Gentrification Puts Maplewood Richmond Heights Schools' Diversity To The Test
The two-story house Laine Schenkelberg purchased on Maplewood’s Marietta Avenue in 2009 was supposed to be a starter home. A decade later, she shares the house with her husband, Eric, and their four children ages 7 months to 9 years, along with a cat.
When it was time for their oldest, Xavier, to begin school, the couple toured private options, but nothing felt quite right. Then a friend persuaded them to check out the Early Childhood Center, run by the Maplewood Richmond Heights School District.
“And it was surreal. They had an organic farm, they had chickens, they had these little houses in the playground,” Laine said. “The campus was phenomenal.”
Enrolling Xavier was easy. When the time came to enrolling his younger siblings in preschool, there was a waitlist.
Despite a crowded home and in-demand preschool, the Schenkelbergs aren’t interested in leaving a neighborhood that's filled with Xavier’s classmates and is within walking distance of their favorite brewery and coffee shop.
“We actually considered moving a few years ago because we're running out of space with all of these children, and we've decided we like Maplewood so much that we're just going to put an addition on this house and stay where we are,” Eric said.
Families all over Maplewood are making those same decisions. They’re buying houses, putting on additions, and sending their kids to the public schools. Enrollment has been growing annually the past 14 years after a decade of declining numbers. The growth follows a steady improvement in the district’s academics since the early 2000s.
Now as MRH becomes a “destination school district,” its success is starting to change the face of its enrollment and present challenges for adapting to growth.
The student population of MRH is up 40% from where it was two decades ago, as sustained growth has ended shrinking class sizes. There are now about 1,500 students filling desks, hallways and cafeterias in the district’s three buildings.
In the early 1990s, about 60% of MRH students were white and 38% black. Unlike in other St. Louis-area school districts, white families did not wholesale flee the district as academics slipped. But as the district’s reputation has improved, the white population has ricocheted from 54% in 2008 to 63% this year.
“It's always been a dichotomous space. I felt that that really encompassed the world the way America should be, where things are naturally integrated,” said Superintendent Karen Hall, who’s led the district for eight years. “That resonated with me.”
The district now has wealthier families. In 2008, the 529 students in MRH who qualified for free or reduced lunch — a metric for measuring poverty in schools — made up more than half the district.
This year, the 507 students eligible are only 36% of the student body. The portion of students in the early grade levels considered low income is 11 percentage points lower than in the high school grades.
The residential neighborhoods of Maplewood offer an explanation. Home prices in Maplewood have risen to be nearly $120,000 higher than they were a decade ago, an increase outpacing the rest of the region. City officials say building permit applications are pouring in.
“It has been one of the most rapidly climbing areas within that Midtown section,” said Pam Schneider, a Realtor with Berkshire Hathaway. “And with the correction of that school system, Maplewood Richmond Heights, what that's resulted in is the popularity of the neighborhood and the school district are now coming together.”
With rising home values and more businesses comes more funding for education.
“It's hard, because I am grateful that people are moving here,” Hall said. “I will never ever say that I'm unhappy about that, ever.”
It has allowed her to hire great teachers and expand extracurriculars. The same revitalization is also straining some longtime residents.
“It’s a unique position to be in where you’re growing and you have to be concerned,” she said. “But you know, it's gentrification on one side of the coin, and on the other side of the coin is urban renewal, you know, depending upon who you talk to, and what they think about.”
Linda Robinson graduated from MRH High School in 1987. When it was time for her daughter to attend school, Robinson sent her to magnet schools in St. Louis and then, when the desegregation program was altered, to private school. Eventually, Alesia Foster, now 28, transferred to MRH High School.
Now Robinson’s granddaughter — Foster’s daughter — is a sixth grader in the district. The three of them share a two-bedroom apartment behind the Schlafly Brewery with boxes stacked in corners of the living room.
“I'm like, that's fine. Because at the end of the day, my granddaughter is going to Maplewood school district, that's what matters,” Robinson said.
Her daughter is hoping to move out next year, but Robinson says it’ll be a challenge to find an affordable place.
