ORPHANED SCHOOLS

Despite being threatened with loss of accreditation, it's business as usual in St. Louis' beleaguered public schools

When Susan Turk speaks at city school-board meetings or at sparse gatherings of the district's Parents Assembly, administrators can't wait until she sits down. Turk is the parent of a city school student and an active volunteer in a school, so when she talks, it's a real view from the trenches. And when she finds an issue's solar plexus, she hits it hard.

With all the synthetic hysteria about the city schools' "losing" accreditation last week, Turk had thought she might detect some sense of urgency when she showed up at school. "I went in on Friday thinking, "Everybody is going to be stressed to the max,'" says Turk. "No, it was just another school day. It was like, "OK, so, we're going to lose accreditation -- so what? That doesn't affect me.' It didn't look like anybody was batting an eyelash at it."

That may have had something to do with the fact that the state ruling is virtually meaningless -- it's official, but not effective. As a result of negotiations to settle the school-desegregation lawsuit, most punitive aspects of loss of accreditation are postponed for two years. Only then, if the state still says the city schools don't measure up, will the usual two-year period kick in to reform or have the district "lapse" -- that is, be dissolved into surrounding districts. So Jefferson City can tell the city schools they're unaccredited or tell Superintendent Cleveland Hammonds to dye his hair green -- for two years, either edict has about the same effect.

This is sad, says Turk, because she sees a lack of will throughout the city with regard to its public schools. "I don't think there's the courage in this community. I see collective guilt here," says Turk. "This is not the school board, or the teachers, or the parents or whoever you want to lay blame on. This is a community problem that nobody in the community can step back from and say, "It's not my fault.' It's everybody's fault. Somehow or other, it has to get through to Civic Progress, the RCGA and everybody else in the business community and everybody and everything in this town -- the politicians, the unions, the teachers, the parents, the whatever -- there has to be a change of attitude."

All that's needed are thousands of volunteers, more resources, better leadership and an admission from the top that serious problems exist and that these problems have to be solved from within and without. Turk sees it all as "very scary" because it could drag on until 2004, when "anything really drastic would happen." By then her son will be in middle school. "My fear is that nobody in this state really has a clue about what to do in St. Louis and Kansas City. And nobody wants to lift a finger to find out, to take responsibility to do what needs to be done, and therefore we're getting this runaround with this extra two years, and two years after that, and then who knows what will happen after that? It's nerve-racking for a parent."

Taking a similar dim view from a detached, academic perspective is Lana Stein, associate professor of political science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Stein is co-author of a just-published book, City Schools & City Politics, that examines public-school problems in Boston, Pittsburgh and St. Louis. Of those three troubled cities, St. Louis ranked the worst. Middle-class flight is the root problem, Stein says, though loss of autonomy resulting from the desegregation suit and the district's having "one of the most God-awful bureaucracies" she's ever seen are other factors.

Other cities -- Chicago, for one -- have had a mayor take charge to salvage schools. That likely won't happen in St. Louis, even though Mayor Clarence Harmon tried to jump on the bandwagon -- or into the bonfire -- by faxing out a press release demanding a "detailed plan" from Hammonds and the board within 30 days on how to fix things. Too bad Harmon wasn't as forceful when the compromise on SB 781, the legislation that helped settle the desegregation lawsuit, was being welded together. At the fateful early hearing at Roosevelt High School, Harmon seemed reluctant to step forward, saying he had "a lot on his plate."

Stein, an early Harmon supporter whose enthusiasm for the mayor has waned, doesn't look to Room 200 of City Hall for solutions: "He reacted so strongly to the report; why hasn't he been reacting sooner? He knew how bad the system was.

"We have a very weak mayoral system," says Stein. "If a mayor is going to accomplish a lot, it has to be through force of personality, through the ability to build coalitions and negotiate -- and Harmon describes himself as a nonpolitician," Stein says. "Part of the problem is, even if the mayor of St. Louis wanted to do this I don't think the whole community, including big business, has been galvanized to make the public schools in St. Louis a No. 1 problem to address."

 
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