St. Louis Public Schools' plan to turn around its lowest performing schools is starting to take root, but plenty of work remains. That was the message delivered to the district’s Special Administrative Board (SAB) by Superintendent Kelvin Adams on Wednesday evening.
“I’d say it’s about a seven or eight out of 10,” Adams said, when asked how schools are progressing. “Right now it’s preliminary. We’re only about five months into this.”
The district’s “Transformation Plan”— implemented this past fall -- divides schools into four tiers, with the lowest performing school placed into the “superintendent zone.” The district is funneling $6.4 million into those schools to pay for things social workers, counselors, nurses and tutoring. The schools have longer days and teachers get extra training.
Vashon still struggling
While Adams rattled off the schools showing progress, he pointed to Vashon and Sumner high schools as schools where academic performance is lagging.
“Those two schools… just looking at the data on attendance, have not achieved at the level we want them to achieve,” Adams said.
The long-struggling Vashon is no stranger to turn-around efforts. Last September, about 100 students walked out, demanding better textbooks and more full-time teachers. In June 2012, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited the school to promote federal School Improvement Grants (SIG) for improving academics there and at other struggling schools across the country. Two years later, Vashon earned only 28 percent on its state report card for the 2013-14 school year.
Last night, Adams proposed shifting the school’s academic focus toward international finance. He said district officials would reach out to Wells Fargo Advisors, which already has a relationship with the school, to advise administrators developing a new curriculum. Selective enrollment criteria could also be put in place, and Adams said he’s asked the school’s alumni groups for support.
“They were not negative about it,” Adams said. “They just want to make sure that the school is going to remain open. They want a high-quality school, the kind of school they went to. And it’s not that way right now.”
Inside the 'superintendent zone'
Overall, Adams asked the SAB to allow him to tweak the district’s school improvement plan so that the 18 “superintendent zone” schools would be a subset of a larger group called “Support Schools.” The new group would consist of 27 schools that are falling short of school performance measures. Only “superintendent zone” schools would receive extra staffing through the district. But central office staff would give all of the schools in the larger group extra attention.
“They get a candid description of what’s going on in the building,” said Lisa Brown, principal for Ashland Elementary. The pre-Kindergarten through sixth-grade school located in the Penrose neighborhood of north St. Louis is currently in the “superintendent zone.”
As with many low-performing city schools, the Ashland's student body is predominantly poor and transient. More than 50 percent of the students who started the year at Ashland will not be there when the school year ends. And to step up classroom performance, Brown said, the school is focusing on the basics like reaching out to community members to improve attendance.
“When families feel good, they feel they are in a safe environment, they tend to send kids to school,” Brown said.
The school’s staff is also using classroom technology to keep a close eye on kids progress, and this week students are taking tests in advance of the state assessments. Students are assigned iPads, and when test results comes in, teachers can individualize follow-up lesson plans based on each student’s strengths and weaknesses.
“Right now, we’re looking pretty good,” Brown said of Ashland’s progress this school year.
The SAB must approve the update to the “Transformation Plan,” which is part the proposed budget for the 2015-16 school year. Adams is asking for a vote as soon as the next board meeting on March 12 and he said dates for community meetings on the plan would be announced in the coming days.
A plan for empty schools
Adams also unveiled a plan to gather ideas on what should be done with the district’s more than 30 vacant buildings left empty by decades of declining enrollment. Some buildings are too dangerous for tours, others have been stripped clean of copper and are magnets for crime, Adams said.
“We simply want to get more people involved in making decisions around buildings,” Adams said.
To do that, Adams is proposing putting together a Technical Advisory Committee made up of architects, builders, developers, preservations and finance professionals.
The plan would be rolled out in four phases.
- Site tours, March through May
- Community forums, June through August
- Developing and action plan, August through September
- Implementing an action plan, October
The district would also revamp a section of its website so that it lists more information about vacant school buildings.
The district has sold 42 schools since 2003, but that still leaves 35 buildings that are empty. Of those 35 currently vacant schools, two buildings will become new homes for existing district-run schools.
- Environmental Science and Mathematics Middle School, which is currently operating out of leased space, will move into the former L'Ouverture Middle School building.
- Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience will move into the Wyman School building.
While Adams’ overall plan for repurposing costly and dangerous vacant schools is pending SAB approval, last night the board approved giving KIPP access to the now empty Pruitt School, located near the long-demolished Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex.
The move is part of a continuing partnership between the district and KIPP. This school year, KIPP Victory Academy opened its doors under an agreement with the district that gave the Kindergarten through first grade school to access to a vacant SLPS school building. In return, the district would be able to count students test scores toward its state report cards.
“Every kid in St. Louis deserves a great public school education,” said Kelly Garrett, executive director of KIPP St. Louis. “We want to be a part of that solution. We couldn’t be more excited…to see the district and charter school sector collaborating to get better outcomes for kids.”
Garrett said they haven't decided yet how they'll use the Pruitt School and it may house one of the two new KIPP schools that will open next school year. He anticipated making an announcement next month.
The SAB approved spending about $2.2 million for the renovation. Under the deal, KIPP will reimburse almost all of those costs, Adams said.
Meanwhile, this week lawmakers in Jefferson City approved a measure that would require school districts to sell unused buildings to charter school operators at a fair market value. State Rep. David Wood, R-Versailles, sponsored the measure as an amendment to his bill on student transfers. Under the amendment, which was approved by the House Emerging Issues in Education Committee, the deed for a building would return to a district if a charter school ceased operations.