Best and worst of times for St. Louis City parents of school kids

There is a widespread misperception that, unless it’s a Catholic school or very expensive private school, to send your children to school in the city of St. Louis is to commit them to a fate of under-resourced classrooms, poorly behaved (even dangerous) classmates, incompetent teachers, and academic underachievement.  But that perception is not reality.  Or at least it’s not the entire reality of the educational options for parents in St. Louis City.

My husband and I both grew up in the county but have been city dwellers now for more than ten years.  Having three children hasn’t lessened our commitment to living here—we still love living close to beautiful parks and gardens and wonderful (free!) museums.  We enjoy our friendly neighbors, unique ethnic restaurants, and racially diverse neighborhood.  Having our children did not make us want to flee to Webster Groves (though census numbers do indicate that many young parents do just that), but it did bring us face to face with the realities of education in St. Louis City.

What we found was surprising.  One of the very best elementary schools in the entire state (outscoring every single other school in the St. Louis area, if test scores happen to be your yardstick for what constitutes a “good school”) was a five minute drive from our house.  It was Kennard Classical Junior Academy, part of St. Louis Public School System’s magnet school program.  It was socioeconomically and racially diverse, had a good curriculum, and (most importantly for us) had a community of parents and teachers who were fiercely committed to its success.  The waitlist is so impossibly long that SLPS, under Superintendent Kelvin Adams, is finally replicating Kennard’s academic program at a second site, Mallinckrodt School.

Charter school options have also grown.  Citygarden Montessori has a committed group of parents and community supporters and is expanding to a new building, Gateway Science Academy has had such a tremendous number of students trying to attend that they also now have a significant waitlist.  The Language Immersion Schools continue to add students (and languages).

Accessing these schools is not always easy.  Some (like Kennard and Mallinkrodt) require students to go through an arduous testing process before your child can “qualify” to go.  And then there’s the nightmare of the SLPS lottery and wait list.  The charter schools all have their own procedures to follow, their own deadlines and procedural intricacies.  But with a lot of persistence (and a little luck), St. Louis City residents may find their child in a school that is not just as good, but often better, than many of the schools in the surrounding public school districts.

This issue of accessibility should not be minimized though.  Investing the time to compare schooling options and figure out which best fit my child’s needs was only the beginning.  Getting my children into the school they now attend took a lot of time and energy—there’s an “inside ballgame” to be played.  You have to know who to call, how to phrase emails, who to complain to when the process starts slipping away.  My situation might not be entirely typical, but I’m not exaggerating when I say that this was the equivalent of a part-time job for me for a number of months.

And therein lies the problem.  The vast majority of parents in St. Louis City do not have the time or resources to spend investigating all these schools and then “working the system” to get their children into the one they prefer.  And they shouldn’t have to.  Maybe they’re working three part-time minimum wage jobs, maybe they are intimidated by cold-calling school bureaucrats, maybe they don’t have the writing skills to email school officials to ask about things like testing or deadlines.  Maybe their life is so chaotic from day to day that deadlines for admission fall through the cracks because they’re too worried about their electricity being shut off.  Or maybe they can even pull it together enough to fill in the application, but the energy it takes to follow-up, and follow-up, and then follow up again is just too much.

Where does the system leave those people?  It leaves them in a terrible lurch.  The sad fact is the amount of educational resources available for the children of the city of St. Louis is not getting any bigger.  In fact, with the advent of charter schools draining money away from the public schools, the economic pie is actually shrinking.  Parents in St. Louis City are chasing after those resources harder than ever.

We are fighting for the crumbs.  As a result, there is more inequality than ever within St. Louis City’s schools.  It may take a lot of time and effort, but your child could end up in an amazing, academically strong school surrounded by teachers who care.  A few of us enjoy this reality.  Or maybe you’ll land in a school where the students are woefully unprepared for academic success and the teachers are inadequate, ground down by the day to day demands of teaching in a place where they don’t feel valued or successful.  That is the reality for all too many St. Louis parents.

It shouldn’t be.  And although I can’t pretend to know exactly what it would take to solve these inequalities, I do have three humble suggestions.  First and most obviously, the pie needs to get bigger.  We need more revenue, more money poured into education in St. Louis City, not less.  Second, we need a more transparent bureaucracy.  Dealing with St. Louis Public School System is an incredibly frustrating experience where it is often difficult to get a straight answer or know what is going on.  Many of the charter schools operate under that same cloak of ambiguity.  It doesn’t seem like too much to ask all the schools that receive tax money, whether public or charter, to be more transparent in how they are run.  Finally, we need more parent advocacy.  Parents in St. Louis need to flex their political muscle, show up for meetings, and talk to each other (and the teachers) about how to make schools better.  And they need to make them better for ALL of St. Louis children, not just their own.




  • These are great suggestions, City Mom. But how are these put-upon parents supposed to go to meetings, talk to one another, and advocate when they are so busy working three jobs to keep the lights on? It seems to me that merging the city and county would provide a better revenue stream and connect less advantaged children with better resources.

