By Kim Townsend, Entrepreneur-in-Residence at The Opportunity Trust
When my daughter turned three this year, my husband and I began to look into private school options across the St. Louis area. Despite both of us being educators, we had not yet engaged closely in our suburban neighborhood schools and had to ask ourselves “why not?” I have spent the majority of my career working with St. Louis Public Schools and he in a struggling suburban district adjacent to the City of St. Louis. Our local district was struggling too. Once a stable, working class community north of Ferguson, it had reached a tipping point as many middle-class families left the neighborhood, or opted out of the school district, leaving behind schools with an increasing percentage of children who faced the additional challenges of growing up in poverty. We knew that this meant more would be required of our school system and the exodus of families with resources meant that less would be at their disposal to address the additional challenges. We came face-to-face with the decision afflicting so many families in our cities and inner ring suburbs: move, enroll our daughter in private school, or stay and try to help change things.
Having been a principal in a traditional district and then at a progressive independent school, I knew transforming the school my daughter would attend would take more time than she had unless the district was willing to consider bolder action than has been taken to-date. As I delved more deeply into the challenges of my local district, it became clear that the problem was not simply that we need more effective schools – though there are clearly performance issues – rather we needed different schools. We need the kind of schools that will attract and retain families who realize that their children must be prepared differently if they are to thrive in the 21st century. We need schools that also accept the challenge of working with children growing up in poverty and provide the additional supports and resources needed to ensure all children can realize their potential. We need schools that are globally rigorous, that put students in charge of their own learning, and that prepare our children to work across lines of difference to solve problems. I had the great fortune to see schools pursuing this kind of education through the Catalyst Fellowship at The Opportunity Trust. I was inspired by the ownership and agency I saw in students at Summit Public Schools in Silicon Valley and by the deep value and pride in diversity and strong community at the Roses in Concrete school in Oakland, CA. Through the fellowship, I began to envision the kind of school I wanted my daughter to attend and the kind of school I believe my community needed and deserved.
Soon the answer to my dilemma became clear: I would try to catalyze bolder change by working with my neighbors to design and launch a new school. This school would not only meet the needs of the racially and socioeconomically diverse families in our community but would provide an example of how all of our schools, and the system that supports them, could operate differently to achieve greater success and reverse the exodus of families from North St. Louis County.
Incredible barriers exist in the path to realizing this vision and none is more daunting than trying to convince our elected school board to be the first in the region to approve a public, open enrollment charter school as part of a district transformation. Were it not for the Catalyst Fellowship and then the Entrepreneur-in-Residence opportunity with The Opportunity Trust, I simply would not have the resources and support needed to pursue this kind of change. Thank you for supporting this organization, which is filling a tremendous gap in the effort to transform education in St. Louis, and for supporting educators like me to lead change in our own communities.