Demolition Man

To save St. Louis public schools, Bill Roberti and his band of hired guns plan to blow things up. Who'll pick up the pieces when they're gone?

Jackson's response is direct: "That's bullshit."

"Does Lizz Brown represent the black community?" Jackson asks. "Who represents the white community? Who determines the real representative of any group of people? Who's the legitimate leader of the black community? If the people on the Black Leadership Roundtable are the heads of the major black organizations in the community, they represent those people. Some might say they're leaders."


Bill Roberti: "I am going to restructure this entire system."
Jennifer Silverberg
Bill Roberti: "I am going to restructure this entire system."
School-board member Bill Haas (left) has referred to new board members, like Bob Archibald (right), as "Nazis."
Jennifer Silverberg
School-board member Bill Haas (left) has referred to new board members, like Bob Archibald (right), as "Nazis."

One key leader has left the scene. A weary Cleveland Hammonds stepped down from the district's superintendent's job a year before his contract was up, sensing the shifting winds of change. Under his six-year tenure, some MAP scores improved and there were improvements in drop-out and graduation rates, but the public perception of the system remained negative. He was brought in as a "reform" superintendent and he thinks he did his share of that.

"The problem with reform is the definition. The problem with reform is the timetable. For the Post-Dispatch, reform meant if I didn't have about five public hangings a week, then I'm not reforming," Hammonds says. "You can't find any place in this country where reform has happened in two or three years, but that's still the expectancy. There might be significant changes in reading scores, but because we're still not where we should be, because we're still not Ladue or Clayton, people feel like we're failures."

Of Missouri's 523 school districts, 22 are provisionally accredited and only Wellston's is unaccredited. Hammonds leaves a provisionally accredited district that meets five of the necessary six out of 12 requirements for accreditation. At a point earlier in his tenure, the district met only three of the 12 requirements, but was saved from losing its accreditation when the desegregation lawsuit was settled.

Hammonds' main defense is that since no one can point to a large city public school district that is hitting on all cylinders, the fault might be in societal priorities, not in individual cities.

"As a people we have not been willing to commit ourselves to the kind of time and focus that it's going to take to bring urban systems up to our expectations. We don't want to put the extra resources in so we complain about the incompetence. There's no way in the world that every major city in the country is full of incompetent people. The cities are full of kids with a lot of needs, with kids who need additional help. People don't want to deal with that."

For the next year, Roberti will be in charge and he'll be running his education questions past Rudy Crew, who is often mentioned on the short list of candidates when an opening occurs for a superintendent in a large city.

Deborah Meier, the 75-year-old past winner of a MacArthur "genius" award, was not impressed by Crew during his tenure in New York City. Meier was founder of Central Park East elementary and secondary schools in Harlem and is seen as a pioneer and innovator in urban education. She is co-principal of Mission Hill Elementary and Middle School, a predominately African-American school in a poor section of Boston.

"Crew is a better talker than anything," Meier says. "He didn't succeed in any of the places he was at. He claims to have succeeded in Tacoma, but as soon as he left, the scores went back down. In New York, I don't know of any evidence that anyone claims that he was successful."

Meier doesn't see the value in relying on high-priced consultants or the private sector to fix the real or perceived problems of a city school district. "It's intriguing, always, this rotation of people who go from one superintendency to another," Meier says. "If they had some idea about what it is that would be necessary to change school systems, why haven't they done it? I'm not even blaming them for not knowing how to do it, I'm just blaming people for thinking that is who you need to rely on for expertise."

The mayor-taking-charge approach is gaining popularity. Chicago's Mayor Richard Daley lobbied the Illinois legislature and got control of his city's schools. Daley hired Paul Vallas to run the district and he received credit for improving the financial side of the system, but Chicago's schools are at best comparable to those in St. Louis, certainly no better. Vallas moved on to Philadelphia, where Edison Schools, a New York for-profit company, runs twenty public schools.

Those decisions had been made under a Republican governor and since former Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell, a Demo- crat, became governor in January, there has been a de-emphasis on private management of the city's public schools. A contract for Chancellor Beacon Academies to run five schools in Philadelphia was canceled in April when Vallas thought the company had little impact on the low-performing schools.

In New York City, four years after Crew left, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has achieved the control that former Mayor Rudy Giuliani desired. Bloomberg has brought in former federal prosecutor Joel Klein to run the $12 billion, 1.1 million student school system.

Bloomberg is cutting $175 million out of the school budget, but also recruiting business executives and educators from universities to work for less than they would normally make. Some high-profile executives are donating their services pro bono, and a training facility for principals has been set up with $75 million in private funds.

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