Education
2:03 pm
Mon April 28, 2014

Clergy Coalition Voices Support For St. Louis School Improvement Plan

Rev. C. Jessel Strong, president of the Clergy Coalition of Greater St. Louis (center), speaks during a press conference on Monday, April 28.
Credit Tim Lloyd / St. Louis Public Radio

A coalition of clergy from more than 40 metropolitan area churches is backing the school transformation plan put forth by St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams.

“We acknowledge there are components that people are unhappy about, unsure about and uncompromising about,” said the Rev. Earl Nance Jr. of Greater Mount Carmel Missionary Baptist Church. “We honor the concerns that people have.  At the same time, we believe that is worth a try.”

Nance delivered that message during a press conference Monday morning at New Northside Missionary Baptist Church. Flanked on either side by fellow members of St. Louis Metropolitan Clergy Coalition, he highlighted the plan’s focus on chronically low performing schools as a reason for their support.

“It is a commitment to serving our lowest performing schools with all options considered,” Nance said.

Adams introduced the plan during a Special Administrative Board (SAB) meeting in March. Intended to serve as a roadmap for earning back full accreditation for the district, it calls for funneling roughly $6.4 million to 18 low performing schools to pay for tutors, added social workers and teacher training.

If one of the 18 low performing schools fails to show improvement during the coming school year, a nonprofit operator could be brought in during the 2015-16 school year and would have control over hiring staff and setting curriculum.  That provision has drawn criticism from members of the elected but disempowered school board and the teachers’ union.

Clergy meet monthly with district officials and Nance said the merits of Adams' school improvement plan were discussed during their most recent gathering. Nance said the coalition of religious leaders felt compelled to voice their support when Adams' plan was compared to William Roberti's school turnaround project more than 10 years ago, which resulted in job cuts and closed schools.

“Many people were looking back at the past when the then board hired the turnaround team that came in,” Nance said after the press conference.  “That was such a negative impact.  This is different, this is the superintendent’s initiative with a clear plan of how to effectively turnaround and support the 18 lowest performing schools and bring them up to par.”

Nance said previous efforts to ramp up academic performance at low performing schools have sputtered, and the possibility of bringing in a nonprofit operator should be considered.

“We feel it’s worth a try,” Nance said.  “We’ve seen instances of where it’s worked in other areas and we feel we’ve tried everything else.  This is an opportunity that is superintendent-driven that we need to give a chance to work.”

The SAB is expected to give the plan its final approval at its monthly meeting on Thursday night.

Violence and hunger

The coalition also announced plans for a week of prayer to begin on May 26 to raise awareness about violence. Rev. Rodrick Burton of New Northside Missionary Baptist Church asked that those who have been affected by violence to step out their front door on Memorial Day at 9 p.m. with a candle, flashlight or light stick in their hand.  

“So that we can all see the impact that violence is having on our community,” Burton said.  “More importantly, we want everyone to join in prayer at that time.  Our violence problem is not a racial violence problem, it’s not black or white, it affects the whole city.  It is harming us psychologically, it’s harming us economically, and more than anything, people are dying.” 

Across religions and from juvenile justice centers to nursing homes, Burton called on the entire community to help raise awareness about violence.

“Our vision is that from the north of St. Louis to the south of St. Louis, the city will be unified in prayer,” Burton said.  

It’s a message that resonated with north St. Louis resident Doretta Walker, who sat in the pews during the press conference.

“It’s involving the children and youth of the city of St. Louis as well as the county,” Walker said.  “For people to understand that we need to stop the violence and crime in the city.” 

The coalition also said it plans to spread the word about what resources are available for children and families struggling with hunger.

“Hunger relates to and impacts both education and violence,” said Rev. Traci D. Blackmon of Christ the King United Church of Christ.  “If you’re hungry you cannot think. If you’re hungry, you cannot act appropriately. If you are hungry, you are desperate.”

With many poor students relying on meals provided at schools, Blackmon said hunger is especially pressing as summer break approaches.    

“Many of our children depend upon the food that they receive for breakfast and for lunch to sustain them the entire day,” Blackmon said. 

To fill the gaps, Blackmon encouraged other religious leaders and community organizations to take advantage of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Summer Food Service Program.

“To parents out there, you are not alone,” Blackmon said.  “We are not going to leave you by yourself.”