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Granite City schools try to prepare students for a life beyond the steel mills

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 19, 2009 - "G-He, G-Hi, G-Ho, Ho, Ho. Granite City Warriors Go, Go, Go!"

If these words stir memories of cool fall evenings under the bright lights of a high school stadium where you cheered wildly for the mighty Warriors, then you must be from Granite City.

While the high school may have just the right incantation to inspire its team to take on any conference rival, school officials probably wish there were a similar chant for warding off bad economic news. The district has received more than a little of that, including the voters' defeat of a tax levy and layoffs in the steel industry, normally the town's top employer.

The district felt quite a jolt late last year when one of its main sources of tax revenue, Granite City Works of U.S. Steel, began mothballing its facilities, a move that idled more than 2,000 workers at the plant. Its future remains in limbo, and that worries Harry Briggs, superintendent of Granite City Schools.

"We find ourselves in a period of uncertainty," he says, noting that the school district gets about $3 million of its $60 million budget from the steel plant. "They haven't asked for a tax reduction, but the uncertainty is simply that they're not operating."

If that uncertainty continues or if things get worse, Briggs says the district will have to look harder elsewhere for money, such as grants and donations, "or we'd have to make some drastic cuts in our programs."

Budget cuts could create a ripple if they include layoffs since the district is the town's fifth largest employer, behind two steel plants, a regional medical facility and a food processing plant. In fact, the bottom three employers on the list have moved up a notch or two now that the steel mills are silent with nobody knowing when and whether they will run at full speed again.

Even so, Briggs remains hopeful, saying, "we're going to get through it. We're optimistic that things will turn around. (U.S.) Steel will start operating again."

Briggs is no stranger to the ups and downs of life in a town whose economic blood is based on steel. He graduated from Granite City High School in 1965, then headed for Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville. More than four decades and three degrees later, including a doctorate in education, Briggs came home two years ago to run the school district after serving as Madison County's regional superintendent for two decades.

Times Have Changed

Briggs thinks about the differences in the town of about 31,000 since the carefree days of the 1960s when kids like himself roamed the corridors of Granite City High.

"When I was a kid in Granite City, when I graduated from high school, you could walk right down to Granite City Steel and you could get a job at the mill. Those days are over. You can't do that. Of course, at the time there were also 5,000 to 6,000 people working at Granite City Steel. Now there are about 2,300."

This transformation explains why the district now watches its finances more closely. In addition, the district tries to prepare students for work in a world where blue-collar jobs, especially in the domestic steel industry, are not as plentiful as they once were.

Two years ago, the district began putting more emphasis on higher education, making sure its graduates take the right courses to enroll in college. School officials also set up what they call a career academy to put school children on the path to the kinds of jobs more likely to be available once they finish high school.

There's also more emphasis on preparing kids for work in the building trades, but that industry isn't exactly a growth segment right now of Granite City's or the region's economy.

But, still, the basic idea is for students to understand that the jobs that led their parents to economic self-sufficiency may not be there when they become breadwinners, says Ron Stern, director of secondary education. He says the district tries to drive home that point through mentoring and job shadowing to give prospective grads a better understanding of their career options.

School Tax Defeat

As if worries about the future of the steel industry weren't enough, the district suffered a major setback in February last year when voters rejected a bond issue, one of the few times voters have said no to a tax proposal. The $22 million proposal was for renovating buildings and for new construction.

Briggs blames the defeat on negative publicity that he says mischaracterized the purpose of one project. "We got caught up in a war of words over a newspaper article that viewed a major construction project at the high school as a wrestling arena," he says. "People focused on that instead of the whole bond issue."

He was referring to the $4.5 million proposal to replace a gymnasium annex built around 1960. But most of the money would have gone to repairing nearly a dozen school facilities, along with new construction costing $10 million. Some of the repairs included new roofs, windows, asbestos abatement and new bathrooms.

The outcome of the bond issue vote might have been affected by the heavy voter turnout because then-Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama was on the ballot, Briggs believes. In any case, Briggs says the district wouldn't resubmit the measure.

Student Achievement

With an enrollment of 2,300 students, the district is the second largest in Madison County, behind Edwardsville. Besides the high school, Granite City has two middle schools and seven elementary schools. White students make up 84 percent of the district, compared to 54 percent for the state. (The state of Illinois categorizes Hispanics separately from whites.)

But the district's profile matches the state's in other ways. Teachers, for example, have an average of 12.4 years of experience, which matches the statewide picture. The average teacher salary of $62,700 is a little higher than the state's average of $60,800. In spite of the higher pay, only 25 percent of Granite City teachers have graduate degrees, compared to 53 percent of teachers across Illinois.

Poor students make up about 41 percent of the district's enrollment, identical to the state's percentage. As a rule, students in lower grades in Granite City perform well on state-mandated tests. In fact, three of the district's elementary schools -- Maryville, Wilson and Niedringhaus -- were on the state's honor roll as high performing schools. This honor roll is reserved for schools where at least 50 percent of the students are poor and at least 60 percent of the students in each school pass the state's achievement tests in reading and math.

The other good news is that about 75 percent of students at each of the district's two middle schools meet or exceed state expectations on the state's achievement exams. But the high school is another matter. Only 43 percent of those kids perform well on the state's achievement tests. Stern says it's not as if the kids can't do the work.

"My suspicion is that students don't take the test seriously," he says. "The test is irrelevant to them because there are no consequences" if they score low. The test, the Prairie State Achievement Exam, is required of all high school juniors in five subjects, including math. The goal, state education officials say, is to test students for knowledge and skills that connect them to entry-level jobs and education beyond high school.

Stern hints that the state could help matters by giving students an incentive to perform well. Illinois does not require students to take end of course exams or exit exams as a condition for receiving a diploma. (Missouri doesn't have exit exams, but for the first time this spring, it required high school students to take end of course exams in place of the MAP.)

Although Granite City high school students in general don't do well on the Prairie test, Briggs points to another indicator that many students are turning out quite well. He's referring to "something in the neighborhood of $200,000 to $300,000" in scholarship money handed out during last weekend's graduation ceremony. More than 400 were in the graduating class.

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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