• Students seek an honors program where there is none

    November 16, 2013 6:00 am    By Elisa Crouch ecrouch@post-dispatch.com 314-340-8119

    ST. LOUIS • Fifty freshmen stood in line waiting to sign the pledge board, beneath the glare of the track lights inside their high school auditorium.

    They promised to maintain their grades. To come to school on time. To serve as role models. Together, they were creating an Honors Academy at Vashon High School, where students are more likely to drop out than graduate.

    A smattering of parents and mentors looked on as Kevin Davis signed his name. Behind him were Don Turner, Lance Vail, LaSky Edwards, Kyla Pruitt. Every one of the 50 freshmen had applied for this chance — an opportunity to defy the odds, finish high school and earn a college degree.

    They have the potential to change Vashon, Superintendent Kelvin Adams told them. They could turn it into a place known more for learning than for winning basketball championships.

    “If they keep the program up, maybe they’ll have more kids graduate and not drop out,” said Michelle Marks, a mother of one of the freshmen.

    Getting Vashon on a better path has been a years-long struggle.

    Its building, a modern design bedecked in the school colors of blue and white, was built in 2002 as part of an effort to transform the poverty-stricken Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood. The school had community backing, a strong alumni network and the support of local corporations.

    Nearly one decade later, Vashon remains one of the lowest performing high schools in Missouri. Last school year, it received zero points on the state’s annual performance report. It had the fifth-worst graduation rate among Missouri high schools. Almost 230 students at the school dropped out by the end of the school year, state data show, nearly twice the number who graduated in the spring.

    But that doesn’t mean there aren’t students at Vashon eager to learn.

    SepTisha Riley, a senior, has her sights set on Spelman College. Kaviona Donaldson, a junior, wants to become a pediatrician. Each class has students who want to overcome their circumstances with help from their school.

    Early this fall, Principal Joseph Williams III formed a student advisory committee. He is new to St. Louis this year, having led a high school in Kansas City. He wanted to get a sense of what Vashon students wanted for their school. Some told him they wanted to clean up the entrance. Others said they were tired of classroom disruptions. A significant number told Williams they wanted harder classes.

    “Just to challenge our minds a little bit,” said Kaliyah Durham, a junior.

    Vashon is the only high school in St. Louis Public Schools that does not offer Advanced Placement courses. The school has made strides in behavior and attendance in recent years. But improving academics has been a tougher struggle. Test scores rose in some areas after 2009 but then plummeted in 2013.

    Just 9.8 percent of Vashon students passed the math portion of the Missouri Assessment Program last spring, down from 21.6 in 2012. In English, 17.3 percent of students scored proficient or advanced, down from 41.5 percent.

    Even with extra community support, the challenges of educating a mostly poor student body from a high-crime area is difficult. And often, resources at schools such as Vashon are directed at helping the vast majority that is behind.

    Williams began considering the students who are achieving. He mulled the concept of an honors academy. He couldn’t ignore the demand for more rigor, he said.

    “I need to make sure students who really want to learn are going to get that,” he said.

    Williams had to restructure the school a bit. He enlisted the school’s A-list teachers to teach the courses. Each honors student has a mentor from Wells Fargo Advisors. The downtown brokerage firm is also providing the honors students with Kindle tablets later this fall, and has 15 employees tutoring 50 students throughout the school.

    The hope is that others in the school will want to be part of the Honors Academy. It will grow by one grade each year.

    “Our goal here is really foundational,” Williams said.

    At the induction, Williams reminded the 50 honors students that they were accepted based on their leadership, grades and character. They must live up to their pledges to remain part of the academy.

    Monique Miller, a mother there in support of her daughter, said it was about time. Vashon is in desperate need of higher expectations, she said.

    “If you don’t give them nothing to reach for, they’re not going to reach,” Miller said.

    One by one, the freshmen who walked onto the stage indicated they were up for the challenge. Nadia Sutton signed her name to the pledge board. So did Jamya Anderson. Serena Mahoney. Tomisha Miller.

    “I really need this to get to where I’m going,” said Dan Parker after he signed his. “I’d like to be a Marine.”

    Starting in 2010, Superintendent Adams gave eighth-graders throughout the district the opportunity to choose where they go to high school. Students who don’t get into magnet or choice schools may choose among the district’s four comprehensive high schools that accept anyone: Vashon, Beaumont, Sumner and Roosevelt.

    The four are the worst-performing high schools in the city school system.

    “I believe a rising tide raises all boats,” Williams said. “I don’t want Vashon to be considered the school of last resort.”

    Adams told the inductees that the Honors Academy represented a new Vashon. It’s a vision that could resemble what Vashon was 60 or 70 years ago, when it produced notable St. Louisans as the city’s second high school for African-Americans.

    “It’s about high expectations,” Adams said. “It’s about 50 people here really changing the tone around St. Louis Public Schools and Vashon High School.”

    The pledge board will remain on display in the freshman wing, a reminder of what the honors students have promised to do. Among their pledges: serving through leadership, dreaming big, and persisting through adversity.

    “You’re not just doing this for yourselves,” Adams told them. “You’re doing this for your entire community.”
     
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    Vashon_I
    Members of a newly established Honors Academy at Vashon High School recite a pledge to keep their grades high and serve as role models during a ceremony on Friday, Nov. 8, 2013. The school is pairing high-achieving freshmen with mentors from Wells Fargo Advisors as it begins offering honors courses. From left are Ah'shanae Joiner, Craig Frazier (rear), Dan Parker, Ricco Williams, Brittany Robinson and Dezisha Pate. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com
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    Charvon Lewis signs a pledge to keep his grades up and serve as a role model to others during a ceremony establishing a new Honors Academy at Vashon High School on Friday, Nov. 8, 2013. The school is pairing high-achieving freshmen with mentors from Wells Fargo Advisors as it begins offering honors courses. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com
    Vashon III
    Dr. Kelvin Adams, superintendent of St. Louis Public Schools, speaks to members of the newly established Honors Academy at Vashon High School on Friday, Nov. 8, 2013. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com
    Vashon IV
    Members of a newly established Honors Academy at Vashon High School signed a pledge to keep their grades high and serve as role models during a ceremony on Friday, Nov. 8, 2013. The school is pairing high-achieving freshmen with mentors from Wells Fargo Advisors as it begins offering honors courses. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com
     
    Vashon V
    Members of a newly established Honors Academy at Vashon High School, including Dan Parker, line up to sign a pledge to keep their grades high and serve as role models during a ceremony on Friday, Nov. 8, 2013. The school is pairing high-achieving freshmen with mentors from Wells Fargo Advisors as it begins offering honors courses. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com
     
    Vashon VI
    Members of a newly established Honors Academy at Vashon High School, including Aaliyah Abrams (left) and Camille Brown, recite a pledge to keep their grades high and serve as role models during a ceremony on Friday, Nov. 8, 2013. The school is pairing high-achieving freshmen with mentors from Wells Fargo Advisors as it begins offering honors courses. Photo by Robert Cohen, rcohen@post-dispatch.com