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Rise and shine: Shearwater High hopes to give homeless and other troubled teens a second chance

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 3, 2010 - If you planned to start a charter school for teens who are homeless or otherwise hard to track down, you'd think recruitment might be a problem.

But Stephanie Krauss, the young force behind the upcoming Shearwater High School, says finding potential students hasn't been difficult at all. It turns out they are finding her.

"I will routinely get a phone message or e-mail from some young person who somehow -- I have no idea how -- has found Shearwater on her own or his own," Krauss says. "On their own, they are reaching out to this woman they don't know."

When she asks how they found out about Shearwater and about her, Krauss says she gets a variety of answers -- a teacher, a cop, maybe just word on the street -- that all confirm to her that she's on the right track. Because, she says, for a school like Shearwater to succeed, it has to have the support and the acceptance of the community it will serve.

"People in the community have to own this process," she said. "One of our fundamental philosophical things is to know what we don't know but always know the experts who know it. Understand that we've included youth in every step of our planning process. They're not the only people in the process, but they're one of the stakeholders.

"I spoke to a young boy, 18 years old, and I said to him, 'Come on, this will be rigorous. Do you really think you'll show up?' He goes, 'You've already given me every excuse not to come, and you value the fact that I want to learn. Of course, I will come.'"

And with that kind of determination, matched with the vision that Krauss has developed, he and others like him will become shearwaters.

A SYMBOL OF RESILIENCE

A shearwater is a sea bird from Australia, hard to pick out of a crowd, capable of flying long distances but constantly on the move, with no permanent home -- what Krauss considers to be a perfect symbol for the kinds of students she wants her charter school to serve.

Scheduled to open with 75 students on Aug. 3, 2010, Shearwater says its goal is to serve "disconnected youth in the city of St. Louis -- those who are homeless, getting too old for foster care, involved in crime, or out-of-school -- with a quality education, and the chance to grow and thrive both socially and economically, so that they can experience success as students and adults."

To serve that audience, chosen by lottery from students aged 17 to 21 who live in the city, it will be open from 9 in the morning to 5 at night, 12 months a year, to simulate the workday that it expects its graduates will enter when they leave.

In the mornings, students will work in internships in what Krauss calls high-growth industries, ones oriented toward math, science and biotechnology. Afternoons will be reserved for high school instruction, with students expected to progress at least one academic year for each year they spend at Shearwater.

The school is sponsored by Saint Louis University and has won approval from the state. Krauss says a site for Shearwater still isn't final, but a campus of St. Louis Community College is a strong possibility.

On its website, and in animated conversation, Krauss talks eagerly and passionately about the processes and systems the school will have in place to make sure they will leave Shearwater "ready for college, ready for work, ready for life."

They will be engaged in a three-stage process, Krauss says -- exposure, integration and transition. They will take part in "Intensives" in areas such as financial literacy, college preparation, life skills training, civic service and technology in the workplace.

And the school will be designed so that its students can RISE for success, with a program that includes Reengagement through Instruction, Social Development and Economic Development. That last component includes giving students a financial boost with matching dollars for whatever they manage to save on their own for further education or starting their lives on the job.

All of the programs and planning are designed to combat a dropout rate in the city that is 50 percent or more. Krauss says students who are motivated to go back to school at Shearwater are young people whose lives and education were disrupted, often through no fault of their own.

"They left quickly," Krauss says, "and they left almost entirely because of life. And when they have re-engaged in an academic environment, they have thrived."

Or as the school puts it in its official mission statement:

"We view our students' developed skills of survival and resilience as needed assets for the arduous academic climb that they will make to achieve significant academic gains in a short amount of time. Shearwater staff will challenge students to realize what they already know. Positive discipline matched with consistent and ritualized culture will be keys to our success."

"Ultimately," Krauss says, "we're in the business to save kids."

She knows that process very well, firsthand.

FROM DROPOUT TO STANDOUT

Born into a suburban family in New Jersey, Stephanie Kilstein gave little indication in her early teens that she would one day be leading an effort to give promising young people a second chance to find their way in life. (Her married name is Krauss.)

With a mother who drank too much and a father who distanced himself from a chaotic situation at home, Stephanie helped take care of her three younger brothers. When the pressure became too much, she ran away, the first time at the age of 12. Though she returned periodically, she dropped out of school after the eighth grade.

Drinking, stealing and hanging out with peers who weren't exactly role models, she led a life that alarmed her father enough for him to visit a substance abuse counselor at her school. Stephanie faced a choice: a home for runaway teens in New Jersey or a rehab center in Florida. She decided to head south. She was 15.

Away from home, she thrived. She stopped drinking. At 16, she started college, At 18, she graduated cum laude with a degree in psychology. She went to Phoenix for Teach for America, she went to Malawi to help teachers of orphans and she worked with gang members in Houston. Along the way, she earned two master's degrees, including one in social work from Washington University in 2008, at the age of 22.

When the conversation is steered to how much she has accomplished at such an early age, Krauss tries to deflect questions, unwilling even to specify how old she is now except to say she is "old enough to have two graduate degrees."

What she will say, concerning the path she is on, is that her story "is a reminder for me that these are smart, capable kids who didn't choose what family they were born into. They didn't choose what life dealt them. And they're ready. They just need a model."

