On October 31st, the author of Mayor Slay’s blog wrote about student performance in the St. Louis Public Schools, focusing on black students.
What really caught my attention in the Slay Blog entry was the author’s claim that SLPS high school students tend to perform more poorly than their younger counterparts because they are “veterans of past administrations,” meaning past superintendents, past school boards, and perhaps even past mayors. The post is even titled “The Past Haunts Some SLPS Students.” This sounds a little strange to me.
For about seven months this year, I worked with SLPS students of all ages as the Homework Helper at the Central Library. Whenever I would ask the kids what they would change to make their schools better, if they could, the answers were never anything like “Oh, my school used to be bad, but now it’s great, no worries. I had hard times in elementary school but now everything is fine!” Their complaints were more immediate: a broken heating system making one student’s high school unbearably hot all day every day; school food that was so bad as to frequently make students ill*; countless stories of rampant student violence escalating within the schools; teachers who did not respect the students at all. And this is just what I’ve heard from the kids--someone I know who works at Roosevelt High School told me that last school year, there was a significant outbreak of tuberculosis at Roosevelt. These words do not depict students attending perfect schools who are burnt out on learning from earlier experience; rather, these students are suffering from very basic, major problems right now. Their daily experience at school still endangers their health, and sometimes even their lives. Talk about barriers to achievement!
SLPS high schools being worse than SLPS elementary and middle schools is nothing new, despite what the Slay Blog post implies. For my whole life, I’ve watched families I know start fretting when their lifelong SLPS student hits seventh or eighth grade, because that means high school is coming, and these parents know that SLPS high schools are significantly worse than any of the K-8 schools are. My own family moved to the Chicago suburbs from St. Louis in 1997, just as I was nearing the end of seventh grade at Gateway Middle School. My dad found a new, better-paying job in Chicago, but a large part of the reason we left was that my parents had studied and studied all of the SLPS high schools, and didn’t like anything that they heard. (Trust me, they did thorough research. It was this same care that first drove my mom to camp out overnight on the lawn of an SLPS building when I was five in order to get me and my sister into magnet schools.) All through 1997 and for several years after that, I remember my mother frequently repeating “The St. Louis Schools know what to do with kids in elementary school, and then they kind of know what to do with them in middle school, but by high school they have no idea.” I reiterate: This happened in 1997. SLPS high school kids having a harder time in school than younger SLPS students is not a new phenomenon.
I also really don’t like the solution that the Slay Blog’s explanation of the problem suggests. If the kids really are doing badly because of poor school conditions in the past, brought on by past administrations, then the implied solution seems to be that it’s not “our” fault and there’s nothing that the current superintendent, school board, or mayor can do about it. The very statement that it’s because they are “veterans of past administrations” seems to carry with it shrugging and throwing one’s hands up in the air. But this attitude is exactly the problem that has plagued SLPS high school students for so long! People in the SLPS administration have been giving up on high school kids for years and years, and after reading this blog entry, it seems that the official word is that the mayor gives up on them, too.
This attitude is absolutely not acceptable. If our high school students are doing worse than everyone else, we should be giving them extra attention, not turning our backs on them. SLPS high school students are the next generation of citizens and workers in St. Louis. They are the near-immediate future of our city. Do we want a city full of people who’ve gotten the education and attention they need, or a city full of people who are used to civic authority dismissing and neglecting them? How can we expect gang violence in St. Louis to reduce at all if gang recruiters care about our teenagers, but the SLPS doesn’t? In a country where one out of three black men will be incarcerated in their lifetimes, you’d think that there would be much greater attention given to giving black teenagers a decent education that offers them more opportunity in the future.
The mayor’s blog can spin it any way they like, but the reality is that formerly successful SLPS students starting to struggle when they hit SLPS high schools is nothing new. It’s not something that’s going to disappear several years from now when current grade school students (veterans of this administration) hit high school, especially if Slay’s official opinion is simply that it ain’t his fault.
* Their complaints about just how bad the food is are particularly poignant when you consider a statistic that the author of Slay’s blog cited in this very post: “...almost 35,000 SLPS students – 86 percent of the total — qualify for free or reduced price lunches.” The literature for The Urban Studio, a new youth-oriented nonprofit opening a block from my house in Old North St. Louis, states that 100% of students at Webster Middle School received free or reduced-price lunches last year. These kids are relying on school food for a large part of their daily nutrition. That’s a lot of kids who have to eat the miserable stuff every single weekday!