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Rockwood schools expect more from students - and have found a way to get it

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 2, 2009 - At one time in his career, Scott Spurgeon's field of dreams was baseball. He was so good at catching and hitting balls at Northwest Missouri State University that the Houston Astros drafted him as a first baseman.

An injury cut short that career. So nowadays he goes to bat for another cause: the 22,000 kids in the Rockwood School District. As the district's associate superintendent for curriculum, Spurgeon hopes to keep the district at the top of its academic game.

Thanks to its students' performance on the MAP performance tests, Rockwood, the largest school district in St. Louis County, ranks at the top of the state's 524 school districts. It shows up repeatedly on the list of top 10 schools, based on the percentage of students scoring at the proficient and advanced levels on various grades on the MAP, according to the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

There are no secrets to Rockwood's success, says Spurgeon who is relatively new to Rockwood but has been an educator for 18 years. He earned his doctorate from Saint Louis University.

Spurgeon gives credit to the district's curriculum and to educators who have built caring relationships with students.

"I couldn't be more proud of our staff," he says. "Our curriculum is not only in line with Missouri grade-level expectations. In fact, it's accelerated because we not only expect our students to master the contents but to go beyond that."

Spurgeon says success in Rockwood is part of a collective effort. Call it team work. He says, "We're about getting people actively involved in the education process. It isn't easy to improve learning. It's a complicated process. But when everyone is working together in the same direction, it makes the process less complex."

Beyond the classroom, the process includes collaboration among teachers and administrators, who sit around a table as frequently as once a week to discuss teaching methods and lessons -- and how teachers can do a better job.

"Kids come to the classroom with different learning styles, so we have to make adjustments and do whatever it takes, based on student needs," says Spurgeon. "You have to meet them where they are when they come into the system. There's no alternative."

Rockwood serves a diverse student population, including about 2,000 kids in the voluntary interdistrict transfer program. While skin color may change, the district says its standards don't.

"Our philosophy has been that issues surrounding where a child is from don't affect how we deliver instructions because standards don't change," Spurgeon says. "Our job as teachers and educators is to provide an opportunity for every child to grow and master the standards."

DESE's report singled out Rockwood for high student performance at three high schools -- Eureka, Lafayette and Marquette -- along with several elementary and middle schools.

The district has programs up and down the academic ladder to assist students, from the gifted ready for accelerated class work to those who might benefit from alternative or remedial programs. Like some other suburban districts, Rockwood also makes a special effort to accommodate children enrolled in its interdistrict program.

Rockwood will continue enrolling students who live in St. Louis at least until the 2013-14 school year.

Approaches to helping these youngsters excel include a recently organized Saturday school program and an ongoing tutoring program, held in about a dozen St. Louis churches and staffed by students from Washington University, Saint Louis University and the University of Missouri at St. Louis.

The graduation rates of white students is over 96 percent; for blacks it's about 92 percent, about double the rate of black children in St. Louis Public Schools. While Rockwood students in general perform well on the MAP, the scores of white students tend to outstrip those of blacks. Even so, African-American children enrolled in Rockwood score higher on the MAP than those who attend St. Louis Public Schools.

"The (achievement) gap is serious in every school district," says Terry Harris, area supervisor of the interdistrict program. "But we have significant programs in place and it's just a matter of time before the gap goes away."

Regarding student achievement across the board, Spurgeon says, "We have a get-it-done attitude because we don't have a choice. It's our responsibility."

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.

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