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Government, Politics & Issues

Debate continues over school choice, deseg program carries on

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 29, 2011 - Don Senti remembers when the first group of St. Louis students in the area's voluntary school desegregation program got off the bus at Parkway South Junior High School, where he was principal.

"When the program started," said Senti, who went on to become superintendent of the Parkway and Clayton schools, "we had 1,500 kids, and every single one of them was white. I don't think we had any Indians, and we certainly did not have any Hispanics.

"I remember watching those kids from the city and being amazed at how brave they were -- or probably how brave their mothers were, to send them out there. It was a life-changing thing for me. I have worked ever since then to make the program work."

As education debates continue to swirl around issues like charter schools, vouchers and whether suburban schools will have to take as many transfer students from St. Louis as want to come, what has become known as the VICC program -- the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corporation -- continues to bring city students to the county, and vice versa.

At one time, recalls Senti, Parkway alone had 3,600 students in the program -- a number that would have made it the 10th largest school district in Missouri. When the federal court accepted a settlement in 1999 of the discrimination case that started the voluntary transfers -- a settlement that included 10 more years of busing -- many people thought the program would wither away.

Instead, says David Glaser, who is now chief executive of the choice corporation, it remains strong. From a peak of nearly 13,500 students going from the city to districts in St. Louis County in the 1993-94 school year -- and another 1,128 county students attending magnet schools in the city -- Glaser presides over a plan that now sees 5,500 city students going to the county and 100 going the other way.

Not as many districts take part in the plan as were signed up at the peak. But the demand remains healthy. Glaser notes that the 530 new students placed this year were among 3,000 who applied.

"Many business people would love to be in that position," he added, "where the demand for their product far exceeds the available supply."

In 2007, districts in the plan approved a five-year extension, through the 2013-14 school year, and already there is talk among participants about extending the program beyond that. Senti, who now heads the Cooperating School Districts organization, is surprised but pleased that districts want to keep the program strong.

"Nobody thought this would be going at this time," he said, "especially once the charter school program started. We thought kids would just go there. But our waiting list is huge. The demand is still very high."

Court-ordered but Voluntary

The program grew out of a lawsuit filed in 1972 by Minnie Liddell on behalf of her son Craton, who was being shipped off to his fourth school in seven years. A federal appeals court eventually ruled that the city schools and the state of Missouri had engaged in illegal racial discrimination. In time, the federal court ruling led to a plan affecting the city schools and all 23 districts in the county.

It called for city students to be bused to the county until the districts' minority enrollment reached an acceptable percentage, generally around 25 percent; for county students to come into the city to attend newly formed magnet schools, specializing in various curriculum areas; and for the other city schools to receive support to raise the level of achievement for students who remained.

Senti said that compared with similar plans in other cities, the St. Louis plan was "by far the most successful, just by the numbers. And it's all voluntary. School districts don't have to take students anymore, and kids don't have to leave."

Once the settlement was reached in 1999, allowing county districts to drop out of the plan, some did, but many remain. That fact hasn't always broken through to the public consciousness, Glaser said.

"I understand why there is confusion," he explained during an interview at the VICC offices in Clayton. "Back in 1999, the program was going to go for 10 more years, and that would be 2009. But it really wasn't going to 'end'; all it meant was that there would be no more placements of students from the city into the county, and all the kids who were in the system at the time would be in it until they graduated."

The five-year extension, Glaser added, shows that many districts support not only the concept of the plan -- to have students learn in a more diverse, less segregated atmosphere -- but the practical aspects as well.

The Enrollment Process

With the enrollment period for the 2012-13 school year coming up in January, Glaser spelled out the process that he expects thousands of families to follow.

Admissions given priority, he said, go first to students who had applied in a prior year or those with siblings currently enrolled. After that, enrollment is determined based on the order the applications are received.

To make the transportation process efficient, so that students spend as few minutes on the road as possible, the city is divided into four zones, with parts of the city matched with certain school districts in St. Louis County. Then, VICC asks the county districts still taking new students how many spaces they expect to have, by grade level and attendance area.

Families may request up to three districts that they would like their children to attend. If no vacancies are available in those districts when their application is processed, they will be notified that a fourth district has an opening and asked whether that school is acceptable.

Transportation has always been one of the thornier issues of the plan; the sight of one or two students riding to school in a taxi was sure to get some taxpayers riled up. But Glaser explained that planning the transportation routes is a matter of efficiency and cost. Current average ride time is 52 minutes, he said.

