The current discussion on the proposed school closures hides the most fundamental truth we must address to build a school system that serves all children well: the St. Louis Public Schools are failing children, especially Black children.
The system has never served poor and Black children well, and today it is among the worst performing school systems serving Black children in America. We need to reimagine our public schools, not return to some hypothetically great past.
The experience and outcomes for Black children in the St. Louis Public Schools compared to Black children in other cities grappling with similar rates of poverty, trauma, segregation, and disinvestment are shocking.
By third grade, Black children in the St. Louis Public Schools are reading at 0.6 level, midway through kindergarten. This is after having spent the majority of the last four years of their waking hours in our schools.
In Chicago, Black children are reading at a 1.9 level in third grade, which is still behind, but more than a year ahead of children in our city.
In Newark, NJ — a city with a higher concentration of children living in poverty than St. Louis – Black children are reading at 2.9 by third grade.
Fast forward to eighth grade and Black children in the St. Louis Public Schools are only able to compute at a 4.7 level, meaning that children are learning about half a year’s worth of math each year they are in our schools.
In Chicago, Black children are performing at a 6.5 and in Newark at a 6.4 in the eighth grade. Again, still behind grade level but nearly two years ahead of children growing up in similar circumstances here in St. Louis.
Not only are Black children in the St. Louis Public Schools significantly behind their peers in other urban systems, but these gaps are widening over time.
In Chicago, Black children are learning 17% more than expected each year, catching up every year they are in the system. In St. Louis, Black children are learning less than expected each year, falling further behind each year.
These gaps are not a function of neighborhood, income, race, or family circumstance. They are the result of a failing system that has proven unable to embrace and effectively implement research-based interventions or provide even basic support to teachers.
The introduction of public-school choice 40 years ago was a remedy for families trapped in failing, segregated schools. It is not the cause of them. Public charter schools were introduced in response to families wanting alternatives that did not require a 45-minute bus ride to an often-inhospitable school in a predominantly White community, and to offer a mechanism for innovation outside of the calcified traditional system. Without charter schools in St. Louis, we would not have a public Montessori option, a language immersion option, a single-gender option, a personalized learning school, or any integrated schools.
Instead of embracing the nuance of system changes and pursuing research-backed policies to improve the education and life prospects of vulnerable children, our elected officials are using this ongoing crisis as political theater. They are passing blame and poorly written resolutions, and scapegoating the thousands of families making the rational decision to enroll their children in schools where they are more likely to receive a quality education — even as many of these officials do the same with their own children.
The good news is that we have learned a lot about how to transform school systems in the last two decades of education reform. To dramatically improve educational outcomes for all children, particularly Black children not served well by the status quo in St. Louis, our schools must:
— Systematically ensure that children attend higher performing schools and
— Move beyond the district–charter debate and seek to integrate these systems while preserving the autonomy that drives innovation.
First, this requires closing persistently failing schools and replacing them with higher performing alternatives. The problem with St. Louis’ current approach is that we close schools and children often attend a school that is just as bad, and facilities are left to deteriorate.
The systems doing this successfully partner with community organizations to engage families, with nonprofits, business and social services organizations to reimagine schools and reuse facilities, and empower community boards to choose their alternative.
Second, this means allowing quality school choice options to take precedence in underused facilities, partnering on transportation, creating a unified enrollment system, and operationalizing learning across schools. Not only will this free up tremendous public resources currently allocated toward inefficient operations but will help the system overall to learn and improve over time.
Our city, and as a consequence our region, will not thrive without ensuring that all of our children have access to an education that prepares them to participate in our 21 century economy and democracy. Let’s hope our school board embraces this moment to begin working in partnership to reimagine our schools.
Krystal Barnett is founder and CEO of Bridge 2 Hope — St. Louis, is a movement by and for parents and grandparents to build widespread awareness of the horrible way many St. Louis students are underserved by the public school system.