As a scholarship event for striving African-American students and a celebration of those who educate and support them, the St. Louis American Foundation’s 2019 Salute to Excellence in Education on Saturday, September 21 was haunted by some youth who could not be there.

Donald M. Suggs, president of the foundation and publisher and executive editor of The St. Louis American, began the 32nd annual Salute on a solemn note: by asking the crowd of 1,200 to share a moment of silence in memory of more than 20 youths killed in the St. Louis region since last school year.

“Words cannot express the intense grief and remorse our community is experiencing because of the horrific loss of so many of our young people,” Suggs said. “As we mourn the tragedy of so many young lives senselessly cut short, join me in a moment of silent prayer in honor of each of them, their lives cut short by violence and in extending sympathy to their grieving families.”

More than $1.2 million in scholarships were awarded to 30 students in 2019 through the foundation and it’s partners. When all of the scholars were gathered on the stage at the America’s Center Ballroom, emcee Carol Daniel, news anchor at KMOX radio, again made the connection. It was particularly haunting that the number of youths killed since last school year was almost as large as the number of scholarship recipients awarded on Saturday night.

Still, Daniel was anything but defeatist. Instead, she insisted, there is a “direct connection” between affirming students and supporting their studies and stopping the violence against them. The ambitions and success of these young students, Daniel thundered, is “just as real” as the tragic loss of other young lives.

It was theme also sounded by Reverend Earl Nance Jr., pastor of Greater Mount Carmel Missionary Baptist Church, in his opening prayer. Nance yoked “excellence” – the theme of the Salute – with “justice,” an intense compression of the two ideas.

The 2019 Stellar Performer in Education Valerie Bell, immediate past board chair of the Saint Louis Public Schools Foundation, made a similar point in the same, succinct way by focusing her comments on her pursuit of “educational equity.” Bell also seconded Daniel’s “direct connection” between efforts like the Salute and saving our youth by stressing the “transformative power” of education.

The dire challenges faced by many of our youths was thematized in the choice of the 2019 Bayer School of Excellence, Flynn Park Elementary School in University City School District.

“Many of Flynn Park’s students have experienced some kind of trauma in their lives,” said Al Mitchell, president of the Bayer Fund and vice president of Community Relations for ‎Bayer, “and to manage this, through a variety of methods, every educator is trained in trauma-informed teaching practices that utilize innovative interventions and alternative outlets.”

In a celebration of excellence tinged by grief, Michelle Perkins, president of the PNC Bank African-American Employee Business Resource Group, quietly wept onstage in introducing the recipient of the 2019 PNC Bank Early Childhood Education Award: Chandria Taylor, a preschool teacher at Gateway MST Elementary in Saint. Louis Public Schools. It was a reminder that we lose children by more ways than gun violence.

“I think Chandria would want you to know that her outlook and approach to teaching is not accidental,” Perkins said — “it was an intentional choice that was solidified after a very personal loss.” Taylor lost a child who was stillborn. St. Louis American reporter Rebecca Rivas’ video about Taylor and her reliance on teaching to cope with her grief brought tears to the eyes of many.

A gala that confronted so much loss and embraced so much raw emotion ended on an almost unbelievably sweet note: with a public kiss on the lips.

For the first time in its history, in 2019 the St. Louis American Foundation presented its Lifetime Achiever in Education Award to a couple: Shirley and Charles Brown. “Combined, the Browns have spent more than 100 years working in education in Missouri, almost entirely in St. Louis,” Daniel introduced them. “Both started their teaching careers at elementary schools in the late 1960s, and they still are actively involved in education today, though technically retired.”

Much of Shirley Brown’s work stems from her formation of desegregation initiatives through the Saint Louis Public Schools’ School Partnership Program. Charles Brown served in various roles at the Saint Louis Public School District from 1969 to 2002 before becoming assistant commissioner of teacher quality and urban education for the State of Missouri and being appointed superintendent of Wellston School District.

Charles spoke, then Shirley, who remembered “a lifetime of loving our students and loving our work.” She did not have to add “and loving each other,” because she showed the audience that by grabbing her husband and partner and planting a quick kiss on his lips.

Amber Mitchell, a school counselor at Ritenour High School, also received the 2019 SEMO Counselor of the Year Award, and 2019 Excellence in Education Awards were awarded to eight people: Petra Baker, principal at Gateway Michael School; Monica D. Diggs, Ed.D, English Language Arts Teacher at Hazelwood North Middle School; Victoria A. Harris, director of Career Engagement and Experiential Learning at Harris-Stowe State University; Kimberly Patrice Long, principal at Nottingham Community Access and Job Training High School; Duane McGowan, Career Technical Education teacher at East St. Louis Senior High School; Tina Clark-Scott, assistant superintendent of Academics and Support Services at Normandy Schools Collaborative; Lawerence Shields, Alternative School coordinator at Webster Groves High School; and Tanesia L. Simmons, co-founder and school leader at KIPP St. Louis High School.

Rick Sullivan, former member of the Special Administrative Board for the Saint Louis Public Schools, served as general chair.

Platinum Level Sponsors were ANHEUSER-BUSCH, BAYER, CENTENE CHARITABLE FOUNDATION, MARYVILLE UNIVERSITY, WELLS FARGO and WORLD WIDE TECHNOLOGY and THE STEWARD FAMILY FOUNDATION.

The Gold Sponsors were BJC HEALTHCARE, BARNES-JEWISH HOSPITAL, ST. LOUIS CHILDREN’S HOSPITAL, PNC BANK, SOUTHEAST MISSOURI STATE UNIVERSITY, THE UNIVERSITY OF MISSOURI-COLUMBIA and WASHINGTON UNIVERSITY.

The schools hosting scholarships through the St. Louis American Foundation now include the University of Missouri-Columbia, Southeast Missouri State University, Harris-Stowe State University, Missouri State University, Webster University, St. Louis Community College, Fontbonne University, the University of Missouri-St. Louis, Washington University, the Goldfarb School of Nursing at Barnes Jewish College and Maryville University.

Since its inception in 1994, the St. Louis American Foundation and its partners have now invested $7.2 million in education.

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