All the middle school students at River Roads Lutheran School easily fit inside Yvonne Boyd’s classroom. Sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students follow Boyd through daily lessons.
When Boyd has a free period, she walks across the hall to the principal’s office to handle paperwork and respond to messages. She’s also the school’s top administrator.
River Roads is celebrating its 150th year of education, though it nearly didn’t reach this milestone, staving off a brush with closure.
There were 162 students at River Roads in the Baden neighborhood in far north St. Louis when Boyd started teaching here in 2000. She rose to principal a few years later.
“And every year we fight to keep our doors open, every year,” she said. “We have 76 students and I’ll tell you, I don’t care if we have 56 students — this school needs to stay open.”
River Roads opened in 1869 when Baden was populated by German immigrants. The neighboring Ebenezer Lutheran Church stopped giving River Roads any funding in 2002 (though it rents out the school building for $1).
The financial break between church and school, along with changing populations and demographics, has led to the closure of many Lutheran schools in St. Louis. River Roads is now one of two remaining Lutheran schools in the city.
“It is a school with character; it’s a school with culture; it’s a school that cares,” Boyd said. “That’s the school right here.”
But in January 2017, Boyd announced to families the school didn’t have enough money to make it through the rest of the school year.
“That was the closest; that right there in our face that, 'OK, it may be really happening,'” Boyd said.
The school launched a fundraising campaign and was able to raise enough to squeak by for the rest of the year.
It’s not shiny, but it has heart
Norquise Cooper was looking for a new school for her two boys because they were struggling in their public school after a family tragedy. She found River Roads school and enrolled them last year.
“First impressions: Little school, big heart,” she said.
“When you look at the school at a glimpse, it’s not shiny, it doesn’t have bells and whistles; so if that’s what you’re looking for, it’s not the right place for you,” Cooper said.
But her kids are shown a lot of love, she added. And the school’s heart is its leader, Boyd, who “eats, sleeps River Roads,” according to Cooper.
Boyd is not the only staff member taking on many roles at the school. Harold Williams started teaching third and fourth grade this year but has also become the gym teacher and athletic director and coach of most sports. His jovial lessons echo through the halls.
“Our resources are not plenty, but that does not stop our teachers to actually work their heart out to bring the best to our kids,” Williams said.
River Roads isn’t able to pay its tiny staff much. The school bought used computers off Lutheran High School North. Students go on fields trips to the zoo or science center, where admission is free. They still use the church basement for lunch and weekly church service.
The students at River Roads come from throughout north city and north St. Louis County. Most get scholarships to offset the roughly $5,000 tuition.
The Baden neighborhood has seen better days. Its business district is largely shuttered, and the neighborhood’s public elementary school closed a decade ago. Yet school leaders are optimistic about recruitment and the school’s future, buoyed by celebrating its anniversary.
It does most of its recruiting through word of mouth and then not turning away any prospects who come calling, said Diann Lampe, who has been a teacher at River Roads for “20-something years” after retiring in 2012 and now works as a part-time reading instructor.
“We immediately have to let them know, ‘Yes, our doors are open; yes, we are here to proclaim God’s word,’” she said. “And we will continue to do so until God says to us, ‘Please close the doors at River Roads.’
“But until this point in time, we have not felt God has spoken to us in that way.”
Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney
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