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Maplewood hopes an investment in schools will add to the city's increasing appeal

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 24, 2009 - When Vivian McBride ran for the Maplewood Richmond Heights Board of Education a decade ago, she found herself defending a decision made years earlier to pull her oldest daughter out of the district after seventh grade and send all four of her children to schools in Ladue, where her husband taught.

"The [Maplewood Richmond Heights] district wasn't a place where you could depend on getting a good education," McBride responded. "It was a dysfunctional situation. Every other week, there was a story in the paper with a new scandal. If my kids didn't go to Ladue, we were going to send them to private school."

McBride's actions hardly put her on the fringe. During the 1990s and in earlier decades, parents pulled their children out of the district in droves. By 2000, about half of the students eligible to enroll in Maplewood Richmond Heights public schools went elsewhere, said Linda Henke, the current superintendent.

"The theme was that young people would move into the area, stay there until their children became school-aged and then move west," Henke said. "This was happening a lot."

And that's for the people who decided to buy or rent in Maplewood and Richmond Heights. It's impossible to know how many families decided against moving into the two inner suburbs because of concerns about the schools.

Much like Maplewood itself, the district was going through hard times by any measure. Enrollment was one area of concern. At one time in the 1950s, the high school (which then served a larger geographic area) had roughly 1,200 students, Henke said. By 2000, it was down to 267 students. Teacher and staff reductions were common, and classroom resources were scarce. Rapid teacher turnover made continuity a challenge. In 1996, the state of Missouri took notice after the district exceeded its budget by more than a million dollars.

Meanwhile, many of the district's buildings hadn't been rehabbed in decades. Nelson Mitten, a Richmond Heights resident who was elected to the school board in 1998, said there were concerns about not only about high dropout rates and decaying structures but also the safety of students.

The picture today looks a lot different. New construction and renovated facilities are hard to miss. Henke's operating style and highly metaphorical approach to transforming the district have changed the look and feel of the schools -- and ruffled some feathers along the way.

Enrollment at Maplewood Richmond Heights High School is up to about 330 students. The largest class sizes in the district are in the early childhood center and elementary school.

Seventy-five percent of eligible students now enroll in the district -- a sign of improvement, said Henke, but also a mark that can get better. The same can be said for the district's test scores, which, while also better, continue to lag below where school officials want them.

Still, many Maplewood officials and longtime residents say the investment made in the school district is one reason the city has made a comeback over the past decade.

"It's hard for a city to develop without a school district to anchor it," Henke said. "People look to the quality of life in the community in part by examining the quality of the school district."

CHANGE AT THE TOP

Those familiar with the Maplewood Richmond Heights School District say a turning point came in 1999, when several concerned residents who wanted to see major changes (McBride among them) won spots on the school board.

Soon thereafter, the group had a major decision to make. "We were asking ourselves whether we had the financial base to have a viable school district," said Mitten, who was then board president. "We were spending a lot of money per pupil but not seeing the results. Since the state was considering calling us academically deficient, we needed to decide whether to shut down, merge or improve."

The board decided to focus on the third option. After several years of rapid superintendent turnover -- financial turmoil and allegations of misconduct doomed two district leaders in the late 1990s -- the board in 2000 hired Henke, who had been assistant superintendent of the Clayton Public Schools.

In switching jobs, Henke encountered a vastly different student population. The most recent state data  show that about 54 percent of MRHSD's students are white, 41 percent are black, 3 percent are Hispanic and 2 percent are Asian. Henke said those demographics have changed little over her tenure. More than half of the district's students qualify for free or reduced lunch at school. In Clayton, 66 percent of students are white, 22 percent black, 2 percent are Hispanic and 10 percent are Asian. Fourteen percent of students there are eligible for the lunch program.

One of Henke's first -- and most controversial -- moves was to encourage about 25 percent of the district's teachers to leave. Over a three-year period, most either were fired or left on their own, she said.

Meanwhile, dozens of Maplewood and Richmond Heights residents were lining up at school board meetings to suggest changes. Based largely upon citizen complaints that the district was spending too much money on buildings, board members voted in favor of consolidating the middle school (now with about 150 students) into the high school building, which is intended to accommodate more students than were actually enrolled.

