St. Louis – As a product of public schooling herself, Susan Turk didn't think twice about putting her son in the St. Louis Public Schools when he started kindergarten in 1996.
"The public schools are the foundational institutions for our society," said Turk, one of the staunchest defenders of and advocates for the SLPS. "They create citizens to live in our democracy and they are the most egalitarian institutions in our society."
The district didn't always have the reputation that leads many other parents to leave the city schools when their children reach kindergarten. As recently as the 1950s, educators nationwide were copying the academic innovations of the St. Louis Public Schools. Student performance was above average.
By 1968, though, 2/3 of SLPS students were at least a half-year behind in reading and math. The district made some gains in standardized achievement scores in the 1980s, but they were short-lived, and in 2007 the state seized control.
Turk's son qualified for the district's gifted middle and elementary schools, and was accepted at Metro High School, consistently ranked among the top in the nation. But even without the specialized programs, Turk said, she would have been satisfied with her son's education at the neighborhood schools.
"Middle-class children with two parents who are getting three hot meals at home and have a room to themselves and are well taken care of will do well in school no matter where they go to school," Turk said.
That's a scenario some teachers in the SLPS, like English teacher Andrew Gallagher, can only dream about.
Gallagher, in his fifth year teaching English at Clyde C. Miller Career Academy in north St. Louis, has never had problems accessing hard supplies, like novels, pencils, pens, and paper. He can use smart boards and four well-stocked computer labs.
But supplies, he said, can't compensate for some intangible things that are lacking at Clyde C. Miller: things like study groups, mentoring programs, and extracurricular activities that he said keep a school and community well-knit. And, he said, they certainly can't address the outside influences he rarely had to deal with in two years at Webster Groves High School.
"A good many, at least a decent percentage of our students, don't have a single stable address. There are certainly impediments to studying. There are students whose lives are deeply impacted by violence. I know what the realities of poverty are," Gallagher said.
Most important, he added, parents struggling to keep food on the table and a roof over the heads of their children lack the time and energy to take a more active role in those childrens' education.
A majority of students at Clyde C. Miller and the district as a whole get free and reduced lunches. Last year, the school met state requirements in reading, though struggled in math. The district as a whole hasn't met reading and math standards for six years.
That's correlation, not coincidence, said William Tate, the chair of the education department at Washington University and an Edward Mallinckrodt distinguished professor.
"School achievement actually is a combination of school finance resources and family resources combined," he said. "So the reality is what you see when you get a 10th grade assessment score is years and years of school resources, family resources. It's a massive difference."
That, he said, is why the SLPS remains so far behind state academic performance standards, even though the district spends $15,635 per student and many other districts do much better with less. SLPS students just start out too far behind.
The district tries to address some of the impacts of poverty with 56 nurses and 40 social workers. Full-service community schools offer assistance with employment, housing and child-rearing, and principals have been known to send students home with backpacks of food to ensure they can eat something over the weekend.
But those are all stopgap measures, said superintendent Kelvin Adams, and additional funding won't make the firewall any bigger.
"We have to make sure we can support the entire community, not just the school," he said. "We can have millions of more dollars in schools but still don't support the communities that the children come from and so they're still going to have those kinds of issues when they come to us."
Low achievement in city schools isn't a deterrent to companies looking to bring high-paying jobs to the area, since the quality of education in the region overall is high. But William Tate said his research shows the ongoing academic struggles of the SLPS leave its graduates unable to compete for those jobs.
"It becomes a cycle because they can't participate in the political economy more broadly, they can't enhance their tax base, and because they can't enhance the tax base they can't improve the revenue stream into their schools," he said.
There are slight improvements. The district is meeting more of the standards that measure accreditation, though a return to local control is not expected for a while. Eleven of the district's lowest-performing schools will receive grants to implement additional programming for their students.
Though her son has graduated, Susan Turk still tutors SLPS students. The only way the district will turn around, she said, is for more parents like her and her husband to take a chance on and get involved in the city schools. The media, she said, needs to stop ignoring positive stories in favor of those about violence and academic failure.