The resolution of issues like school closings typically starts with some type of branding campaign complete with, slogans, comforting language which conveys compassion and leadership, as well as the closures being labeled as the soundest financial decision. With respect to Saint Louis Public Schools, school closure has started no different with a branding campaign of “consolidation,” including a cute symbol, “right size” language, complete with the assurance that closures will get us in line with other school districts in the state based on enrollment.
Some people are even saying that school closures (sorry about that, I mean school consolidations) will generate a shower of resources from savings. Then, those savings could be used to pay for things such as services critically needed by our students, as well as salary increases for SLPS employees.
This approach sounds good, but fails to even consider having a conversation about our school system leading the way to helping St. Louis become the best city possible. We need to start a conversation about the role SLPS can play in neighborhood rebuilding and stabilization.
Ever wonder why SLPS buildings tower over the other buildings in the neighborhoods in which they are located? The most obvious answer is that they had to be large enough to hold the students needing to enroll. That is only partly true, since a review of history reveals that some of the most world-famous architects were brought in to design powerful symbols of the community’s commitment to the importance to education.
I believe that present circumstances provide us with the opportunity to reaffirm that commitment. This is sorely needed, given that many of our schools are located in areas where the school is the last vestige of community in low-income neighborhoods that have become blighted due in part to neglect from business leaders and city and state politicians.
Kelvin Adams, superintendent of SLPS, recently made a comparison between the average enrollment of buildings in SLPS and other school districts. But let us not forget that the City of St. Louis experienced nearly 200 murders in 2019, yet none of the school districts cited in his comparisons have ever experience that level of violence and trauma. It is fair to say that our students are like any other students; they are a microcosm of the communities from which they come. Therefore, it is not a stretch of the imagination to conclude that a significant number of our students are casualties of that violence and are suffering from severe trauma. That must be considered along with measurements like building capacity when we decide what schools close or stay open. We must consider the safety of the students, not to mention the life or death of the communities where schools are located.
I am old enough to remember the Pruitt-Igoe experience, where buildings filled to capacity with those experiencing violence, a sense of hopelessness and suffering from severe trauma ended in the complete destruction of that community. There is a better way. Let’s began a conversation about how the schools slated to be closed can become the hubs of innovation, neighborhood rebuilding and neighborhood stabilization. This is a call to city residents, parents, students, SPLS employees, politicians and community activists. Come out to town hall meetings and let the conversation begin.
Ray Cummings is a product of Saint Louis Public Schools, 30-year veteran teacher in SLPS, political director of the American Federation of Teachers St. Louis Local 420 for 15 years, and a 50-year community activist.