee the new organization’s vision and services aligned to the community’s needs, The Opportunity Trust recruited an Executive Committee to keep parent voices at the center of identifying the barriers to finding quality schools and developing responsive solutions.

Among those invited to serve on the Executive Committee were two parents and local education leaders, Sherita Love, the Founding Director of EdHub STL, and Matthew Christian, the Associate Vice President for Research at Saint Louis University. For both Love and Christian, t­­­he opportunity to help steward a mission-driven organization that puts information in the hands of parents was exciting because they have experienced the challenge of selecting a school for their children firsthand.

“It was a no-brainer to want to join,” said Love. “Even outside of my professional role, I wanted to add the perspective of a black mother who has had to navigate these systems for over 18 years.”

When Matthew Christian moved to St. Louis, he struggled with finding the best schools for each of his children. Compared to his previous experience searching for schools in Chicago, Christian found St. Louis had no centralized place for information about school choices.

“I can’t imagine what it’s like to search for schools without the resources and knowledge I have as an academic working in education,” Christian said. “When the opportunity came up to help other parents understand their choices, it was exciting.”

Parent-centered design process steers Executive Committee choices

With oversight from Love, Christian, and the other members of the Executive Committee, Navigate STL Schools engaged over 200 St. Louis parents, particularly those facing the most significant challenges to accessing high-quality schools.

Through focus groups and surveys, parents requested a mobile-friendly website where they could filter and sort through schools based on their own children’s needs and interests. They also wanted a calendar of school enrollment dates and support to navigate the admissions process. Their request for support aligns with research indicating when people are navigating complex systems, like school choice, expert help makes a significant impact.

As a direct result of parent input, Navigate STL Schools developed a mobile-first website with data on academics, school safety, and extracurricular activities that allows users to sort schools by what matters most to them. The site also has a calendar that lists school enrollment dates and events for the upcoming year.

“This organization is meant to serve those who don’t normally have access to resources to advocate for the best education for their children,” emphasized Christian. “Keeping our website development team attuned to the needs of people who would have the hardest time accessing this information was important.”

Alongside launching a website, Navigate STL Schools will offer one-on-one support to families through the help of Navigators, trained community partners who will help parents conduct personalized school searches. Navigate STL Schools will also engage and support the community by creating online resources and toolkits, participating in community gatherings, hosting events and office hours, and spreading awareness on social media.

“The things that the community wanted to see guided our choices,” said Love. “In the Executive Committee meetings, decisions always came back to if it aligned with what we heard from parents.”

Supporting the community through the fall enrollment process during challenging times

Navigate STL Schools officially launched its website in April. St. Louis families now have access to school profiles, a calendar of events and deadlines, and detailed guides to help them make informed decisions about their child’s education.

In June, Anna-Stacia Allen joined Navigate STL Schools as the Executive Director after a six-month national search to fill the position. Allen has spent her career at non-profit and education-based organizations working to increase access to opportunities for historically marginalized groups.

“Most places families get school data aren’t made with families in mind, but instead focus on policymakers, educators, and other interest groups,” stated Allen. “Navigate STL Schools is different because we are focused on creating tools that benefit and empower families to make the best decisions for their children’s education.”

Under Allen’s leadership, Navigate STL Schools is currently raising awareness about the site through local media coverage and targeted advertising, so people are familiar with the resource when school enrollment season begins. While providing additional support through in-person events has been delayed due to COVID-19 precautions, Navigate STL Schools is also preparing to assist families this fall with online events and digital content focused on navigating the enrollment process for the 2021-2022 school year.

“No matter what happens this fall, Navigate STL Schools will be there to support families during their school search,” said Allen.

Check out the website and follow Navigate STL Schools on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to learn more about school options in St. Louis. If you have ideas, questions, or suggestions, email connect@navigatestlschools.org.

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