This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 25, 2009 -The St. Louis Public School system is accustomed to getting much of the attention, good and bad, each year when a new school year begins. But that's changing as more innovative charter schools open their doors. The latest one is Confluence Preparatory Academy downtown.
This new charter high school has set up shop appropriately enough across the street from Central Library. The building the school occupies is the old TWA Reservation Center, 310 North 15th Street.
Plenty of dignitaries were on hand to help cut the ribbon, but one noticeably absent was state Sen. Jeff Smith, one of the founders of Confluence Academy schools. Confluence's board chair, Craig Glover, says Smith resigned from the board Friday. Earlier today Smith resigned his state Senate seat and pleaded guilty to two counts of obstruction of justice in connection with a federal investigation into the 2004 Democratic primary race for U.S. Congress, which Smith lost to Russ Carnahan.
Confluence's other founder, Susan Uchitelle, called the new school a major step in the growth of the charter school movement in St. Louis. She says, "Our students can become involved in downtown businesses and internships and residencies and interact with the whole downtown community."
She called the building "spectacular." It's a spacious, airy place, with some classrooms enclosed in glass, an interior courtyard next to the cafeteria, room for seminars, a weight room, and lots of technology, including computers and Smart boards. About 250 students -- 9th and 10th graders -- are enrolled at the school.
The school's sponsor is the Missouri University of Science and Technology. Harvest Collier, a chemistry professor and vice provost for undergraduate studies at the university, says Confluence students will have access to summer programs on the Rolla campus as well as tutoring, counseling and other programs during the rest of the year. He says exposing youngsters to science and technology can make a difference in their academic success.
Mayor Francis Slay praised the Rolla campus as well as Edison Schools, which will manage Confluence. Slay added that St. Louis will be "infused with energy that young people bring to downtown."
His aide for school issues, Robbyn Wahby, called the opening an "exciting time for St. Louis for innovation and education."
James Buford, head of the St. Louis Urban League, said being on Confluence's board "is exciting because they're pioneers. Confluence serves over 3,000 students on its four campuses. The fact that we're downtown shows that we're a very growing entity."
Ron Jackson, a former St. Louis School Board member and executive director of St. Louis 4 Kids, also praised the idea of choice, saying the opening of charter schools is good for competition. "It puts pressure on the public school system to compete for children and for improving the academic environment."
Even so, the other three Confluence schools -- two on the North Side and one on the South Side -- didn't make adequate progress on the Missouri Assessment Program test. Glover, Confluence's board chair, acknowledged that was an area the schools needed to work on.
"We didn't make the gains we were hoping," he said. "But nobody made excellent gains this year. One problem is that the test is very rigorous."
Confluence adds to the momentum of charters opening in St. Louis. The Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) opened its first school in St. Louis this fall. So did the St. Louis Language Immersion Schools. In addition, the fall saw the opening of a new school that targets dropouts.