First Strike

Hazelwood schools blocked apartments to protect test scores

George W. Bush could have visited any one of the nation's 90,874 public schools in 16,542 school districts on Feb. 20, but he picked Moline Elementary in the Riverview Gardens School District. The inner-ring suburban school district was selected for the presidential visit because of its emphasis on school accountability and its use of the reading program "Success for All." The focal point of Bush's big education push is reading, including administering annual reading tests to students.

The carrot offered by G.W. is a $600 million increase in federal spending on reading programs, and the stick waved over the heads of district superintendents is that funds would be yanked from schools that fare poorly on reading tests, with the money going to tutors or other schools. The specter of testing looms large over all schools, but seldom has it had such a weird effect as on another inner-ring suburban district, the Hazelwood School District, less than five miles to the north of Moline Elementary.

Hazelwood residents and district officials were so worried that a proposed 200-unit apartment complex in Spanish Lake on Lusher Road would add to school overcrowding and compromise school quality that the district bought the land from the developer for $1.5 million. The stated plan was to build an elementary school at the site, but superintendent Larry Humphries admits the purchase had a dual purpose.

"We bought it for two reasons," Humphries says. "We needed a place to build a school -- that was an ideal location for a good neighborhood school -- and it stopped the apartments."

Not only would another apartment complex increase school enrollment, it would bring in students from less affluent households. But Humphries says lower income was only a co-factor.

"The real problem with apartments is the transient students. They're moving in and out," Humphries says, pointing to nearby Twillman Elementary School's 40 percent yearly turnover. "That's a real problem. You get kids coming in here with 'fourth grade' on their transcript, but they're not anywhere near Hazelwood's fourth-graders in terms of our curriculum. They could move in a week before the test and have to take it."

So the district made a pre-emptive strike and bought the land, scuttling the planned apartment complex. But now a bond issue must be passed, or there won't be money to build a school. If the bond issue fails, the district will be left holding land it won't be able to build on.

Hazelwood is not alone in its difficulty; most suburban districts prefer single-family dwellings, both for stability of the student body and their correlation with stable, middle-income families who tend to have children who do better in school. For Hazelwood to dodge that burden in this case isn't unusual; it's just a severe example of what school districts face now with the linkage of standardized test scores and funding. If students don't do well on the tests, Humphries says, "then the whole district is marked down."

The prospect of Bush's desire for an annual national reading test on top of the Missouri Assessment Program doesn't thrill the Hazelwood superintendent. "We're tested enough. We're tested at a maximum level right now, in terms of the amount of time we lose for state testing," says Humphries. "If we're going to do more testing, we need to look at taking something else off the plate. This year, we had to start retesting kids who performed at the lowest two levels of the MAP test, which meant we used another week up, pulling those kids out and retesting them."

St. Louis County has 24 school districts, and Hazelwood is one of the largest, stretching from the Mississippi River to the Missouri River. It snakes alongside the Florissant-Ferguson School District to the west and borders the St. Louis Public Schools by the old Chain of Rocks Bridge on the east. It covers 78 square miles and serves 18,330 students. The St. Louis district covers 61 square miles and has 42,000 students.

Faced with overcrowded elementary schools in its eastern subdistrict next to the city, Hazelwood proposed a massive $96 million school bond issue last year, the largest ever offered in Missouri. As Humphries puts it, the bond issue "went down pretty good," getting only 44 percent of the vote, 13 percent short of what was needed. This time, on April 3 Hazelwood voters will be asked to approve a $39 million bond issue.

Hazelwood doesn't yet have the dire financial problems of other, smaller inner-ring suburban districts, such as Affton, which in 1999 had to restrict school-bus service. E. Terrence Jones, political-science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and author of Fragmented by Design: Why St. Louis Has So Many Governments, notes that districts such as Hancock Place and Bayless also suffer from being too small. But, Jones says, even when a city-county merger was being pushed in the 1960s with the "borough plan," the melding of school districts to save money was off-limits.

"That was a group who wanted to get rid of everything and have one big metropolitan government," says Jones. "During those discussions, somebody said, 'If we're going to have just one police department and one this and one that, shouldn't we have just one school district?' This was a group of people who argued from principles first, but even on that point, they said, 'No, not school districts. We're not that utopian.'"

Jones says that the boundaries of school districts are even more sacrosanct than municipalities. "It's because of the notion of local control," Jones says. "There's a real pecking order in terms of socioeconomic status when it comes to school districts. School districts are more sacred than zoning, and zoning is pretty sacred."

With county officials awaiting the expected release this month of county-by-county census totals, many believe the economic statistics of the inner-ring suburbs will increasingly mirror the city's.

Tim Fischesser, executive director of the St. Louis County Municipal League, fears the similar demographics will lead to a decline in school performance. "The county will begin to reflect more of the problems you see in the city schools," he says of the inner-ring suburbs. "Obviously there's some challenges there that you're not going to see routinely in the Parkway or the Clayton school districts."

Humphries agrees: "We've had to deal with a lot of problems, too. I think the inner-ring districts are becoming more 'urban-suburban' -- Riverview, Jennings, us, most all of them. We're having to deal with a lot of the issues I'm sure city schools deal with. We don't have the violence, the weapons, but we're seeing students from a lower socioeconomic [level] moving in who need a little more attention and are not quite up to speed academically."

North County already bears a greater share of subsidized public housing than any other section of the county, according to Bronwen Zwirner, executive director of the Metropolitan Equal Housing Opportunity Council. Zwirner says there is a "huge lack of affordable rental housing for families" in the county and that residents opposing apartments often use inadequate school-district infrastructure as a pretext to block construction.

But to denigrate apartment dwellers is "painting with a pretty broad brush," says Fischesser. "An awful lot of people start out in apartments, and they're very decent individuals."

Yes, but can how well can their children read?

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