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Equity in Education: Doable or a Dream?

Principal Cameron Coleman
Carolina Hidalgo
St. Louis Public Radio
Adams Elementary Principal Cameron Coleman leads a quick math lesson for students sent to his office for talking in the hallway during a class bathroom-break. Coleman told the students he has high standards for them before sending them back to class. The school has spent the past several months focusing on alternatives to using out-of-school suspensions as a discipline method.

ON THIS EPISODE … We go back to school for a follow-up to our investigative show earlier this season about school suspensions.

And we plant ourselves in Adams Elementary, a neighborhood school in south St. Louis, that is on a serious mission: equitable education and opportunities for all of its 300 students.

This simple and lofty-sounding goal is familiar to many educators, but hard to actually achieve.

So what does it really take to do this?

...In a place like St. Louis

...In a moment when there’s a national conversation about racial disparities

...When angst about suspensions and school-to-prison pipelines are high

...And when many in the education system -- teachers, principals and sometimes parents -- feel ignored, disrespected, overwhelmed and under-resourced?

What you’ll hear:

  • An update on St. Louis Public Schools’ new ban on out-of-school suspensions for students in preschool through second grade. The ban was announced last spring, shortly after we published an episode showing black children make up 17 percent of kindergarten through third grade students in Missouri, but received almost 70 percent of all out-of-school suspensions in the school year that ended in 2015.
  • How one school—Adams Elementary—is approaching education by focusing intensely on equity, regardless of a student’s skin color or socioeconomic status.
  • And how a new pilot program, Shut it Down, is trying to help Adams Elementary and six other elementary schools in St. Louis end the so-called “school to prison pipeline.”

How did your Missouri school district handle early grade suspensions in 2015? Check our database

St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams says suspensions were down in the district for all grades through the first four weeks of the school year.

Normally there would have been 400 suspensions during that time frame, he said.

This year, Adams said, there were about 100.

And true to the ban, no out-of-school suspensions have been given to students in preschool through second grade, he said.

It forced us as a district to acknowledge that we had a problem. Secondly, it forced me as a superintendent to find resources ....
Kelvin Adams, St. Louis Public Schools

Thanks in part to the passage of a tax increase last spring, the district has added 23 new support staff members.

A few weeks ago, the U.S. Dept. of Education announced it was giving St. Louis, Baltimore and Chicago millions in federal money to do more mental health work in schools, with $1.4 million going to SLPS.

Nicole Conaway, a former principal at Mann Elementary in Tower Grove South, is now monitoring that schools are providing adequate learning environments for students serving in school suspensions.

Resources are only part of the equation, said Norm White, a criminologist at Saint Louis University.

White created the Shut it Down project.

And while the immediate goal is to help the seven participating elementary schools reduce suspensions, White says ultimately he’s trying to get teachers to take into consideration the dual pressures of racial inequality and poverty.

You know, they have a hard job. They have kids who are experiencing life in ways that we can’t understand.
Norm White, SLU criminologist

White’s program has focused on giving staff in the seven elementary schools training on trauma, restorative justice and data analysis.

It’s also helping the schools build what White calls “resource quilts”– meaning layers of support inside the building as well as partnerships with community organizations to support families.

“You have kids sitting in a classroom, trying to study for a test that's going to make the determination of whether their school district or their school gets funding or how they get treated," White said. "And they're thinking about life. ‘Where do I sleep tonight? Do I eat tonight?’ That's a reality we have to know.”

Kameel Stanley co-hosted and co-produced the We Live Here podcast—covering race, class, power, and poverty in the St. Louis Region—from 2015 to 2018.
Tim Lloyd was a founding host of We Live Here from 2015 to 2018 and was the Senior Producer of On Demand and Content Partnerships until Spring of 2020.

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