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Aug 2003 / from the source :: email this story to a friend

Choose the City If You Want a Safe Place with Top-Ranked Schools
By Sean Thomas

I don't have anything against suburbanites; some of my best friends live outside the city. Nevertheless, I wish critics of the city would acknowledge that, for some of us, the benefits of city living and the downsides of suburban life tip the scales in favor of the city. On too many occasions, though, I have found myself needing to defend the choice my wife and I made to raise our children in the City of St. Louis.

Several months ago I met a young woman from Webster Groves who was convinced that the city is a "lousy place to raise children." When I asked how she could make such a blanket indictment of city living, she replied with a question: "Have you ever been in the city schools?"

I told her that actually I had been in several of the city's public schools, some of which were performing as well as or better than some of the best suburban schools. She didn't believe me. She then decided it would be easier to prove her point by playing the safety card. She asked if I let my children walk to the store by themselves.

I had to admit that I do keep close tabs on my children, all three of whom are under the age of 10. But that's not because I think the city is dangerous. Oddly enough, my tendency to supervise my children's outdoor activities has been influenced more by news reports of children getting snatched from their bikes in quiet suburban subdivisions.

As comfortable as I am with the decision to raise our children in the city, I still found the conversation with the woman from Webster Groves disturbing. In so many words, she had accused thousands of parents of neglecting or endangering their children by living in the city. What is most distressing to me is that I know her perspective is shared by a great number of people.

No matter how many positive factors we cite, some city skeptics can't get past the two issues most often considered to be negatives: schools and safety. All too often, though, negative assessments are based on faulty assumptions rather than a full accounting of the facts.

Laclede Elementary School Believe it or not, there are public schools in the city that are right up there with some of the best-performing suburban schools. A case in point is Laclede Elementary School, with 100% African American enrollment, 96% of whom are low-income students. Based on the results of the most recent Missouri Assessment Program, the standardized test used by all public schools statewide, Laclede ranked fifth out of 889 schools in the state on science education and 150th for math education. That's better than any of the five elementary schools in Webster Groves in science and comparable to or better than 3 of the 5 Webster Groves schools in math education. Laclede also holds its own against schools in areas where people are willing to pay extremely inflated home prices just to get into a very good school district. While 93% of Laclede School students are at or above state science standards, only 74% of the elementary students in Ladue meet or exceed state standards. Audrey Ferguson, the 2002-2003 Missouri Teacher of the Year, also happens to teach at Laclede.

Several other schools in the city outperform Webster Groves schools and are comparable to Ladue in science education. Among them is Kennard, which also is one of only two St. Louis area elementary schools in the top five statewide for math performance. McKinley Classical Junior Academy ranked in the top five in three of the four subjects tested and is 18th in science among Missouri middle schools. On the high school level, Metro High ranked number one in the state in all four areas tested on the MAP and sends a greater percentage of its graduates to college than any other public high school in the St. Louis area.

The city is also home to dozens of high-quality private and parochial schools. Many of the religious schools enroll more students from other faiths than students from that of the school's sponsoring institution. While these schools charge tuition, many offer scholarships for low-income families. But with low housing costs in the city, it is often cheaper to buy a house and pay tuition for the full course of a child's private education in the city than it is to buy a home in a highly regarded suburban school district.

Understandably, parents also have concerns about their children's safety. A rational assessment of risks should recognize that the leading cause of death for all people between the ages of 1 and 33 is motor vehicle accidents. A child between the ages of 5 and 14 is four times more at risk from car accidents than from homicide. These risks are greater outside the city because studies show that the farther away from the city you live, the more time you spend in the car. Suburban and rural residents often have to drive anywhere they want to go, while the city requires less driving and offers greater opportunities to get around without a car.

Meanwhile, the risk of becoming a murder victim is less related to where we live than a matter of the types of activities we engage in. As the police are quick to testify, the overwhelming majority of homicides involve individuals who know each other and often involve people who are engaged in drug or gang activity.

Beyond mortality risks, it is helpful to note that there are far more injuries caused by car accidents than assaults.

You might argue that I'm being selective with what I'm reporting, and I agree. But that happens all the time when the city gets portrayed in a negative light. I just believe in equal-opportunity squirming — let the suburbanites be defensive for a change. In the meantime, I'll rest easy knowing that my children are better off growing up in the city.

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