Board tables Sumner decision until March
At a St. Louis Public Schools Board of Education meeting Tuesday night, a motion was passed to close seven schools out of an initial list of 11 proposed by Superintendent Kelvin Adams as part of a consolidation plan.
The seven schools now slated for closure are Clay, Dunbar, Farragut and Ford elementaries; Fanning Middle School; Cleveland Naval Jr. ROTC, and Northwest High School. Carnahan High is to be converted to a middle school, and Cleveland’s ROTC program will be moved to another school.
These changes will go into effect at the end of this school year. They were based on analysis by an outside consulting group, Emerging Wisdom, as well as analysis of enrollment data and building capacities and conditions by Adams’ team.
The vote was initially slated for mid-December, but was postponed due to community outcry. Since then, Adams said, he has participated in “some 20 meetings with nonprofits, alumni organizations, other organizations, and elected officials.” This “opportunity to pause,” he added, “was incredibly important.”
The issue, as Adams put it, is “school saturation:” too many school buildings, and not enough students. SLPS has closed 47 district schools and 15 charter schools since 2003. The district currently operates 68 buildings, many of which house fewer than 200 students.
This plan, Adams said, will redirect money toward better extracurriculars and AP classes, and make it so that multiple schools no longer have to share the same school nurses and counselors.
Three schools which were part of Adams’ first proposal were, after debate by the Board, at least temporarily, removed from the list of schools to be closed.
Hickey and Moore elementary schools were taken off the list entirely.
Sumner High, which has received a particularly high level of public support since the plan to close it was introduced, has been granted a one-month reprieve.
The case of Sumner is to be discussed further, as alumni groups and institutions such as nearby Harris-Stowe State University rally around it.
Sumner, which was founded in 1875, is generally recognized as the first African-American high school west of the Mississippi. Due to that specific historical value, Corey Bradford, president of Harris-Stowe, said to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he wants to renew the university’s relationship with the school.
Despite the school’s storied past, though, it is like the other schools on the list in that enrollment is much lower than it once was decades ago.
This year, fewer than 200 students are enrolled at Sumner. Per a statistic cited repeatedly by Adams during the board meeting, Sumner is not the only school facing this problem: 34% of the students zoned for the 11 schools discussed actually attended those schools, most opting for charter, school-choice or private-school options.
About 21,000 students are enrolled in SLPS in pre-K through 12th grade in the 2020-21 school year, down from a peak of more than 115,000 in the late 1960s.
The version of the closure amendment that passed Tuesday came with restrictions. It requested that the St. Louis Board of Aldermen pass a resolution declaring a moratorium on any new school construction within the city limits until a comprehensive plan for the district is established.
This rule would, in particular, affect charters, as many of these schools have been built quickly and frequently in the district in recent years, now comprising about a third of student enrollment.
Other cities have previously taken similar measures: Huntington Park, California, for example, declared a one-year moratorium on charter school construction in 2016. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, made the same move this year.
There are currently 35 charter schools enrolling SLPS students, managed by 16 groups. These schools enroll about one third of public school students in St. Louis.
Like traditional public schools, they are publicly funded, but they are managed by outside groups and can draw students from anywhere in the district. Critics assert that this means that they weaken the student population of neighborhood schools.
The amendment also included an item requesting “movement to develop a city-wide plan for schools with the next mayor that must be in place by the fall of 2021.”
This plan would have to address the decades-long disinvestment issues that contributed to the conditions for school closures in the first place.
Board member Donna Jones, who visited every school up for closure, said that the city’s government must do more for their schools.
“I was so disappointed in many of the buildings … they were clean, but filled with old, cracked furniture that needed to be replaced back in 1960. It’s criminal the way they have ... allocated money away from our school system. If my children were still young, I would be so ashamed that I would not want them to go to these schools.”
Jones called on the next mayor, who will be elected in April, to focus more on the school system.
Board member Adam Layne agreed. “Anytime an election comes up, anytime something big is happening in the city of St. Louis .. education is put on the back burner, as if we don’t have any schools in St. Louis.”
Some of the buildings slated for closure may be retained by the district, according to a news release. Others may be leased or put on the market for sale. No staff layoffs are anticipated.
Dorothy Rohde-Collins, president of the Board of Education, agreed that this moment comes from disinvestment in the district. “But if we do not close schools, our children are going to suffer. We are not going to be able to provide them with the things that they deserve.”