Seven-year-old Shannon rested her chin on her hand and smiled as she considered what she likes best about second grade.
“I like my teacher,” she said, as her classmates arrived one morning at The Leadership School. “I like my classroom. I’m excited to go outside, learn and be smart.”
The week before, Shannon and almost 100 children helped open the first public charter school in St. Louis County – and the first in Missouri outside of Kansas City or St. Louis city. The school fills a former warehouse in the city of Pagedale, near the edge of the Normandy Schools Collaborative. It opened with kindergarten through second grade, and plans to open one grade level a year through eighth grade.
For more than a generation, reading and math scores in the Normandy school district have ranked at or near the bottom in Missouri. For the first time, Normandy families have a high-quality public alternative to their neighborhood school, and children don’t have to leave the community to access it.
“I really liked what I’d heard about it,” said Kayshawn Gibbs, who enrolled her youngest daughter Egypt in kindergarten at The Leadership School. “I like that it pushes kids a little harder. It’s going to prepare her for real life.”
Persistence paid off
Founder Dr. Kimberly Townsend began the journey to opening day in 2018 while working as the school director at a local private school. She applied for and was accepted as a Catalyst fellow with The Opportunity Trust, where she began meeting with and listening to parents in north St. Louis County. She also visited successful schools around the country. By 2019, she left that leadership role to become an Entrepreneur-In-Residence fellow and developed plans to open a high-quality charter school in Normandy.
The pandemic and political challenges delayed the school’s opening by a year. Nevertheless, persistence paid off. The Leadership School won its charter and for two summers has offered a camp that attracted many of its founding families. In April, construction crews began transforming the warehouse space into brightly lit classrooms.
Every morning, Townsend and staff stand outside and greet each student as buses and parents drop them off.
“The kids are so happy,” she said. “To see them in their student leadership shirts, it’s just surreal.”
Responding to parent input
The school’s model is in response to more than 100 parent and community interviews. Its focus is to grow student leadership by engaging children in an academically rigorous, culturally relevant, and relationship-oriented environment.
The school has community partnerships to provide some services. COCA, for instance, provides art, drama, dance and music instruction. Parents provide input and are active participants at the school. Half of the school’s governing board is composed of parents.
“When we say we want to partner with families, we mean partner,” Townsend said.
Inside a kindergarten classroom, Jacquelyn Randle began the morning by asking her 17 students to pull out their journals. They had backpacks on the back of their chairs full of supplies. “Draw for me what you did over the weekend,” she said.The children started using their markers.
“I went to the store,” one girl said.
“This is me at my brother’s football practice,” a boy said to his friend as they drew.
Several minutes later, the class sat at the front of the room and talked about the seasons and months of the year. They counted the days on the calendar, and said the days of the week in unison.
In other classrooms, similar work was underway as teachers laid the foundation for the year ahead.
“I feel like the hard work is just beginning,” Townsend said. “As hard as it was to launch the first charter school in St. Louis County, the hard work really has just started. I feel so committed and clear about what it is we need to do. It’s just a matter of getting it done.”