A series of bond issues and tax increases helped pay for facility projects. The joint high school-middle school building now has refurbished hallways; a renovated, double-deck theater; a spacious library that had been once been the women's gym; and an outdoor track. There's also new technology in classrooms, including a laptop computer for each student.

The elementary school, with just under 400 students, is in a 6-year-old building that sits on land previously occupied by one of the two previous district grade schools. (Both schools shuttered and students were merged into one location.) The early childhood center is in the midst of its own renovation, which includes new classrooms and a new library that will be unveiled Aug. 12.

Jayne Jackson, who has worked in the district for nearly 20 years and is now the dean of students at MRH High School, said the physical changes are the most noticeable but not the only ones.

"Enrollment is increasing every year now, and kids are proud to be in the schools here again," Jackson said. She attributes part of that pride to recent basketball and track state titles, which are celebrated with a sign on Big Bend Boulevard.

A NEW APPROACH AND ONGOING CHALLENGES

Henke ascribes to an educational approach that is heavy on hands-on learning. One example: Students at the elementary school and early childhood center help maintain school gardens. They learn about growing local foods and eat the produce in the cafeteria.

Each school level also comes with its own metaphor. The buzz word at the elementary school, for instance, is museum. Displays around the building show off student work, and students from each grade help decide what is highlighted in the cases. There also are field trips to museums. Katie Drury, assistant principal at the elementary school, said students often play the role of docents by teaching others what they have learned.

At the early childhood center, which runs from pre-kindergarten through first grade, the theme is studio. The school follows the Reggio Emilia early education philosophy, which emphasizes group projects, open classroom spaces and a flexible curriculum that includes areas of stated student interest.

JoAnn Ford, a longtime district employee who teaches preschool, said there's a noticeable difference in the way classes run these days. "If you'd have walked into the building 15 years ago, you'd have seen very traditional rows of desks and factory learning," she said. "Now it's much more about interaction."

Henke has asked teachers to make regular home visits, which can be similar to parent-teacher conferences held at school but, she said, often have a different effect. "By sitting in their living room and asking about what goals parents have, we can build stronger partnerships," Henke said.

Ford, an MRH alumna, said it took time for her and other colleagues to adjust to the new approach, including more collaboration among faculty. But she's come around. Ford's children also went to schools in the district several decades ago, and she said "if I could rewrite history I'd send my kids now, not when they were here."

At the high school, students write a series of papers each year and work individually with English teachers. There's also a greater emphasis on preparing for college entrance tests, which more students are now taking. Over the last four years, roughly 20 percent of students each year score at or above the national ACT average.

Compared to a decade ago, Henke said more students are attending four-year colleges after graduation. Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education data from 2008 show that about 30 percent of graduates went to four-year schools and 22 percent attended two-year schools. But Henke said state data she's seen shows the overall college-going rate at more than 70 percent. She said she expects that number to be in the mid-80s for 2009.

The percentage of students achieving proficiency on state tests of communication arts and math has generally increased districtwide, but must continue to do so just to keep pace with minimum standards that are raised each year by the federal No Child Left Behind Act. In particular, Henke said she wants to see improvement in high school communication arts and middle school math, which don't meet NCLB requirements.

Henke said test scores "aren't where I want them to be yet," but that the district comes out favorably when compared to others with similar demographics.

Black students are improving in some areas but continue to score lower than their white counterparts on state tests and are slightly behind in graduation rate. Henke said closing the racial achievement gap is "our most important problem to address." Among other initiatives, the district has assembled a community committee that includes black parents who are looking at this issue, and it also has implemented a reading intervention program for students who need extra help.

Henke's supporters say they admire her interest in raising the bar for everyone. "In the past, we'd hear an administrator say that we're doing the best with the children we have," said Mitten, the school board member. "Linda has brought with her an attitude that all students can achieve."

Some also credit Henke for her ability to get students, teachers, parents, administrators and board members on board with her agenda. But her detractors say she is a polarizing figure who leaves little room for dissent.