  • I have one child in a private school and one in a charter school – because as much as I believe in the right of public education, I cannot fight for it at the expense of my own kids.  We found schools in the city that meet their needs, and that was the most important piece for our family.   I know there is a “public” vs. “charter” way of thinking out there, but I can’t buy into it.  If charter schools are going to come into our city and offer what the district won’t, I don’t believe any parent should apologize for taking advantage of it for their children.   But I would like to see public schools in our city give ALL the children the educations they deserve.

    So I’m with you, City Mom, and I hope for that transparency as well.  City schools spend as much, per student, as some of the top private schools in the region – but you’d never know it to enter a classroom or talk to the teachers.  Far too much of that money has been usurped by bureaucracy and layer upon unnecessary layer of ineffective administration, and I sincerely hope Superintendent Adams is working on that.

  • Kevin In South STL

    I laughed when I read the first paragraph of this article as my wife and I are in the exact same boat as parents you describe. We would really like to stay in the city but the education of our future kindergartner is of top priority. 

    We are contemplating moving out to Webster, but wouldn’t if we could guarantee our son could go to Kennard.  Unfortunately, the lottery process leaves a lot to chance.  Filling out the appropriate paperwork and passing the qualification tests shouldn’t be a problem.  We know someone who did both of those things and still didn’t get picked in the lottery.

    Are you saying that talking to SLPS bureaucrats can increase your chances?  I would appreciate more information about steps I can take to insure we can get into Kennard.   

  • City Mom

    Thank you so much for reading my piece!  I would say it’s
    DEFINITELY worth contacting and staying on top of the bureaucrats at
    central office.  I convinced that is the only reason my oldest daughter
    got a spot at Kennard (and then my other two daughters were able to get
    in much more easily because once they passed the test they had sibling
    preference).  It’s not that there are people willing to pull strings for
    you, but more that they are SO incompetent that if you don’t stay on
    them about the process sometimes your application falls through the
    cracks and you languish on a wait list.  A couple people to have on your
    radar screen:

    Michelle Jones:  head of gifted
    testing office.  If you turn in in your application and don’t hear
    back from her office about scheduling a testing date, be proactive and
    call her and schedule the testing.  Some people fill in applications and
    never even get a call to get tested (hard to believe, but true).  You
    could also consider having your child tested privately.  As of this
    year, they still accept private testing scores.  A gentleman named Gerry
    Gremmelsbacher has done this for many families at Kennard.  He’s legit,
    professional, and gives kids a longer time to “warm up” than SLPS
    testers.  I think it’s about $350, which is a considerable amount of
    money, but allows you to skip dealing with the gifted testing office.

    Kruger:  in charge of the lottery and waitlist.  I nagged this guy to
    death.  Really, really often the applications are entered into the
    database incorrectly.  Check and double check that your application is
    in order so you’re eligible for the lottery.
     Then, after the lottery, you can ask about your position on the
    waitlist–and check back in frequently.  

    any contact you have with people at SLPS central office should be
    written down with names and dates–keep records!  Sometimes one person
    tells you something during a phone conversation and a month later
    someone else says something totally different so it’s good to have
    evidence of what information you were given.   I know that sounds
    completely paranoid, but trust me, you will be glad you wrote things

    Also, don’t forget about Malinckrodt,
    SLPS’s other gifted ed. elementary school.  It’s still pretty new but
    I’ve heard wonderful things about it.  Good luck to you!  The process is
    dysfunctional and needlessly brutal, but if you are able to get a spot
    at Kennard, it really is a terrific school.  Thanks again for reading my

  • Hi City Mom,
    Do you have any information or insight now that the lottery for the 2013-14 school year is divided up in to 3 pools? It’s frustrating because the process is not entirely transparent and no one can seem to fully explain it to us.

    We applied for first grade with the Pool A applicants and received notice last week that we are 12 on the waiting list for Kennard. The gentleman (John Turner) at the Recruitment Center says we are in good shape to get a spot as Pool B and Pool C haven’t even been completed yet. Number 12 doesn’t seem like the greatest spot considering many kids from Kennard Kindergarten will be moving on to first grade. And our friend’s daughter was given a wait list placement in the teens and then hours later received an email that they had been admitted.

    Can you provide more information about contacting Lou Kruger? How often did you do it? What questions did you ask? Just trying to make sure we are the squeaky wheel in this case. Thank you!

  • B Hickory

    Ok. So you seem much more on top of this than I am. I lucked out and was in on the ground floor at City Garden, but now it’s time to move on for a variety of reasons. Anyway, I got my middle child tested and approved and into the lottery for MAllinckrodt, and now she’s 11th on the waitlist for her grade. What more can I do? Should I keep checking back? I find the whole thing unlikely at this point, so I guess I can reenter her into the lottery in the fall. So exhausting!