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Mar 2003 / young minds :: email this story to a friend

Closing the Gaps
By Bill Carson

It's no secret that all is not well within the St. Louis Public Schools. Year-on-year of test data reveal that students are failing state and national exams at alarming rates; in some neighborhoods, high school graduates are the exception, not the rule. Worse, extra resources needed to help kids from less-than-affluent households are limited by seemingly endless federal and state budget cuts. Though it's easy to place convenient blame on teachers, principals, and administrators, problems of student achievement are not entirely the fault of the schools. Students are in school only seven hours a day, five days a week, and nine months a year. The other seventeen, two, and three, kids are elsewhere — hopefully in a loving home, productive job or activity with responsible adult supervision. More often, though, they're not, because on a daily basis many other issues face kids who attend these struggling schools.

A person living in today's world without a high school diploma has few options. For a Black man or woman living in the well of poverty, the odds of achieving the fabled American Dream become infinitesimally small. Making headway through straits this dire requires extra effort — in the case of the historic JeffVanderLou Neighborhood of North St. Louis City, those efforts are being lead by the Vashon Education Compact and Vashon/JeffVanderLou Initiative. Our mission is, simply, to close the gaps that separate our students from achieving success in later life.

Vashon High School In 1998, after leveraging a bond issue for a new, $35 million Vashon High School, a group of more than 500 Vashon High School alumni, neighborhood residents, faith-based groups, elected officials, and countless other concerned citizens wrote a plan to completely overhaul their neighborhood. After countless years in a dilapidated building that was beyond the description of school, it was certainly true that Vashon students and staff deserved a new building, but the neighborhood wanted not only a new structure, but also a new culture of learning within its walls and the surrounding neighborhood. To those ends, they proposed the Vashon/JeffVanderLou Initiative to work on the issues of JVL housing, health and human services, safety and security, and economic development for neighborhood residents. Furthermore, they wanted to ensure that students at the neighborhood's six elementary schools (Banneker, Carver, Columbia, Dunbar, Jackson, and Jefferson) and three middle schools (Blewett, Stevens, and Williams) were well prepared for high-school work. They were emboldened with the knowledge that Jefferson Elementary School in the adjoining Murphy Park was on the edge of success with the leadership of the neighborhood's residents association and housing developer McCormack-Baron Associates. With an achievable dream in mind, leadership of the Danforth Foundation on hand, and many millions of supporting dollars from local corporations, foundations, and regional government, the Vashon/JeffVanderLou Initiative and the Vashon Education Compact were born.

In December 2001, the Vashon Education Compact board of directors offered me — a career engineer and business manager with no formal experience in education — a position as its first executive director. I'm still flattered by their decision to entrust this important project to me. I did bring to the table a perspective shaped by years of successfully managing unwieldy chemical engineering projects, by a family rich with teachers, and by lots of rumination on issues of educational reform. I wanted to work in education when I retired, so I jumped at the opportunity to "retire" at age 31 and take on the most frustrating — and rewarding — thing I've ever done.

Coming from the corporate world, I quickly discovered that schools are not exactly keeping pace with Corporate America in terms of management practice, integration of technology, and responsiveness to change. I learned that e-mail was not a commonly used tool of communication among schools and staff, and that technology was not a fully integrated tool in the school environment. That many personnel and resource management concepts commonly taught in schools of management and business had yet to be discovered. That annual budgets were prepared fourteen months before the same year's strategic plans...and that those plans were seldom read nor understood by those responsible for carrying them out!

When we began our work in 2001, only about 20 percent of entering Vashon High School freshmen graduated on time, and fewer than 20 percent of graduates went directly to institutions of higher education. But problems weren't isolated to the high school: fewer than 13 percent of third graders were considered by the state to be proficient in communication arts; only 20 percent met that same mark in math, science, and social studies. Even worse, virtually all of our middle school students — more than 97 percent — performed below proficiency in all subjects. Test scores aren't everything, but they are used to assess a student's academic status, to estimate a student's ability to handle future college work, and to describe how well a school is preparing students.

