Before the school’s transformation, parents were pulling their children out of the school frequently. Now, many parents use the school as a hub, she said, where they participate in the school throughout the day. Collins’ students and their families are “resilient,” she said.


    “They survive and prosper and do well with circumstances which most people wouldn’t be able to uphold under,” Collins said. “What the formal setting of school does is it refines and expands that resiliency to excel in college and career opportunities.”


    After serving as a teacher for a year at Columbia, the district moved Collins to an assistant principal position at another school.


    “What happens when a school gets a lot of recognition for making gains, they see how they can spread that somewhere else,” Collins said.


    Collins said she was sad to go, but now she is glad that she gained the experience as assistant principal to prepare her for her new position.


    In February 2012, top officials from the U.S. Department of Education came to visit Columbia and observe how the school was able to improve so rapidly. St. Louis Public Schools has 11 schools receiving school improvement grant funding. Schools in Hazelwood, Ferguson-Florissant, Jennings, Normandy and Riverview Gardens districts also are recipients of the funds.

    More than anything, the school is a “one-stop” for many families, said Fisher-Weaver. “You can get everything you need here,” she said.


    Fisher-Weaver started teaching at Columbia in 1982, and in 2000 she became the district’s communications arts supervisor. In 2011, she requested to return to Columbia as a special-education teacher.


    Avion told both Fisher-Weaver and Collins that he plans on making all A’s this year.


    “They set a bar for themselves because they know they can do it,” Fisher-Weaver said. “Principal Collins said we want this to be a private school setting at a public school price. I think all of our children deserve that


    One night, Columbia Elementary teacher Susan Fisher-Weaver drove a student home after a school event to prepare for the state exams. As she turned onto the girl’s block, Fisher-Weaver tensed up and her eyes widened, she said. They were driving right through crowds of gang members.


    “She is just calm, and I’m like ‘Wow, that’s a rough block,’” she said. “It never dawns on you when you receive children what kinds of homes they are coming from. It was a learning experience for me.”


    In 2009, Columbia, in the city’s Jeff-Vanderlou neighborhood, was one of the St. Louis Public School District’s lowest performing schools.


    But in 2010, the school became part of a multimillion-dollar federal program to turn around low-performing schools within three years. Under then Principal Crystal Ford-Gale’s leadership, more than 80 percent of the classroom teachers were replaced. Carrie Collins, now the school’s principal, was one of the new teachers hired that year.


    By the end of the school year, Columbia became a top-performing school. Students made annual yearly progress, and they increased proficiency in advanced scores to double digits.

    “It was a huge jump, and it was done with more than 80 percent new staff,” Collins said.

    On September 14, Columbia Elementary, at 3120 Saint Louis Ave., will receive the St. Louis American Foundation’s 2012 Monsanto School of Excellence award at the 2012 Salute to Excellence in Education Scholarship and Awards Gala. The event will be held at 7 p.m. at the America’s Center Ballroom, following a reception at 6 p.m.


    Fourth grader Avion Robins said he is proud his school has made gains.  

    “This school is great,” Robins said. “They give you good lunches. They give you good teachers and good learning techniques, good classes. You can have fun while learning.”

    When Collins heard that Robins liked the lunches, she told him, “It’s going to get better.”

    School as family

    This year, the cafeteria will be making food from scratch. The initiative ties well into the school’s approach of being like a family. Former principal Ford-Gale introduced the concept of a family school in 2010, and Collins said that’s a big part of the school’s success.


    “We consider ourselves a family,” Collins said. “We consider the students our children. The focus is on the whole child. We understand that the best way to help children succeed is to serve not only them but their entire families.”