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New charter high school is at the confluence of high hopes and expectations

Confluence Prep principal John Diehl 2008
Photos provided by Confluence Academy

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: July 30, 2008 - The logo is Matisse-like in its simplicity and complexity: a crescent, a circle and a few other geometric shapes that form a human body floating in space and reaching for a star. The image was created for Confluence Academy to evoke the charter school's mission of helping kids learn to believe, achieve and reach their dreams.

Parents and students already believe in those dreams enough to make Confluence the largest K-8 charter school system in St. Louis. This support, along with grants from groups like the Walton Foundation, has paved the way for Confluence's first high school, Confluence Preparatory Academy, which opens in mid-August.

Confluence Preparatory Academy will be no ordinary urban school. Its 90 students, all 9th graders, will get personal laptop computerss, more attention in the classroom where the student-teacher ratio will be 15 to 1, access to advanced placement classes, extra minutes of class time each day, a longer school year, and a month of school work during the summer. To graduate, students will have to earn 28 credits, four more than the state's minimum.

"This school is almost like a private school that's paid for by public school money," says principal John Diehl. "We will offer no study halls, no home economics, no shop classes. This is strictly a college preparatory program."

Diehl came to Confluence after 26 years in education and holding many positions, ranging from teacher to principal to athletic director at several schools, most recently in Florida. He was attracted to Confluence, he says, because he wanted to help build a school from scratch, one offering children a first-class education for the 21st century.

The high school, which will be in a wing of Confluence's South City campus at 3112 Meramec Street, is one more symbol of the growth of charter schools in the city. Confluence's three campuses -- the other two branches are in Walnut Park and old north St. Louis -- serve roughly 2,300 kids, about a third of all students enrolled in city charter schools. The high school will be one of two charter high schools in St. Louis. The other is Lyle Academy's middle and high school at 706 North Jefferson Avenue.

Confluence opened its doors in 2003. Setting the tone for Confluence's growth since then is a 10-person board. Its first board chair was Susan Uchitelle, also a Confluence founder who formerly managed the court-ordered, city-county school transfer program.

The current chair is Craig Glover, a vice president at Grace Hill Settlement House. He says charter schools are often accused of skimming the best and the brightest students in the city school population.

Craig Glover, a vice president at Grace Hill Settlement House 2008
Credit Provided by Confluence Schools
Craig Glover

"We're not here to put St. Louis city schools out of business. I think this is a market where we can all coexist. There's also the perception that we only take the best students."

In fact, charters are open to any student who walks through the door. The fact that Confluence Preparatory Academy will offer some remedial classes is one indication that not all students who come through the door are from the top of the barrel. Moreover, Confluence's MAP test scores suggest that its students may not be performing much better overall than students in public schools. Neither group is meeting proficiency levels on the MAP, but Confluence officials point out that their students are making consistent gains each year.

Still, Confluence is one of the best run, if not the best run, charter school system in St. Louis. It has not faced squabbles like the dispute between Lyle Academy and its manager, Imagine Schools. Nor has Confluence ever been accused of administrative problems like those that caused the state to shut down Can! Academies of St. Louis earlier this year.

Confluence's three schools are managed by Edison schools and are sponsored by Missouri University of Science and Technology at Rolla. Being affiliated with Rolla helps students in many ways. Unlike some other sponsors, Rolla uses a hands-on approach. Each summer in July, some high school students from Confluence will take courses at Rolla. Those who don't will spend July in SAT and ACT preparatory classes at the high school.

Rolla also gets involved with students in lower grades, especially girls because they tend to be underrepresented in science and technology careers. Each summer, some of Confluence's 7th and 8th grade girls attend a weeklong science and technology camp called "It's A Girl Thing" at Rolla.

Another component of the Confluence program involves social development, based on the philosophy of William Jenkins, a St. Louis-based motivational speaker who conducts workshops in school districts across the country. He stresses that every child, regardless of upbringing and home circumstances, is capable of doing well in school.

"Poverty," he says, "never has been an excuse for other people. It's only become an excuse in the case of black children."

He argues that many poor children are stunted mentally because parents and teachers tend to give up hope and assume the children cannot achieve. He encourages teachers to change this mind-set and to urge parents to become more involved in the children's education. Among other things, Jenkins' program stresses success in school, character development and other qualities that Diehl, the principal, says will help groom Confluence students for leadership.

The image of a free-spirited body rising above the rest and reaching for a star is probably as good a metaphor as any to describe the student experience at Confluence. Judging from the MAP scores, attending Confluence's high school won't be a problem-free experience. But it will be one in which students will get lots of encouragement to keep striving, keep rising, partly on their own and partly through the aid of parents and teachers who will act like wind under young wings.

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