Darius Kirk, principal of Riverview Gardens High School, said he will never forget the cab ride on the way over to his district interview when he flew in from Oklahoma in 2013.

The cab driver asked him where he was going. When Kirk told the driver, she said, “‘Baby, if I was you, I’d get back on that airplane and turn back and go home.’”

At the time, it was one of the lowest-performing schools in the state.  

Kirk told her, “It takes someone with strong leadership and someone with a vision and purpose for children for them to excel, and for them to make what seems impossible possible.”

She responded, “Well, maybe you’re the right person for the job.”

In Gov. Jay Nixon’s state of address this year, he recognized Riverview Gardens School District for being the most-improved school district in Missouri. The district, led by Superintendent Scott Spurgeon, nearly tripled its score on the state’s rigorous assessments in just two years.

And on Saturday, October 1, Riverview Gardens High School will receive the Monsanto School of Excellence at the St. Louis American Foundation’s Salute to Excellence in Education Scholarship & Awards Gala. 

“Riverview Gardens is a really good school district, against popular belief,” said Kaylen Lucas, a senior at the high school. “And I think eventually – soon, actually – we’ll be able to prove that to everyone.”

Kirk arrived at the same time as Spurgeon in July 2013. At that point, the district had been unaccredited since 2007 and was under state control. Prior to their arrival, the district had earned only 40 out of 140 points on the state’s annual performance report (APR). A district needs at least 70 points to be considered for provisional accreditation and 98 for full accreditation.

Spurgeon said his first order of business was working through the transportation situation with the district’s student transfer program, where nearly 1,400 students signed up to attend other districts. Riverview had to pay for those students’ tuitions – and some transportation costs – to attend other schools, costing about $13 million the first year. That number of students at other districts has since decreased to 500, costing about $6.5 million. 

Davona Rankins, a senior, has attended schools in the district since kindergarten and chose to stick with Riverview Gardens.

“It’s my district,” Rankins said. “It’s my home. We have amazing students and teachers and administrators, and it did not feel right to leave this district and start over with something new.”

Despite the exodus of students and revenue, the district still jumped 23 points on the APR following the 2013-2014 school year. “Just 6.5 points shy of the 70 points we needed to be considered provisionally accredited,” Spurgeon said.

The 2014-2015 school year started off “fantastic,” he said, with a back-to-school bash. However, on August 9, 2014, Michael Brown Jr. was shot and killed in the Canfield Green Apartments, which is within the district’s geographic footprint. Throughout the protests, Spurgeon said he was proud of students and staff for keeping their focus on academics.

In October 2015, district staff learned that, despite the unrest and emotional uproar in the community, the district had earned 111 out of 140 points – enough to be considered fully accredited.

Spurgeon said the high school is the district’s “flagship” and has led the renaissance, showing the highest gains of any building. “They set the stage and the pace for everyone else to follow,” he said.

Under Kirk’s leadership, the high school’s graduation rate has risen from 69 percent to 85 percent. When he arrived, there was an only one advanced placement class – now, there are 11. This past year, his students received $4 million in scholarships. 

“But good is the enemy of great,” Kirk said. “So what was great last year is not great this year.”

Right now, the 2015-2016 school year data is being analyzed, and the district will get its first peek at the data in October. The APR results go out to the public on November 7. Spurgeon believes the district’s request to upgrade its accreditation status will be considered at the Missouri State Board of Education meeting on December 1-2.

“The pressure is real,” said Corey Stevens, a senior. “They are constantly pushing us. They won’t let us give up on ourselves. The administrators are our backbone. Riverview Gardens High School deserves to be the School of Excellence because the effort that’s put forth by the administrators and staff is relentless, day in and night out.”

The 2016 Salute to Excellence in Education Gala will be held at 6 p.m. Saturday, October 1, 2016 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, visit www.stlamerican.com and click on Salute to Excellence, or call 314-533-8000.

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