Parents and community members concerned about the fate of two south city elementary schools breathed a sigh of a relief on Thursday night.
The superintendent of St. Louis Public Schools, Kelvin Adams, told the Special Administrative Board that the district should renovate and keep open Shenandoah and Mann Elementary Schools.
With no further action needed from the board, the future of the historic schools is now secure.
Adams’ recommendation was greeted by a chorus of applause from concerned parents who attended the meeting.
Both of the schools in Tower Grove area are in need of structural upgrades, and the cost to complete those repairs made their future uncertain.
The district had been considering three proposals, two of which would have closed Mann.
Under one proposal, Shenandoah would be renovated. Under another proposal Shenandoah’s current building would be razed, and a new, larger school would be built to replace it.
During town hall meetings organized by the district, though, community members overwhelming supported a third option: renovating and leaving both schools open. While rising academic achievement and enrollment were both factors in his decision, Adams said the outpouring of community support couldn’t be ignored.
“It’s very difficult to talk about tearing down a school and building a brand new school if the community doesn’t want it,” Adams said. “You put a $15 million or $16 million building in a community and no one shows up, it doesn’t make much sense. Obviously, the fact that this community, they weren’t wavering about it, they were, ‘slam dunk, we want to keep these buildings.’”
Passion for the two schools, especially Mann, was on full display during the public comment period after Adams made his recommendation.
Maryanne Dersch, who has two children who attend Mann Elementary, said both have made big academic strides.
“That school has saved my kids,” Dersch said. “They were not progressing and they are now.”
Dersch was on the edge of tears as she thanked Adams for his recommendation.
“Thank you so much for considering the recommendation to keep both schools open” Dersch said. “It’s going to be a wonderful thing for my family, and my children and their education.”
Dersch has been a vocal supporter of keeping Mann open and started the Facebook group Save Mann School.
Word quickly spread on social media.
“Thank you to the leaders who have made Mann School a priority in their lives” Wrote Richard Buthod on the group’s Facebook page. “The entire Tower Grove area benefits from a vibrant local school.”
Rev. Teresa Danieley is pastor at Mann Elementary School’s faith partner, St. John's Episcopal Church in Tower Grove.
“To me the recommendation that Dr. Adams gave is an answer to prayer,” she told the board. “We’ve been praying about this at St. John’s Tower Grove every week.”
In a twist, Danieley said all the talk about the school possibly closing piqued community interest and ended up being a recruiting tool of sorts.
“Many have been converted to sending their kids to Mann Elementary School,” Danieley said.
Renovating the schools is expected to cost the district $2 million, and Adams said a study issued five years ago recommended that both schools be closed and a new school be built in their place.
With that in mind, board member Richard Gaines said it’s critical to build community involvement around both schools. While he sees that occurring for Mann, Gaines said Shenandoah remains a concern.
“I’d hate for whomever is sitting here three, four, five years from now still looking at the same number of students, which is substantially less than what’s needed to keep that school open,” Gaines said. “It has to be more than historically significant.”
State audit follow up
Officials with St. Louis Public Schools are being fully cooperative while working to fix the problems listed in a state audit issued in September.
That was the message delivered by Darrell Moore, chief litigation counsel for the Missouri state auditor, after a work session with district officials on Thursday afternoon.
“There should be no question in anybody’s mind that the district has taken this audit very seriously, they’ve taken our concerns seriously, and they have expended great effort to try and implement those recommendations,” Moore said.
The relationship between the auditor’s office and SLPS got off to an awkward start because Adams initially didn’t think the auditor’s office had the authority to conduct an audit.
“Once that was clear I called him and said ‘come on in we’re ready to start,’” Adams told reporters in September.
When the audit’s findings were released three months ago, Auditor Tom Schweich said he was most concerned about the district promoting students to the next grade level even when they fail to meet reading requirements.
“District policies and procedures regarding the promotion and retention of ‘at-risk’ students are not fully compliant with state law,” according to the audit.
Adams said the formal plan to correct the issue will be submitted to the auditor’s office next month, but the wheels are already turning.
“Basically, what the plan calls for is assessments and individual academic plans for each student who is reading two grade levels below, and we’ve put that in place,” Adams said.
The audit also found that the district is on its way to fiscal problems, needs to pay closer attention to test results to prevent cheating and should look for more competitive bids when purchasing goods and services.
Overall, the school district received a “fair” ranking, the second from the lowest on a scale of excellent, good, fair and poor.
The district will continue to submit documents to state auditors, and a formal follow up report on the district’s progress will be issued in six to eight weeks.
Follow Tim Lloyd on Twitter: @TimSLloyd