As a current high school student in St. Louis , I am often asked which high school I attend, and I am quite proud of my response. I am white, I live in an affluent part of St. Louis County, and I am one of the few students who attend a school outside of their neighborhood district through a desegregation program. I travel about 25 minutes into the city each day to attend a school in the St. Louis City Public Schools (SLPS) district.
Although I love my school, I recognize that the resource allocation in my district, versus that of a suburban district, is very different, which often translates to lower test scores and higher dropout rates. SLPS faces unfortunate structural disadvantages that puts it in tough positions and stretches its budget thin. Costs such as transportation, building maintenance, and utilities for the SLPS district are higher than those of its county counterparts, and funds devoted to quality curricula have to take a back seat. It is hard to believe that SLPS is one of the highest-spending districts in Missouri (with an average spending rate of $14,779 per pupil), and outspends all but two St. Louis County school districts. As a student who has attended an SLPS school for my entire educational career, I can attest that this is quite a shock.
Many school buildings in the district are over 100 years old and cost more to maintain than younger buildings. When compared to the state-of-the-art facilities suburban districts tout, SLPS schools seem outdated. To entice potential students, SLPS offers 30 attractive magnet or choice school programs, which are open to anyone regardless of zip code. Nevertheless, low enrollment persists. Some schools have closed as a result, but SLPS has had little success in selling the properties. Condensing struggling schools has led to more transportation costs, and transportation is already a large line item in the budget because of the magnet and choice schools.
Teacher turnover rate is yet another issue. When compared to other districts in the St. Louis area with a similar spending rate per pupil, SLPS pays a very low salary. SLPS pays a median salary of $43,937 a year and keeps teachers in district for about 5 years, which is much lower than a similarly spending county district. SLPS often hires first-year teachers, or teachers who have been fired from other districts, because their salaries are less expensive than that of a well-experienced teacher. After gaining experience, these younger teachers move on to other districts that offer better pay.
SLPS schools face disadvantages even before students walk in the door.
In addition to having high costs, revenues are low. Factors such as a poorer tax base and high poverty rate put the SLPS district at an economic disadvantage. On top of this, population in the city has seen a significant drop since its peak in 1950, meaning the district receives less revenue from property taxes and less money from the state because of lower daily attendance in schools. SLPS schools face disadvantages even before students walk in the door.
Higher rates of poverty and less money for textbooks, technology, and teachers translate to low test scores. The Valley Park district (which spends less per pupil than SLPS) has almost a 30 percentage point lead in proficiency ratings (based off MAP score data) in the areas of math, science, social studies, and English, when compared to SLPS. As of 2017, the dropout rate for SLPS is almost reaching 15.5%, which is almost 13% above the Missouri average.
40% of students at Metro Academic and Classical High school were living in poverty in 2014, which is the lowest percentage of students in poverty among schools in the SLPS district. Coincidentally, Metro is the highest achieving school in the district and the number one public school, as reported by US Best News, in the state. As shown by the high achievement of SLPS’ top three high schools, there is no shortage of smart students in the SLPS system. Again, I must reiterate that these are the three schools with the lowest poverty rates in the district. Poverty and lack of resources hinder students in every other school. Although there are still students living in poverty in county schools, it is not such a widespread epidemic.
Personally, I don’t feel that we can hold public city schools and public suburban schools to the same standards in their current condition. The SLPS district faces so many challenges, and gets only $2,000 per student per year from the state. It makes me angry when people who speak about the low test scores and therefore lesser education provided by the SLPS system blatantly ignore the existing disparities. How can anyone try to equate county and city public schools when the resources are not the same? How can anyone equate two school districts when nothing about them is equal? Time and time again, we see that higher rates of poverty means lower achievement, yet we do nothing but point fingers at the SLPS district for the troubles they face.
Despite the troubles my school faces, I still choose to attend. My school is small, and my teachers devote time to get to know me. My school is diverse, with students from all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. I think the best thing my school has offered me, however, is insight. I get to listen to all types of perspectives and stories from people whose lives are different than mine, and I am not scared to be in the city like so many people are. Because of my school and the time I have spent with people who live in the city, I have realized that there is a 1:1 ratio among people. I have just as many thoughts, feelings, and ideas as anyone else, and this has made me unafraid of people who look different than me or have situations that I could not understand. I have become more empathetic and want to help those who ask for it.
I feel that the life lessons my school has offered me are more important than anything I could learn from a book. I have listened to people from all different backgrounds and learned to appreciate the good things in my life. Being with people who do not look or live like I do has made me aware of systematic oppression of minorities and how the poverty cycle affects generation after generation. Seeing all of this has made me realize that I want a career in public service and that I want to make positive change in St. Louis city. Without the opportunity to attend a public school, I would never have realized this. When I had to choose a high school, I knew that I would be attending a city school, and I am happy with my choice.