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Wednesday, December 16, 2020

St. Louis Superintendent: 'Losing a School is Like a Death'

Posted By on Wed, Dec 16, 2020 at 5:04 PM

click to enlarge Closed in 2007, the remains of a former classroom in Euclid School in Fountain Park presents a vision of what might be in store for the latest proposed school closures. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • Closed in 2007, the remains of a former classroom in Euclid School in Fountain Park presents a vision of what might be in store for the latest proposed school closures.

St. Louis has less than four weeks to figure out how to save eleven schools under threat of closure. But it's a mission that top school officials, including Superintendent Kelvin Adams, say is coming too late — and with far too little substance — to make a difference.

A vote on the closures had initially been scheduled for the Tuesday meeting of the St. Louis Public Schools board. However, Adams instead recommended the board "pause" the vote until January 12 in light of the public reaction to the proposed closures. The plan would shutter seven underperforming north city schools, including the historic Sumner High School, which was founded in 1875 as the first African American high school west of the Mississippi River.



In his opening remarks to the board, Adams acknowledged the pain that the closures would cause.

"Losing a school is like a death, and I understand that," he said. "But the other side of that is that we are lacking in providing the resources that our students so desperately deserve."

St. Louis' school system has already suffered dozens of such deaths, and this isn't the first time that the possibility of a mass school closure has hung above the heads of students, teachers and families. As explored in this week's Riverfront Times cover story, the legacy of these closures has left St. Louis with a collection of historic-yet-deteriorating school buildings whose age and enormous size make them tough projects for redevelopment.

And yet, in the last two decades, nine former schools have been converted into lofts or senior apartments, and several more are under development. SLPS currently lists seventeen school buildings as "surplus properties" for sale.

Adams had revealed the recommended closures during a December 1 meeting. He also released a report that detailed the enrollment struggles at the eleven schools. At Sumner, which was built to contain 960 students, enrollment was at 358 students in 2015. By 2019, enrollment had fallen to 205.

On Tuesday, Adams reminded the board members that they had been working through closure talks since late 2019 and that the process had included town halls and community outreach.

click to enlarge SLPS superintendent Kelvin Adams. - SCREENSHOT VIA ZOOM
  • SCREENSHOT VIA ZOOM
  • SLPS superintendent Kelvin Adams.

But in a city that has spent months battling coronavirus outbreaks and economic shutdowns, the news appeared to catch many by surprise. In the days following the announcement, hundreds of people provided comments through an SLPS feedback form, and a December 8 board meeting ran more than three hours as board members discussed the public comments — while also voicing concerns that the vote was being rushed.

St. Louis' elected officials joined the fray as well, with the St. Louis Board of Aldermen voting 19-1 last week to pass a resolution (which is not binding) that opposed the closings. The resolution stated, in part, "The closing of public schools not only disrupts and often has a negative impact upon the education of the students attending those schools that are closed but also often devastates the surrounding community."

In light of the pushback, Adams came to see that more communication was needed before a final vote. On Tuesday, he asked the board to "pause" while he set up additional meetings with school leaders and organizations that may have "concrete recommendations that provide services."

But Adams made clear that he is not looking for a critique of the process that had led to the recommendations.

"This is not about rhetoric, this is not about telling me what you think," he continued. "This is about real resources with details that align itself to the eleven schools that we’re talking about."

Adams later said that he would not "walk away" from his recommendations to close the schools. In pointed remarks, he rejected critiques that the process was being rushed and that the SLPS administration had ignored neighborhood needs when assembling the list of proposed closures. He pointed to the bigger issue: St. Louis' long decline in population, which had hit a mid-nineteenth-century peak above 700,000 and has since fallen to barely 300,000.

The same trend, Adams continued, explains why the city's Land Reutilization Authority is trying to sell thousands of properties and vacant lots, and why the Board of Aldermen is set to reduce its members from 28 to 14 by 2022.

The problem isn't unique to SLPS, but a fact of life for a city trying to adjust to a smaller population.

"What I'm asking the board to do is to pause, I'm not asking the board to stop," Adams said. "I will not walk away from those recommendations, because kids’ lives are too important."

Along with Sumner, Adams' recommendations would outright close Fanning Middle School, Cleveland Naval Jr. ROTC, Northwest High School, and the elementary schools Clay, Dunbar, Farragut, Ford, Hickey and Monroe. Carnahan High would be converted to a middle school.


Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com
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