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.