“Even though we have nice apartments in Maplewood and Richmond Heights, a two-bedroom starts off at $1,200 a month,” she said. “So, OK, you know, do I take a chance and try to afford this every month so my child could be in the school district? Or what do I do?”
Yvonne McCray is weighing that decision. She’s lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Maplewood for 12 years.
Now, as her 8-year-old daughter Gabrielle bugs her for her own room “for her toys,” McCray knows that if they move into a two-bedroom apartment in Maplewood, the rent is “definitely going to skyrocket.”
“I’m not in a position to pay more,” she said.
McCray is a member of the Parent-Teacher Organization for the Early Childhood Center. She said the community strongly supports the district, and her daughter is flourishing in school. She likes that her daughter, who is African American, attends school in a community that values diversity.
But “that ratio is dying out,” McCray said.
When Gabrielle completes second grade at the ECC this year, she will move on to the elementary school. However, McCray said they may instead transition out of Maplewood to a more affordable community.
“If we don't do anything about it, people won't be able to afford to live here,” Superintendent Hall said.
The district operates a home for students who are homeless but is limited in what it can do to change housing prices or construct affordable housing units.
Its main avenue, said school board Vice President Francis Chmelir, is through advocacy. He said the district has tried to become a resource for families who don’t have stable housing to help them stay in the community. And they take those stories and data to city councils in Maplewood and Richmond Heights.
“That's a strength of ours. And I think something that we have to continue to maintain and pay attention to,” he said.
Addressing the changing community is a priority, city councilors in Maplewood said, some of whom have children in the district.
The development renaissance in Maplewood has been controversial. Box stores replaced hundreds of homes in low-income and historically African American parts of the district. Hadley Township in Richmond Heights, center of an African American community for more than a century, was largely wiped out for a Menards.
Homes on the western end of Maplewood were razed for a Lowe’s and Walmart. City leaders defended the use of eminent domain, saying the homes were run-down and purchased above market value.
“If we didn't destroy those housing units and build, at the time, big-box retail, the city couldn't survive financially,” said Marty Corcoran, Maplewood’s city manager from 1983 until his retirement earlier this fall.
Part of the problem, part of the solution
Maplewood Richmond Heights’ leadership is grappling with how to maintain the equity it prides itself on. Hall implemented progressive education policies such as restorative justice and protections for LGBT students, which are attracting more socially aware — and often wealthier — parents.
“I've never experienced parents that are moving into a space that they want that experience for their child. They want diversity. They know there is that difference in income, in race. They're choosing to do that,” Hall said. “So with that mentality, it's not what you would typically think of.”
The Schenkelbergs may have first come to MRH schools for the chickens and playgrounds, but the inclusive policies and commitment to diversity have kept them here.
“I think that we are mindful that we could be part of the problem or we could use that, you know, position that we have in order to advocate for equity and inclusion,” Laine said, “and make sure that we are doing everything that we can to help maintain equity throughout the district.”
That includes advocating for affordable housing and fundraising through the PTO. Laine is also on the district’s facilities committee, looking into how to make more space for growing classes.
The district is considering using a house it owns next to the Early Childhood Center as additional instructional space. The cafeteria at the middle and high school campus becomes crowded during breakfast.
A bond measure is likely to be on the ballot this spring. It’ll ask whether residents approve funding to expand the middle and high school campus to make more room for the additional students coming up through the elementary grades.
Those future high school students include Kate Bethel’s 9-year-old son. Bethel’s older siblings are products of MRH, but she went to magnet schools in St. Louis through the desegregation program as her hometown district struggled to maintain its state accreditation.
“I love seeing it going this direction when I spent a majority of my life watching it in a different direction,” Bethel said.
As an adult, she took a bet on downtown Maplewood by opening Maven, a beauty products shop on Manchester Avenue, while living in St. Louis. Then as a parent, she finished retracing her family roots back when it was time to enroll her son in school, moving into a house in Maplewood.
“It's been great,” she said, “aside from, you know, it's getting crowded.”
Correction: Francis Chmelir's position on the school board was incorrect in a previous version. He is the vice president.
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