As more KIPP charter schools open, partnership with St. Louis district grows

ByEditorial

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In one sentence, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay has summed up everything that is generally wrong about the politics surrounding K-12 education in the region and the state.

The remark came last week at an event at the Pruitt School, a public school building on the near north side that has been vacant since 2010. It has now been turned over, rent-free, to the successful KIPP Inspire Academy charter school. The mayor talked about what can happen when folks on various sides of the education debate — those who support charters, for instance, and those who believe they take resources away from the public schools — work together.

“This is not about us-versus-them,” the mayor said, standing next to St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams. But as Post-Dispatch reporter Elisa Crouch outlined in her story last week describing the increasing trend of KIPP expanding into vacant public school buildings, that’s how it’s often been.

Take the debate over the school transfer law that Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed this summer. That law, supposedly an attempt to help expand educational opportunity for children in North St. Louis County, while also preserving the local school districts’ ability to survive, got caught up in us-versus-them politics. The same thing has happened in each of the last three years in the Legislature.

The battle lines are political in some cases, Democrat vs. Republican; personal in others, as in Mr. Nixon vs. his fellow Democrat, Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal; or geographical, as suburban school districts fight over the decreasing piece of the educational pie.

The final bill failed to deliver on its promises, and was properly vetoed, because too many people in politics fail to see the positive that can happen when both sides give and take, when they work together toward a common goal.

After some early conflicts, that is what has happened in St. Louis as KIPP schools have expanded, now in two formerly vacant public school buildings and one former Catholic school. The schools serve about 1,000 students from mostly impoverished city neighborhoods. KIPP’s schools in St. Louis have produced improving test scores, and those scores reflect well on the entire district. Administrators from the city and KIPP work together on solutions, rather than at cross purposes.

The result, though slow, is an improved overall district, with thousands of more students in the city of St. Louis having access to quality classrooms than a few years ago.

Replicating that success is possible in the St. Louis region, in Normandy and Riverview Gardens for instance, but only if the grownups start acting like grownups. Narrow interests and the need for a political win must be replaced with the earnest desire for improved education for all children, regardless of their background or ZIP code.

 

A break in the “us-versus-them” mentality surrounding the school transfer debate seemed to take place this summer. Right before Mr. Nixon vetoed the transfer bill, 24 school superintendents announced new cooperative efforts to work together to improve the educational opportunity offered to Normandy and Riverview Gardens students. The agreement didn’t go as far as we would have liked (such as every school district agreeing to a single, affordable transfer tuition from students fleeing the unaccredited schools), but it was the essence of compromise.

 

Various sides gave up something for the greater good.

 

This is ultimately how schools will be improved in St. Louis. The entire region must recognize that our economic tide rises only as high as it lifts our lowest ship. As KIPP and St. Louis have worked together to provide more opportunity to 1,000 students in previously closed public school buildings, so must the region find a way to get past political squabbles and improve educational opportunity for every child in St. Louis.

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