Poverty critically impacts our region’s students, said St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams.
“When families are in trauma and in poverty, it severely limits their opportunities,” Adams said. “I don’t think there is an achievement gap. I think there is an opportunity gap. If we could open up the doors so that every single kid would get the same opportunity, I truly believe that every kid would be successful.”
Poverty and crime in his students’ neighborhoods are two issues that Adams feels most passionate about. It should not be normal for children to have lost both parents through murder, or who have significant members of their family locked up for the rest of their lives, he said.
“It should not be normal for us to have kids abused,” Adams said. “It almost seems that we accept the abnormalcy, if you will, of the kind of trauma that kids face every day. Those are things that keep me up at night.”
Since Adams arrived in the St. Louis Public Schools as superintendent in 2008, the school district has earned full accreditation and is on the best financial ground in 50 years. The district has also launched a pilot program to develop trauma-informed teaching and discipline practices within its classrooms – which addresses the issues of poverty and crime that are close to Adams’ heart.
St. Louis Public Schools, the largest district in Missouri, was struggling to stay afloat in 2007, with $40 million in debt and low test scores. In March of that year, the state school board revoked the district’s accreditation for not meeting state standards and took control.
When the Missouri State Board of Education removed authority from the locally elected St. Louis Board of Education, it created a three-member Special Administrative Board (SAB) to manage the district. The old school board still meets on a monthly basis, but it does not have any power in terms of finance and policy.
Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the SAB, said years of mismanagement and inconsistent leadership was the main reason for the district’s financial and academic struggles.
“The district was severely impacted by constant turnover of board members and superintendents,” Sullivan said. “Prior to Dr. Adams, seven superintendents had come and gone in a five-year period, so it’s easy to see why many things weren’t managed properly and how operational and academic problems occurred as a result.”
Sullivan said the SAB’s main goal when they started was getting students reading on an age-appropriate level.
“Accreditation was a step along the way, and many people will identify that as Dr. Adams’ crowning achievement,” Sullivan said. “But I think there is a lot more to be said about what he’s done. There’s a terrific foundation that he’s put in place at St. Louis Public Schools.”
That foundation includes strong principals and teachers in the schools, financial stability and overwhelming community support, Sullivan said.
Early childhood programs have also expanded since Adams’ arrival. He worked with the SAB to create more preschool classrooms and, as a result, the number of children enrolled in early education increased from about 1,400 in 2007 to about 2,300 currently. Since 2007, attendance is up from 89 to 92 percent overall, and from 80 to 90 percent at some of the district’s 15 high schools.
On September 23, Adams will receive the 2017 Stellar Performer in Education Award at the St. Louis American Foundation’s Salute to Excellence in Education Scholarship and Awards Gala. The proceeds from the event, held at the America’s Center, benefit the Foundation, which distributed more than $700,000 in minority scholarships and grants last year.
“He came into the district at a really tough time, and he did something I think is so admirable,” said Becky James-Hatter, president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri. “He just went to work. He didn’t get into fights. He didn’t make this political. I can think of no one more deserving of this award because he took on the biggest challenge that faces this region and he did it with grace and success.”
Up from New Orleans
Adams spent his early years in New Orleans living with his grandparents.
“My mother and father had a lot of kids – there were six of us, and they were having a difficult time raising all of us,” Adams said. “They asked my grandparents to take a couple kids, and they did.”
He was about 4 when he started living with his grandparents.
“My grandparents were incredibility influential in the kind of character I have,” he said.
Adams graduated from Northeast Louisiana University in his home state in 1978, earned his masters of arts degree in elementary education from Ohio’s Xavier University in 1991, and received his doctorate in educational leadership in administration from the University of New Orleans in 2005.
After earning his bachelor’s degree, he went to work in a traditional neighborhood school “that you might find in North City,” he said.
“It was there that I learned how important it is to have the right person in front of that classroom,” he said.
Although he was continually asked to become a principal, he refused. After 10 years, he finally caved, he said. He soon became principal of the largest middle school and then the largest high school in New Orleans.
After Hurricane Katrina, he spent a brief stint as the executive director of human resources for St. Louis Public Schools from 2006 to 2007. Then he returned to New Orleans to serve as the chief of staff for the state-appointed Recovery School District, which had been created in 2003 to rescue under-performing schools, before returning to SLPS as superintendent in 2008.
“I’ve never looked at what I do as a job,” Adams said. “I enjoy coming to work every day. When it’s no longer fun, then you stop. It’s still fun today.”
On the personal side, he’s most proud of his family and especially his wife, Karen Collins-Adams, who has supported him throughout his time as superintendent. His children – Jeremiah, Jessica and Lyndsay – have also been strong supporters, he said.
On the professional side, he said he is most proud that “we’ve been able to continue to do the work at a high level without a level of controversy.”
He believes he has earned the support of the community’s businesses, students, parents, faculty and staff.
“What happens as a result of that, whether that’s high achievement or balanced budget, means nothing if you don’t have people supporting you in terms of doing this work.”
The 2017 Salute to Excellence in Education Gala will be held at 6 p.m. Saturday, September 23, 2017 at the America's Center Ballroom, following a reception at 5 p.m. Tickets are on sale now. Individual tickets are $85 each/$850 table, and VIP/Corporate tickets are $1,500 table. For more information or to purchase tickets, click here or call 314-533-8000.