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Superintendent Adams' lesson plan for better schools

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 16, 2009 - After months of devoting time to the controversies involved in closing some St. Louis public schools, Superintendent Kelvin Adams turned his attention today to less volatile but still far-reaching proposals to retrain teachers and improve student achievement.

Adams intends to present his ideas during tonight's meeting of the Special Administrative Board. The centerpiece proposal is to hire academic or teaching coaches, to be called teaching-learning specialists. At a cost of $10.4 million, this is the most expensive of the plans Adams is announcing tonight.

The coaching system Adams is proposing is, he says, different and stronger than the literacy coaches of William Roberti's tenure. (Roberti headed the controversial turnaround company hired to improve the St. Louis public schools.)

The new coaches "will cover all areas of learning -- how to teach, how to deliver instruction in the classroom. They are going to help teachers become better teachers, not just in reading. They will have the flexibility to do that, but they will work with teachers in math, science and other areas. This is something that we did in New Orleans and it worked."

Adams served as an administrator in New Orleans before being hired by the SAB to take over the city school system.

Adams also wants to set up a K-9 school to accommodate an estimated 400 to 500 students who don't speak English.

"Many of them now drop out," Adams says. "Many times, they don't do well academically. They get lost in the shuffle. This way they will be able to get the help they need."

He envisions the school offering wraparound services, such as assistance from social workers to work with parents of these students so they, too, get whatever help they might need.

In one other unusual proposal, Adams promises to give the community a say in the appointment of about a dozen new principals. A pool of candidates would be screened by a panel of parents, community residents, teachers and officials from the central office. Then it would submit three names to Adams who would interview all three before making a recommendation to the SAB.

Adams also promises to find the money to get the district's lead abatement program up and running by summer, noting that the SAB approved a recommendation to spend $5 million to rid 25 buildings of lead. He says the buildings would be off limits for summer school.

"We're going to find the money to do this," he says. "We made a commitment to do it. We're going to explore several avenues, stimulus dollars, and we're going to get it done. It's a priority for us."

The superintendent also is proposing to ease graduation requirements by allowing students to take fewer math and science courses, in line with state requirements for earning diplomas. The motive, he says, is to help the district improve its graduation rate.

City school students currently take four units of science and four of math to graduate. Adams would reduce the requirement to three units each of math and science -- the state requirement. The other units would be taken in fine arts or practical arts. Adams adds that this is the requirement in most districts across Missouri.

Peter Downs, the appointed board president, raised questions about this issue even as he praised many of the proposals from Adams.

"I'm not so much interested in how much math and science the students take as I am in whether they are learning. Both math and science are required of those who seek jobs as mechanics and builders."

He points to a study showing that students from the school system end up taking remedial math (and English) once they enroll at St. Louis Community College.

"That's the real issue the district needs to address," Downs says.

Still, he gives Adams credit but adds that the "devil is in the details. These proposals are fine, but how and whether they get implemented is the question."

Adams says he hopes the SAB decides before the end of the month whether to approve his proposals.

One of Adams' ideas that is certain to revive bad memories calls for hiring a company called School Turnaround to help improve the district's 16 lowest performing schools. Roberti's corporate group was billed as a "turnaround team." When told that the term has bad connotations in St. Louis, Adams smiled and said, "Somebody told me that." He added, however, that the School Turaround's program focuses "strictly on academics. It has nothing to do with money. It won't affect anybody's budget or salaries, but will focus on improving the 16 lowest performing schools over the next two years."

The firm would be paid $1.6 million for its work.

Adams also promises to set up:

  • meaningful after-school programs, with adequate supervision, to make sure learning takes place;
  • a serious curriculum-based partnership between five city schools and institutions in the Zoo-Museum District;
  • a firmer partnership with churches, both to provide tutoring and to link families to agencies when facing stressful times.

It's unclear whether the Zoo-Museum proposal would cost money, but churches would be paid $393,000 for delivering their services.
So far, Adams has addressed the school closings and academics. The third issue he promises to address before the end of the year is the budget. By the end of the school term in 2010, Adams says he hopes to wipe out the deficit, which is now about $36 million, and present the district with a balanced budget.

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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