City Garden Montessori School

Christie Huck and her two sons live in South city’s Shaw neighborhood, just three blocks away from where the 18-year-old black teen, VonDerrit Myers Jr., was shot and killed by an off-duty city police officer in 2014.

It’s also one block away from Flora Place, a street of upscale homes where the officer, Jason Flanery, was patrolling security the night he killed Myers.

Huck realized in 2006, long before Myers’ death, that she was not okay with her sons growing up in a neighborhood where the white and black children did not attend the same schools.

“We were living parallel lives side by side, but still not interacting in each other’s lives in meaningful ways,” said Huck, now the executive director of City Garden Montessori School in South city.

In 2006, Huck was part of a group of preschool parents in St. Louis city who decided they didn’t want to make the typical exodus to St. Louis County for quality public schools.

“We became keenly aware of the deep racial and economic segregation that continues to exist in our schools—and the tremendous inequity that goes along with this,” she said at a recent community discussion on housing and education, which was held at the school.

That’s why Huck and the group of parents founded City Garden charter school, to ensure that the neighborhood children learn and grow together, she said. Now in its eighth year, they are facing a challenge they didn’t anticipate. The school is enticing high-income families to move into the area, thus spurring development and gentrification in the zip codes it serves – including Forest Park Southeast, McRee town, the Grove and Shaw.

At the recent meeting titled “Racial and Economic Integration as a Mechanism of Change,” three experts who explored ways to stop gentrification and integrate the St. Louis region.

In 2012, 17.8 percent of all children in St. Louis County and 41.7 percent of all children in St. Louis city lived below the poverty line, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The recent For the Sake of All report cited that there is a 17 year difference in life expectancy between people who are born in North St. Louis City and people who are born in Chesterfield.

“These divides we’ve created—between black and white, between rich and poor and middle class—are bad for all of us, not just some of us,” said Huck, quoting a line from the 2015 Forward Through Ferguson report.

St. Louis ranks as one of the most segregated regions in the country, said Eddie Wartts, director of the Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity Division in the St. Louis field office.

“It is a well-known fact that here in St. Louis that blacks live to the north and whites live to the south,” Wartts said.

He also said about 80 percent of St. Louis County’s housing vouchers are in or around Ferguson.

And because low-income housing is often only available in high-poverty, high-crime areas, the children are left to attend schools with smaller budgets and often lower performing, said Phil Tegeler, executive director of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council. Those housing vouchers and opportunities should be available throughout the region – not just in North St. Louis, he said.

“You’ve got baked-in segregation here that all your governmental structures, system and laws have adapted to over many years,” Tegeler said.

There are several ways that to ensure that low-income children have access to high-performing schools – and it doesn’t include putting them on a bus for two hours a day, he said.

He recommended state support for interdistrict magnet schools in high-poverty areas. There should also be “school targeting” in all affordable housing programs, he said, and a regional housing and education planning entity. To prevent gentrification, the region needs to develop affordable housing in areas with that potential.

“St. Louis has always been on the wrong side of the fair housing civil rights equation,” Wartts said.

However, Wartts believes the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Rule, passed in July 2016, gets at the heart of the Fair Housing Act’s original purpose. It requires that in order for cities to receive the HUD funding, they have to engage the community.

“We think that community participation is so important that if it is not included in the plan to HUD, that plan is deemed to be significantly incomplete,” he said.

He encouraged everyone to let their voices be heard when cities present their “consolidated plans” to HUD.

If the community wants to create a more integrated St. Louis, speaking up on HUD planning meetings and other government agencies is essential, said Tegeler.

Tanya Clay House, a deputy assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Education, said that the president’s 2017 budget includes $120 million for school integration initiatives. The grant program – called Stronger Together – would help districts or groups of districts make their schools more socio-economically integrated.

“You can have diverse schools, but you can still have segregation within our schools,” she said. “We are highlighting socio-economic diversity because we think it cuts across all genres.”

Grantees could either use the money for planning grants, or they could move right into implementing ideas, she said.

“When people do not have equal opportunity to thrive, the entire region pays a price,” Wartts said.

He pointed to research by the University of Missouri Public Policy Research Center that found eliminating racial income gaps would boost the St. Louis economy by $14 billion. If there had been no racial gap in income in 2012, the St. Louis region would have been $13.56 billion larger.

This gap, of course, affects the region’s children and their futures.

Huck said failing to address the economic mobility of poor children is projected to decrease the United States GDP (Gross Domestic Product) by about 4 percent per year over the lifetime of these children, costing the country about $7 trillion.

“Education and housing are two places where we must begin to address these devastating challenges,” she said. “The inequity in our region is literally killing our children, and our community members. It is time for us to commit, collectively, to radical action for change.”

Follow this reporter on Twitter @RebeccaRivas.

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