Ferguson Commission members met with citizens Tuesday for the fifth time at Westview Middle School - where they discussed educational inequity and child well-being. A diverse group of more than 100 citizens – mostly from St. Louis County, African American, female, and between the ages of 22-64 – gathered for the nearly four-hour long meeting.
Gov. Jay Nixon established the 16-member Commission to study the underlying social and economic conditions exposed by the unrest in the wake of the death of Michael Brown. Education was among a long list of issues the community hoped Commission members would address.
“The reason we have these topics on the agenda is because you all prioritized them,” said Rich McClure, co-chair of the Ferguson Commission. “The topics we’re talking about – education and child well-being – were ranked at the top of the disparity list.”
Ferguson Commission Co-Chair Rev. Starsky Wilson said the meeting was an extension of the January 10 Youth Summit held at St. Louis Community College – Florissant Valley. At that meeting, youth gave Commission members an earful regarding Ferguson, activism, police brutality, and racial profiling.
Commission members Hazelwood School District Superintendent Grayling Tobias and Becky James-Hatter, president and CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Eastern Missouri, served as co-chairs of the education and child well-being working group.
Tobias presented a snapshot of education statewide and throughout the region. According to the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, there are a total of 520 school districts in the state of which 507 are classified as accredited. Eleven school districts have provisional accreditation, one is unaccredited, and one is under state review.
Referencing a report by the Southern Education Foundation, Tobias said more than half of U.S. public school children lived in poverty during the 2013-14 school year. Missouri ranked at 45 percent, he said.
He highlighted gains made by North St. Louis County School Districts and St. Louis Public Schools on last year’s Annual Performance Report. Ritenour, Jennings, Pattonville, and Riverview Gardens had improved percentages. SLPS had the largest increase with 18.6 percent, he said. When Commission member Rev. Traci Blackmon inquired about Normandy, Tobias told her the district was one of the few that “went in the wrong direction.”
James-Hatter said the children must come first.
“Children, teens, and young adults have brought us to this place and it is because of the death of Michael Brown,” she said.
As she looked out at what she described as a highly-engaged crowd, she told them much of what has already been done needs to be reconsidered. She said having access to quality education should be an absolute and is fundamental to child well-being. But impeding that access is a “pile-on” of serious issues – like poverty, homelessness, and parental incarceration – that too many children grapple with on a daily basis.
Moving forward, she challenged the Commission “to generate ideas that are bigger than their fears” by creating opportunities and support systems for disadvantaged children - far too often left behind.
Patrick Fox, a white St. Louis City resident, spoke during the open mic session and this was his second time attending a Commission meeting. Fox said the Commission can solve the police and municipal court problem. But the poor will still be poor, if they’re not educated and come from healthy families. He hopes the Commission will energize people to demand better schools and teachers because these are the things that pull people out of poverty, he said.
Student activist Clifton Kinnie, 17, of Lutheran North High School, addressed commissioners during the public open mic session. Kinnie said he protests for innovative education reform and believes Teach for America is a leader in that regard.
“Teach for America saved my life,” Kinnie said. “If it weren’t for the teachers in the program who taught me to believe in myself and seek social justice for my community, I wouldn’t be where I am today. We don’t need any more clock-in, clock-out teachers.”
Other topics of discussion included removing politics from inside the classroom, addressing disparities in education levels and experience of teachers in under-funded districts, and the creation of more after-school programs to keep children off the streets.
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