Rodney Norman grew up in the St. Louis neighborhood near Mitchell School, though he didn’t go there, and he knows what the closure of the school did to the area near Page and Goodfellow boulevards.
Now, say Norman and his wife, Juanita, they know what the reopening of the building, as the KIPP Victory Academy for 200 students in kindergarten and first grade, will mean when classes begin next month.
“For us as a neighborhood, it’s another foundational component that is essential within a neighborhood to move a neighborhood from good to great,” said Norman, who said he moved away from St. Louis for 26 years before returning to becoming involved in real estate development.
“When you see what these buildings can become, not only as a structure but also as a venue for the kids to come in and be educated and go out into the world, it makes a major difference.”
KIPP’s expansion to a second charter school in St. Louis, following the establishment of KIPP Inspire in south St. Louis in 2009 for middle schoolers, stems from a partnership between the national charter school operator and the St. Louis Public Schools. The city school district provided the building, letting KIPP use its money for instruction. In return, test score data from KIPP students will be counted in the SLPS accreditation tally.
After months of renovation at the school at 955 Arcade Ave., KIPP held a formal ribbon-cutting ceremony Friday morning. It featured politicians, like U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Mayor Francis Slay and state Treasurer Clint Zweifel. But once the time came to wield the scissors, attention fell on incoming kindergartners Jaden Brooks and Ayden Abu, who happens to be the son of the school’s founding principal, Tiara Abu.
Beaming throughout the ceremony, the principal told the crowd that the true victory will be helping to get the highest possible performance out of every child.
“Every single kid in this country is required to go to school,” Abu said. “Our responsibility is that when they show up, they get the best, the best of everything.”
In an interview after the ceremony, as members of the audience began touring the newly renovated structure, Abu said the project had turned out just as she imagined it.
“I wanted a place that, when kids walk into this building, they feel invited and welcome. When they walk in, they can see learning all over the walls and they can see the possibilities for their future all over the walls.
“So it’s clean. It’s amazing. It’s exactly what I wanted it to be.”
Inspiration for college
Hanging from the ceilings of the hallways are banners from the colleges to which KIPP wants all of its students to aspire. To help them reach that goal, the KIPP system includes longer school years, longer school days and some Saturday sessions.
It also includes groups of young, eager instructors, many of them recruited from programs like Teach for America. Kelly Garrett, executive director of KIPP St. Louis, recalling that one of the character strengths for KIPPsters is “zest,” told the crowd:
“I’ve never seen the founding staff of a school this excited, this zesty.”
One of those teachers, Jina DuBose, graduated from Saint Louis University before her time at Teach for America. She praised KIPP as “an organization that is committed to helping students achieve academically.”
With that support, she said, the students at KIPP Victory will have an easier path to their goals.
“They set extremely high standards and expectations as well as character goals,” DuBose said, “and they really work with students and do everything that they need to do to make sure that the students and the communities that we serve are becoming successful.”
All of the speakers emphasized how many partners it has taken for KIPP Victory to become a reality.
Rick Sullivan, head of the Special Administrative Board that runs the city schools, said that working together with KIPP makes a lot of sense for both groups and the city as well.
“For many years,” he said, “we’ve had St. Louis public schools. For many years, we’ve had charter public schools. What we’ve done is create this charter that is part of and partner with the St. Louis public schools. I hope this is the first of many.”
In an interview, Slay said the key issue for education in the city is not who runs a school but how well it helps the students who go there.
“To me,” he said, “it doesn’t matter whether it’s a district school, a charter school or you call it something else. If it’s about quality, that’s really what counts. Quality is the magnet.”
About KIPP, he said:
“They do a good job because they really partner well with the community, they partner well in this case with the school district, and they also partner well with parents in helping kids reach their full potential.”
McCaskill said it was nice to see groups who might have been on opposite sides instead working toward cooperation and compromise — two goals, she said, that often aren’t too important in Washington.
“We’re going to have 200 young people walk through those doors,” she said, “and from day one they’re going to believe they can go to college, and they’re going to excel. That’s what this should be all about.”
To help the students realize their college dreams, Zweifel announced the establishment of $50 college savings accounts for each student at KIPP Victory, thanks to donors Bob Fox and Maxine Clark. Clark served until recently as head of the board of KIPP St. Louis.
“We know that even a small savings account can impact a child’s decision to attend college,” Zweifel said in a statement. “The investments we are making in the children of this region and our state will shape the future for all of us.”
To help get those students into the door in the first place, Juanita Norman said she worked the streets of the neighborhood to spread the word that KIPP Victory was coming.
“Any time we would be on a street,” she said, “we would ask, do you have a child, kindergarten or first grade, that would be going to school? We have a wonderful, free charter school opening up in our neighborhood, and it would be wonderful if you would go and meet Tiara Abu because she is so passionate about her profession, and the children will be gaining a lot by going to the school.
“So we really had a challenge here, but I think we met it.”