She fits the role well, combining a smoothly professional exterior, complete with more than a smidgen of educational jargon, with the passion that has taken her so far, so fast. Just when you may think you are talking to a typical school bureaucrat, her discreet but sparkly nose stud reminds you she is of a different generation.

As far as being someone with whom the teens she is trying to help can connect, Krauss says:

"I'm young enough that the youth still feel comfortable relating to me. I'm old enough that professionals trust the quality of my leadership."

PLANNING, NETWORKING, PUTTING IT TOGETHER

That leadership has impressed the people that Krauss has approached to help move Shearwater from a dream to a reality.

"She's an amazing person," said Steve Sanchez, assistant provost at Saint Louis University, who notes that Shearwater will be only the second charter school that the university has sponsored. "She really is a dynamic leader. Everybody seems to be blown away by her. She's remarkable.

"That said, one of the things we're very keen on is paying attention to the fact that while she's a dynamic leader, the school doesn't belong to her. Beyond that dynamic leadership is a sponsor, a need to be sure that the quality of the full board and the program is there if the leader moves on. It's really the public's school. It has to be much more than a dynamic leader."

Gary Hughey, who retired after 35 years in the Marines as a lieutenant general, knows well how Krauss' enthusiasm can be catching. After spending time as chief operating officer for the St. Louis Public Schools, then working to help the New Orleans schools regroup and rebound after Hurricane Katrina, he heard about Shearwater and was drawn to volunteer as a mentor.

"I told her, 'I can give you more than an hour of mentoring,'" Hughey recalls. "'Is there something else I can do for you?' Next thing I knew, I was chairman of the board."

Hughey and Jocelyn Strand, who directs charter schools in Missouri for the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, both mention the impressive network of support services that Krauss has assembled to undergird the academics at Shearwater.

"Shearwater has the education piece," Strand said, "but it also has the work program, including the matching savings account for the students. Typically, some of the newer charters are doing better jobs building relationships in the community than some of the earlier ones, but I have not seen one like Shearwater.

"They've reached out to organizations like the Missouri Charter Public School Association, they've worked with the mayor's office. Another thing that will make a difference is that she didn't rush the proposal. She's been working on it for several years, and it's more thought out."

Hughey agrees.

"She did a lot of research and a lot of liaison with community leaders to determine what really was needed, what was the void in St. Louis in terms of education programs for high school kids. We needed something for young men and women who were basically forced to drop out of school to deal with life issues.

"When I was chief operating officer for the St. Louis Public Schools, I had an epiphany. I told my wife I was doing more for national security for this nation than I did as an officer in the Marine Corps. The impact of what we are doing today in education is going to last for generations, whereas what we may be doing militarily in Iraq or Afghanistan, in 20 years it is going to make little difference in terms of its impact of this country."

'I WANT THINGS TO GET BETTER'

Because the school won't open until August, there aren't any Shearwater students to talk about whether the school is doing what it promises to do. But that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of youth out there who meet the student profile.

On its website, Shearwater describes Marquay, a fictional but typical teen who could take advantage of what Shearwater will have to offer.

After spending his first 16 years shuttled among relatives, homeless shelters and foster families, he leaves school and gets a job. Then he has what the site calls "big dreams" -- but realizes that he needs to have a diploma to make them come true. So he starts at Shearwater, gets an individualized program of work and education to get him started and is on the road to success.

It's impossible to tell whether that scenario will come true. But some teens whose lives have paralleled that of Marquay talked recently about how such a program could help them.

They are part of the St. Louis County Doors to Success program, meeting in Northminster Presbyterian Church in north county to study for their GED. They get together in a room decorated with inspirational posters, featuring the likes of Albert Einstein, Mother Teresa and surfer Bethany Hamilton, who lost her left arm to a shark attack but still rides the waves.

Her message: RISING ABOVE. Her quote: "Me, quit? Never."

Another poster shows a picture of President Barack Obama and the rear view of a young man whose pants are drooping to reveal his underwear, with the stern reminder: "Pull them Up. You can't move FORWARD if the world only sees your BEHIND."

In interviews and in videos on the Shearwater website, the teens talk about why their education was interrupted, and how a school like Shearwater could help give them a second chance.

"We weren't doing any learning," Cassady says. "The teachers were dumb. The math teacher was an art teacher last year, and all of a sudden he's a math teacher now. There were kids hanging out the window on the third floor."

Jarred, who looks forward to gaining a trade like plumbing to help him earn a living, says he would welcome a program that combines academics and job skills. He particularly likes the plan to match students' savings.

"I think it would be a great opportunity for anybody who actually wanted to do something with their life and move forward," he said. "Most schools today, you have teachers who don't care about a lot of students."

The videos on the website give more testimony about why Shearwater is needed.

"People think we can't make it, when we really can make it," says Sheena. "It is not all about what you can do. It's about what you want to do."

Adds Bri-Antane:

"Now, I'm trying to finish, I want to finish. Everybody else is moving around me, and I feel like I'm the only one sitting still, doing nothing.

"I had to take matters into my hands. It's me. I want things to get better."

Then she gives the tag line that others in the video echo:

"That's why I am a Shearwater."

And that's why Krauss says she started planning for a school for students not that much younger than she is.

"What is most discouraging," she said, "is that Shearwater was founded because it would be negligence not to do something. I can engage them in planning. I can say hold on. What breaks my heart is that there are not enough places to refer them to. We have to have more services for these youths."

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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