When the Ferguson-Florissant Board of Education weighed a plan to redraw boundaries and consolidate the district’s footprint this fall, residents in Berkeley heard a familiar threat in the undertow: a further washing away of their community identity and erosion of the city’s population.
Ferguson-Florissant School District plans to close two elementary schools — one of which is in Berkeley — and transform the high school Berkeley teenagers attend into a selective magnet school.
The move left many Berkeley residents wondering how their north St. Louis County community can continue to attract people to its neighborhoods when there are so few schools in them.
But school district officials contend the plan is a major step toward improving education that will make the entire district a more attractive place to live.
No one will have heard of us
The basement walls of Calvin Usery’s home are covered in posters. Medals and trophies line shelves and fill empty fish tanks. A thousand awards, he estimates, won by just one of his two daughters; many while she was a track star at McCluer South-Berkeley High School.
He contributed his own awards from his time at the old Berkeley High School, where his son also ran. Usery, 54, grew up in Berkeley but lives in Black Jack. He’s a volunteer track coach at McCluer South-Berkeley.
Now he’s afraid the memory and importance of those awards will be erased forever when McCluer South-Berkeley starts pulling in kids from across the district’s nine municipalities: Berkeley, Calverton Park, Cool Valley, Dellwood, Ferguson, Florissant, Hazelwood, Kinloch, and Normandy.
“All of that is going to be gone. No records, no nothing,” said Usery.
The Ferguson-Florissant School Board voted narrowly during an emotional October meeting to approve a redistricting plan. Under the plan, McCluer South-Berkeley will become a magnet school, a move that will send some students north to McCluer High School instead. Two elementary schools — Airport in Berkeley and Vogt in Ferguson — as well as an alternative school and the former administrative building will be shuttered.
Usery worries about losing not only school spirit but a community identity, too. He wonders why anyone would want to move to Berkeley.
“Kids can’t go to Berkeley, so they’re going to get bused way somewhere else,” he said.
Echoes of the past
Many Berkeley residents have seen sweeping changes to their school system before. A federal judge forced the predominately white Berkeley schools and black Kinloch schools to fold into Ferguson-Florissant in 1975. Most white residents fled soon after.
The construction of Interstate 170 knocked out some neighborhoods. Then in the early 2000s, St. Louis Lambert International Airport bought out even more homes and bulldozed Berkeley High School, the junior high and the Caroline school.
Ferguson and Berkeley residents later publicly squabbled over naming the building that replaced Berkeley High School in 2003. Residents in Berkeley wanted the name preserved, even though the school was being built in Ferguson. But Ferguson residents objected, not wanting to be associated with the neighboring community.
McCluer South-Berkeley was the compromise.
Listen: "St. Louis on the Air" host Don Marsh talks to St. Louis Public Radio reporters Chad Davis and Ryan Delaney about what the Ferguson-Florissant School District's redistricting plan means for Berkeley residents.
When you take the schools away
A meeting attended by a handful of residents at Berkeley City Hall one night in November centered on how to preserve public education in Berkeley.
Could they convince the school board to sponsor a charter school? What would it take to secede from Ferguson-Florissant and re-establish the Berkeley School District?
These are far-fetched ideas, motivated by a fear that the city of Berkeley won’t be able to survive with so few of schools. Next year, Berkeley will have two schools within its borders, down from the eight schools when Berkeley had its own district.
Judy-Ferguson Shaw graduated from Berkeley High School in 1969. She’s still an active member of the community and is campaign manager and treasurer of Grade A for Change, a political action committee supporting candidates for the Ferguson-Florissant school board.
“When you take the schools away, the community just seems to die, because people don’t want to move into a community where there are no schools,” Shaw said.
In the years since the merger with Ferguson-Florissant, Berkeley residents and city officials have complained about a favoritism toward northern, typically whiter, parts of the district.
They look to neighboring Kinloch, which had four schools and thousands of residents at the time of the merger. Today, its 300 residents have no schools in their city. That’s largely because the airport bought out most of the city’s homes in a noise abatement program.
Economic blow or investment?
Berkeley’s population of under 9,000 is half what it once was. As all of Ferguson-Florissant has lost students, the district has closed schools elsewhere, too.
Superintendent Joseph Davis says that these changes are necessary for the district’s future.
“What I want folks to realize is this hasn’t been an attack on Berkeley,” Davis said in an interview. “It's really about the Ferguson-Florissant School District and the fiscal responsibility that we have to make sure we have our resources in the classroom.”
Ferguson-Florissant will expand preschool options by converting some elementary school buildings into early childhood centers.
“Economic development is the best way to improve people coming to the community, and education is a big part of that. So that's what we're after,” Davis said.
But some residents see the change as an economic blow rather than investment. Lisa Willis-James has two children at McCluer South-Berkeley, one a senior and the other is a freshman.
“If you know anything about Berkeley, we’re like a family,” Willis-James said. “They’re trying to take away from our neighborhoods, what we have in our area.”
Willis-James lives near Holman Elementary in the southwest corner of Berkeley. It will become a pre-K through second-grade school. After that, kids will go to what’s presently Berkeley Middle School on the other end of the city for later grades.
Willis-James said she is already hearing of plans from parents to move out of the neighborhood.
“I believe we as a Berkeley community are going to be affected by (the loss of) tax dollars because people are going to up and leave,” she said.
Airport and Vogt schools will close after the 2018-2019 school year and McCluer South-Berkeley will reopen as a magnet school in August.
Davis said he wants to work with both his school board and Berkeley officials on how to repurpose the Airport School building.
“We have to do more bridge-building rather than tearing down,” he said.