"There's a mentality of you're either with us or against us and there's no gray area," said Mary O'Neal, a former school board member.

O'Neal, whose children attended MRH schools during her tenure on the board, also voiced academic complaints. She said her kids missed out on basic skills such as multiplication and cursive writing that took time to master in another school. The family moved away from Maplewood three years ago, when the children were in elementary school, "for personal reasons," she said.

O'Neal also said with the investments made in young teachers, including subsidizing some costs of getting advanced degrees, she would have liked to see more stay in the district long term. Henke said the school district initiated support for advanced degrees as a way of keeping staff members in the district. She added that teacher turnover as a whole has decreased during her tenure, from about 30 percent a year in 1999 to about 15 percent this year, by her count. There's more competition now for open slots, she added.

Questions about tuition reimbursement totals and other expenditures were raised in a 2004 audit conducted by the state. The auditor's office mostly faulted the district for lax bookkeeping.

Barry Greenberg, a Maplewood City Council member, said he's been encouraged by the rise in graduation rates and in the percentage of students who are going to four-year colleges.

"I believe the school is moving forward -- probably three steps forward and one step back at a time," Greenberg said. "The one step back has to do with priorities -- the way money is sometimes spent."

Greenberg said he'd like to have seen some of the funds raised for building projects go toward academic programs instead.

The economy has affected the district's budget for this academic year, which Henke said is roughly equal to last year's amount. Revenue increased by less than $40,000 in the most recent fiscal year, Henke said. The board has postponed programs, such as offering Chinese, and hasn't been able to hire additional high school teachers.

THE PUBLIC'S PERCEPTION

One of the Maplewood Richmond Heights School District's stated operational goals is to "implement programs to improve public perception" of the schools. One such program that has given the district positive coverage is Joe's Place, which provides housing and guidance to would-be homeless students in the district.

Joe's Place, which has been in operation for three years, is a collaborative effort between school officials and local churches. The school board owns the house and a nonprofit entity that was established pays for the operations. This fall, three high school students and one middle school student will live there.

Henke said Joe's Place has helped shape the public's view of the district, which she said is "improving but still needs work."

David J. Cerven, a small business owner and recently elected Maplewood City Council member who moved there six years ago, said young people have come to the area over the last several years in part because of a growing trust in the school district.

"What I'm hearing is that people are happy with the growth but are not just satisfied with the status quo," Cerven said. "There's been improvement, but where we are isn't good enough. There are still a lot of people moving in and sending kids to private and parochial schools."

Henke said she has heard otherwise -- that people are moving into the area because of the schools. And then there are cases that aren't so clear cut.

Consider the circumstances of Lori Allen and family, who moved to Maplewood more than four years ago. The Allen's daughter attends a private school, but not for the reason many would assume. Allen said the family had already decided on a private school in Webster Groves and wanted to move into a nearby neighborhood. She was sold on Maplewood because of its "affordability, diversity of residents and neighborhood feel."

"It's not the case that I didn't consider the [Maplewood Richmond Heights] school good enough," Allen said. "In fact, the reason I moved to Maplewood and not to the city [of St. Louis] is that my daughter was starting kindergarten, and if the private school didn't work out I felt comfortable sending her to the public school."

Patricia Trout, a longtime business owner and secretary of the Maplewood Community Betterment Foundation, said she doesn't regret sending her children to the public schools in the 1960s and '70s. Her husband graduated from the high school and she was in the schools from kindergarten on.

Trout said that even though the district went through rough times, she's noticed vast improvements in recent years.

"I can understand why people would be upset with the turn the schools took, but they're great now, and it's unbelievable that people wouldn't support it," Trout said. "It bothers me that people who fuss about the school district haven't even been there to see what's happened."

Ellen Bern, a University City resident who was the first executive director of the Maplewood Chamber of Commerce in the early 1980s, said she has brought members of U City's school board to speak with Maplewood officials about the changes made.

"The district has been totally transformed," she said. "They did reform on the inside, and now they are a shining example."

McBride, the former school board member, said if she were a parent of young children again she'd feel more comfortable keeping them in the district.

"I look at it differently now because it's a different place," she said.

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