"What causes a bus ride to take longer is how many times the bus has to stop," he said. "If it can stop three or four times in one area, pick up all the students, then drive to its destination, it is going to be more efficient than if we have to make three stops in the north district, three in the central part and three more in the south district."

He said that 96 percent of the students ride buses to school. About the remaining 4 percent who take a cab, Glaser added:

"Financially, if there are not enough kids to justify sending a bus, two cabs are cheaper than one bus. One bus is cheaper than three cabs. We'd prefer for the kids to be on buses. A school bus is the safest form of transportation there is."

Students who apply and survive the initial process still face hurdles to acceptance into the city-county program, Glaser said. A student's behavior may become a factor; grades may also come into play.

"If the students have a record of being disruptive in the classroom," he said, "then we are going to have some concerns about placing them in a county district. If a principal is resistant to taking a child, we probably will go along with that principal's decision. If a kid goes in with two strikes against him, it's not an ideal situation.

"Where it becomes maybe a little bit of a gray area is if a student has some behavior concerns but is doing fairly well academically. Then we might make a judgment call and say the child may be successful in a county district. Normally, grades don't come into play unless it's a borderline call. If we have four students who have applied and one spot available, we want to place the student who is most likely to be successful."

He said maybe 100 students each year get winnowed out of the process because of behavior.

As far as the costs go, Glaser said the state aid that helps pay for a student's education follows that child wherever he or she is enrolled. Currently the payment is either $7,000 or the actual cost of the education in the county district that accepts the student, whichever is less.

"We're down to very few districts that are not spending $7,000 a year," he said, "so most get that amount."

He also noted that money that used to go the St. Louis Public Schools for each student that the system lost to the county -- the so-called phantom student payments -- ended with the 1999 settlement.

Changing Demographics Bring New Problems

The original goals of the desegregation program included raising the percentage of African-American students in St. Louis County districts to a certain level, generally around 25 percent.

At first, that meant including most of the county's 23 school districts because few of them had that high a percentage of resident black students. But in recent years, as population shifts have occurred, some districts with that high a share of black students in some parts of their districts are still taking city students because the percentage isn't that high in the district as a whole.

Glaser said Parkway, Rockwood and Mehlville are the only ones that take students from multiple attendance zones in the city. And the northern part of the Parkway district already has a resident population around the target percentage of the program.

Senti pointed out that Craig elementary school in Parkway, next door to his office at Cooperating School Districts, actually has a majority minority situation, where minorities make up more than 50 percent of the enrollment. He said of the 142 African-American students enrolled there, all but one live in the school's attendance area.

Glaser said this kind of demographic question has only arisen in the last 10 years or so for the districts that are affected, and he can understand why questions sometimes arise about participation in the program.

"This is not something we've addressed previously," he said, "but intuitively it makes sense that if a portion of your district is already pretty well integrated, you should bring in kids to parts of the district that aren't."

New Opportunities

All of those numbers, though, and the different factors that go into making admission and other decisions, sometimes tend to mask what the real intentions and real effects of the program have been -- to make sure students are learning in a diverse atmosphere that will mirror the world they will graduate into.

For state Rep. Tishaura Jones, D-St. Louis, who traveled to the Affton district in south St. Louis County from fifth grade through high school -- and had to get up as early as 5:30 every morning some years to be on time for her 90-minute bus ride each way -- the experience was well worth it.

"I definitely gained a sense of diversity in the world around me and the ability to relate to all types of people," said Jones, who with fellow Rep. Clem Smith, D-St. Louis, made the move from the deseg program to the General Assembly. "I'm not saying that I wouldn't have gotten that if I stayed in St. Louis Public Schools, but now I have friends from all walks of life, some who look like me and some who don't."

Not all of her fellow students were friendly. Jones recalls that she "only had problems with one student in my classroom at the time. He was really rude and racist and called me the N-word and told me someone would burn a cross on my lawn."

After she told her father -- former St. Louis Comptroller Virvus Jones -- and the principal, the boy was suspended, and she managed to avoid him for the rest of her time in Affton, Jones said. For the most part, though, she remembers teachers as being "very welcoming."

Her experiences earlier in the deseg program are mirrored today by Kellie Nalls, a senior at Parkway South High School, who has attended schools in three of the district's attendance areas from elementary school until now. She has a 25-minute commute from her home in south St. Louis to the school in southwest St. Louis County, and she says fitting in has been no problem for her.

