One day Karen I. Hall, superintendent of Maplewood-Richmond Heights School District, was looking at her son’s class picture at MRH Elementary School. She saw that 50 percent of his class is African-American.
“And I thought that is a wonderful opportunity to grow up with that 50/50 split, because I’ve never had that,” said Hall, who grew up in the northern section of Webster Groves.
It’s been about a year since Hall became the district’s superintendent. The district has 1,088 students and 34 percent are African-American, according to state statistics. Hall said the students are diverse in race as well as socio-economic status. However, about 10 percent of faculty members are people of color.
“It’s always been a priority to hire people of color, so our young people will have that role model in the district,” Hall said. “I know all the school districts are trying to make that a priority.”
The district has a natural diversity in its student population stemming from the community, and teachers try to highlight that in their lesson plans, she said.
“We support that by integrating into our curriculum social justice issues, dealing with issues of race and things of that nature,” she said. “We’ve had social-justice training with those integrations in the curriculum. When we hire teachers, we also talk about that. It’s a natural flow.”
The district’s dropout rate is less than one percent. Hall said their size helps them catch struggling students before they become dropouts.
The district also established a nonprofit program six years ago called Joe’s Place, which is a house for homeless boys in the district. Of the 20 boys who have gone through the program, all of them have gone onto college or the military, and 99 percent of them were African-American.
“Because we are so small we’re able to develop real authentic relationships with all of our students,” Hall said. “And when you are talking about students that may be on the radar for not graduating, we can specifically wrap around that student and their family.”
Hall came to Maplewood-Richmond Heights almost five years ago from the Pattonville School District, where she served as principal. Hall replaced the now-retired Linda Henke, who spent 12 years taking a district that was about to lose its full accreditation to becoming a district that has earned the highest points possible – 14 points – on the state’s annual performance report three times in a row.
Thirteen years ago, the district was struggling. At that time, teachers and community members said they wanted different and more innovative curriculum. Hall feels that they’ve received it.
“Our teachers write the curriculum,” she said. “They are very strong in the area of pedagogy, and we support them with that.”
The programming is also unique because it focuses on sustainability and technology. Hall feels her role is to ensure educational equity, excellence and provide strong structures. The district’s parent and community engagement has also been critical to its transformation.
“Everyone loves the programming that we have and our approach to educating young people,” she said, “and I just want to ensure that it’s sustained.”
Hall said she is from a family of many educators, and she has worked in education for her entire adult career.
“It seemed like a natural choice for me,” she said. “I’ve had many wonderful role models.”