City Montessori school

Children draw at City Garden Montessori school. Demand for the school outpaces open seats 2-to-1, which means the school holds an admissions lottery. The school plans to open three new schools and increase enrollment from 276 students to 2,500 over 10 years.

A sought-after and successful charter school has plans to grow significantly in St. Louis. City Garden Montessori expects to increase enrollment tenfold over the next decade, which would make it one of the largest charter school systems in the city.

The plan would expand City Garden's current school in Botanical Heights serving children in preschool through eighth grade and add three new locations. It will also start its own teacher-training program.

“We know that City Garden offers a really unique model for families as an anti-biased, anti-racist Montessori and neighborhood school,” Executive Director Christie Huck said. “And it’s something that families across the city have expressed interest in having access to.”

If City Garden can replicate its model, it could improve the outcomes and demographics of public schools in a region where education is highly segregated and imbalanced.

The independent publicly funded school opened in the Botanical Heights neighborhood in 2008. It predominantly serves children in that neighborhood, as well as Forest Park Southeast, Shaw and Southwest Garden.

It’s one of the most racially and socio-economically diverse public schools in the city. It also consistently scores highly on state reports cards given to schools. Currently, about 40 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, and half the students are white.

The school has struggled at times to maintain that diversity, because neighborhoods around the school are quickly gentrifying. Demand for the school outpaces open seats 2-to-1, Huck said, which means the school holds an admissions lottery.

City Garden is trying to purchase its current building in order to add an expansion and begin increasing its 276-student enrollment in 2020. A new school will open each of the following three school years, according to its plan. Huck said locations have not been determined.

“As we grow, we will absolutely be thoughtful and intentional about where we situate our school communities, about how we engage with the neighborhoods and build partnerships, and make sure neighborhoods and communities would want our model there,” Huck said.

If City Garden’s student population grows to 2,500, it will become one of the three biggest charter school operators in the city, along with KIPP St. Louis and Confluence Academies. About one-third of St. Louis’ 33,500 public-school children currently attend 16 charter schools.

St. Louis’ population has been declining for decades, and Saint Louis Public Schools has hemorrhaged students, in small part to charter schools since they opened in 2001. Adams Elementary School, in Forest Park Southeast, has only 270 students. That is not low enough for the district to consider it for closure, but is much smaller than the 475 students at Mullanphy Elementary School in Shaw.

“Anytime anybody does anything in terms of how it impacts enrollment in the city, I am concerned,” said Saint Louis Superintendent Kelvin Adams regarding City Garden's plans.

Huck acknowledged her school’s growth could impact enrollment of neighborhood schools run by Saint Louis Public Schools but said their intention is not to shut down other schools. Successfully educating children in St. Louis should not be a district-versus-charter discussion, she added.

“We are all fighting over crumbs, resource-wise,” Huck said. “All of the city schools need and deserve more resources.”

Along with adding schools, City Garden plans to create its own teacher-training program that will certify educators for both teaching in public schools and in the Montessori model with an anti-racist focus.

City Garden will need to raise $10.8 million in philanthropic support to make its strategic plan reality.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

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