That doesn't mean that the high school is a model of integration, but the segregation may not be what most people think.

"I think Parkway generally is segregated," Kellie said. "All the Asians sit with each other, all the 4.0 students sit with each other, all the athletes sit with each other. You don't really notice it until you try to figure out what people have in common. It's pretty much the fact that you're friends with people you have always been in classes with."

Having spent so much time in an atmosphere that is intentionally integrated, Kellie says it's a little ironic that she plans to attend Xavier University of Louisiana next year, a historically black college. But she says that going to Parkway schools helped create that opportunity for her.

"I'm not afraid of being in a different atmosphere," she said. "It will be different, because I've always been the minority, so not being the minority next year will be a bit of a change for me. But I'm always up for changes. I think Parkway has opened the window to a lot of schools that I think would not have looked at me.

"I've always had friends of different races. I've always felt comfortable at Parkway. Sometimes, someone will say something out of line, a joke that will go too far or something like that. I kind of expected that as a senior, so I kind of have tough skin against things like that."

Kellie's family is well represented in the desegregation program; her brother graduated last May, and her sister is in the sixth grade. But for Jones, even though going to a county school helped her, she does not want the same experience for her son, Aden, who will be starting kindergarten next year. Instead, she is looking into charter schools in the city.

"I want him to be close to home," Jones said. "I wouldn't trade my education for the world, and Affton is a great district. But I want him to be closer to home. I want to be able to get to him in five minutes if I need to. I don't think any parents would argue with me."

Why Districts Stay Involved

That time and distance consideration has no doubt often into the decisions of families trying to decide whether their children should go to school in the city or the county.

Another factor, articulated at one point by former Mayor Freeman Bosley Jr. but no doubt weighed by many others as well, is whether the city is hurt when some of its brightest young residents leave their neighborhoods five days a week to attend school -- a brain drain across the city-county line.

Glaser at VICC said he doesn't hear the concern about transporting the best and brightest of the city's resident student population as much as he used to, but he acknowledged it can be a concern.

"We've done some studies," he said. "It's hard to know this exactly, but we are trying to see if we are skimming the cream off the top. Are we taking the most academically talented students and bringing them into the county? I've never seen evidence that that is the case. We do see kids who, when they initially come into the program, have test scores that are lower and over time increase."

What he does see, though, is that African-American students who end up in the deseg program usually have parents who are taking initiative for their children's education.

"But you could also have parents who are very involved and very committed to their local school," he added, "and it's easier to be involved because the school is closer to home. It's fair to say it does require some parent initiative to get into the program. The bottom line is that county schools make an extra effort to get parents involved in the school, and that's a good thing, but it may be more difficult once students get into the program."

Distance considerations are one thing; financial considerations are another. With the Turner case working its way slowly through the courts -- and possible fixes debated in the legislature -- the issue of city students attending any county school, not just those that are still in the deseg program, may be more pressing than ever before.

St. Louis County residents, whether they are school officials or regular taxpayers, have often questioned whether the program is beneficial for the suburban districts. From a purely financial point of view, says Senti, the deal is a good one.

"It makes economic sense for a school district to take kids," he said, noting the $7,000 payment that comes along with each student. "It also makes social sense to have a good choice program. We thought when we had the settlement agreement if we could get six districts to stay for three years, it would be an amazing thing. Every district stayed in except Ladue, which dropped out immediately.

"It's a combination of people feeling like integration is a good thing, the good will of it, and it making economic sense because it's like an empty seat on an airplane. Mehlville, which is about as far south as you can get, was going to get out of the program, but then they figured out, if we don't keep the program, we're going to have to do a tax increase. So they figured, hmmm, maybe we won't drop out of the program after all."

Glaser, whose background in education was on the financial side before he became head of the deseg program, sees the points that both sides make.

"Just because you put 10 VICC students in a district," he said, "it's not going to really affect any of its costs. As long as you are covering the marginal cost of educating those children, you're not harming that local district.

"I understand where board members are coming from. They are locally elected, and they have to be responsible to the people who voted for them, so they will always have a bias toward their local community, and rightfully so. Some boards are completely supportive and see the benefits of having a more diverse student body, but you're never going to have 100 percent support."

In the end, he added, the program has to be run so that it's best for three separate groups of students: those going from the city to the county, those who attend county districts already and students who remain in city schools.

"All of them are impacted by the program," he said. "If things are not done in an orderly, organized way, you run the risk of adversely affecting all three of them. That's not what you want. You want to positively affect all three."

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