While plenty of work is left to be done, St. Louis Public Schools has established a foothold in its effort to raise academic performance and reverse decades of sagging enrollment.
That's the big takeaway from a report by the Chicago based IFF, a nonprofit that released a similar study in 2009 when city leaders were considering the best locations for a wave of charter schools.
“Everything positive we’re trying to achieve as a city really, really relates back to the quality of education we’re able to provide,” said St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay. “Whether it’s better health, whether it's reducing crime, creating jobs, retaining and attracting businesses, these are all things that really relate back to the quality of education.”
Total enrollment in St. Louis Public and charter schools has ticked up 5 percent, according to the report, from 33,313 in 2008 to 35,166 in 2013. Most of the gains were driven by selective magnet schools and expanded pre-K enrollment. Access to better performing schools has gone up, as well. In 2013, 36 percent of students went to schools meeting state standards as compared to 18 percent in 2008.
While the findings highlight the district's progress, the report also notes that about 19,000 students don’t have access to a school meeting state accreditation standards. Most of them are in six zip codes in far north and far south areas of the city.
“We have plenty of work left to do,” said Superintendent Kelvin Adams. “Because every single kid must have an option, a high-quality option, for education.”
The report recommends targeting areas with a wide gap between the number of students compared to “performing seats,” or spaces in schools classified as either accredited or accredited with distinction under statewide standards. The report recommends homing in on these areas when opening new charters and focusing school improvement efforts.
It’s an idea that dovetails with the district’s plan to funnel added resources toward 19 schools with chronically low performance.
“It simply confirms what we’ve been talking about and what we need to do in those areas of the city that don’t have high-quality options,” Adams said.
Of the 19 schools set to receive added resources next school year, 16 are within sections of the city with the greatest need for quality schools, according to the report. Adams said poverty can’t be used as an excuse for low performance, but it also can’t be ignored when it comes to academic performance. About 98 percent of students in school targeted by the district’s plan to ramp up academic performance qualify for free and reduced lunch.
“These are really tough environments,” Adams said.
The report also recommends closing low-performing schools and exploring partnerships like the one between the district and charter school operator KIPP. This fall, KIPP will open a new kindergarten through first grade school in north St. Louis, and it plans to have six schools in St. Louis five years from now.
The report from IFF was released on the same day as a separate report from SLPS that also compared where the district stood in 2008 versus 2013.
The report lists specific areas where the district expanded ties to the community, including increasing the number of SLPS volunteers from 1,500 in 2008 to 4,300 in 2013.
Average daily attendance has improved, going up from 89 percent in 2008 to 94 percent in 2013. Last year, though, the state began a new measure for attendance called 90-90. The bar is now set at having 90 percent of students in school 90 percent or more of the time. A little fewer than 80 percent of all students met this new standard during the 2012-13 school year. In some schools the rate was much lower. For example, at Roosevelt High School – which has a high student mobility rate – about half of students missed at least three and a half weeks of class time during the 2012-13 school year.
The report also lays out how the district used $96.1 million remaining from a 2011 settlement with the plaintiffs in a 1972 case over the district's segregation policies to pay down its deficit and expand programs.
Specific uses of the money listed in the report include:
- $6.9 million for professional development for teachers and administrators
- $7.5 million for transportation to magnet schools.
- $23 million for early childhood education programs.
- $56 million for reducing the district’s deficit.
The district is now operating with a balanced budget for the fourth consecutive year and has an unrestricted surplus of $19.7 million, according to the report.
The graduation rate in the district has steadily climbed, up from 56 percent in 2008 to 68 percent in 2013. At the same time, that number is more than 17 percentage points lower than the state graduation rate of 85.7 percent and 24 percentage points below the district's goal under MSIP5 of 92 percent.
St. Louis Public Schools fared poorly last year under the new standards set by MSIP5, earning only 34.5 out of its possible 140 points, or 24.6 percent. But the report listed positive results associated with exposure to pre-K, citing improved test scores in third and fourth graders who got a jump start on the academic careers compare to those who did not finish pre-K programs.
Asked about SLPS’s performance under the second year of MSIP5 standards, Adams was tight lipped but hinted optimistically.
“I think you’ll see a different story,” Adams said.