To the Vashon Compact Schools, the St. Louis Public School District provides the baseline resources and objectives that a district is supposed to provide — buildings, salaries, books, supplies, curriculum, administrative support, and so on. Our assistance is in the form of outstanding professional development for our principals and teachers; physical improvements to buildings; additional resources for students and teachers; technology-based after-school and summer programs; and efforts to recruit and retain highly qualified educators. We also are building a bridge to allow greater levels of corporate and community members' involvement in our schools. So far, we've made good progress in all of these target areas with the assistance and support of the schools, District administrators, and the community. But we've also met some (understandable?) resistance to our efforts; to address problems their underlying causes must be explored and exposed.

We agonize over every dollar spent so that we avoid being simply a grant-making body. Most of our efforts are designed to drive systemic change, and much is being done to effect and support the efforts of those directly responsible for the job of educating children. Our principals are receiving the guidance of local and national experts in educational administration. In this Principals Academy, they're learning to better understand the roles of an instructional leader, to use data for school decision-making, and to build cultures of high achievement in their schools. Our Science Initiative teachers are enrolled in specialized training to improve their classroom methodology in math and science, where many are missing advanced levels of proficiency, themselves. We've found, so far, that lessons learned are spilling over into other subject areas as well.

Within eighteen months, all ten school buildings and grounds will have been renovated, landscaped, and computerized to supplement the district's efforts to wire and air-condition the buildings. To date, to bring our schools in closer contact with an Internet-driven society, we've placed nearly 200 new computers — in the form of multi-media classrooms, laptops, specialized reading systems, and stand-alone desktops — in the hands of students and faculty, and insisted on training to ensure that technology is being integrated into every aspect of the learning process. Students, too, are working after school and in the summer on technology-based programs that teach them about the visual arts, history, community development, and leadership.

Kids who need the boost are being given extra computer-based instruction in phonics and reading. Reading clubs, book fairs and other programs have begun to supplement libraries and instill a love of learning from kindergarten through twelfth grade. In addition to our corporate and foundation funding members, partner organizations such as the Vashon/JeffVanderLou Initiative, Teach For America, Center of Contemporary Arts, the University of Missouri, the CORO Leadership Center, the St. Louis Science Center, the Missouri Botanical Garden, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Mentor St. Louis and many others provide innovative programs that will help achieve our vision of success.

Stability of school staff members has been an issue of particular concern. During the 2002-03 school year, four principals, five instructional coordinators, and more than 70 teachers had fewer than two years' experience in their roles. To assist them, every new teacher has a retired mentor to coach and assist with classroom management, lesson planning, school politics, and other real-life lessons not taught in college. To ensure the best leader for each institution, we're currently helping with national searches for new principals in two of our elementary schools. Our schools need the extra effort of especially talented people, and we want to cast as wide a net as possible to catch the best person for the job. We hope that as our programs become institutionalized, and as student achievement and work climate improve, school faculties will stabilize.

One of the most important results, however, is that our cluster of schools is working together to solve problems, share experiences, collaborate on projects, and consolidate resources. Principals from all levels are considering the common path their students are taking. Middle and elementary school teachers are learning and working together to serve their students and set goals for achievement. Face-to-face, they're taking joint responsibility for each student's success rather than blaming the prior levels for a student's shortcomings.

Our corporate partners have done much more than simply send money. Their executives are active and engaged members of our Governing Board, and they work with teachers, parents, and principals to make important decisions about the school. Corporate mentors visit our schools as volunteers and mentors, and they provide resources and supplies that support students, parents, and teachers. They're also taking back to the community the accurate message that many hardworking, dedicated employees of the St. Louis Public Schools are taking on the Herculean and sometimes thankless task of educating urban children.

Much change is ahead for the Vashon Compact and for the St. Louis Public Schools as a whole. Within the year, we will have at least two new school principals, a new Superintendent, four new members of the St. Louis Board of Education, and untold changes to budgets and legislative requirements. At times, the only constant seems to be change, but we'll succeed. We have data and examples from across the country and from within St. Louis to prove that it can be done, and with the resources and energy behind us, we will reach a tipping point where success becomes inevitable. Most importantly, we can't let any more kids fail.

You can learn more about the Vashon Education Compact on its website at

Bill Carson is the first executive director of the Vashon Education Compact, a native of the East Coast and an involved resident of St. Louis City for nearly ten years.

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