• Editorial: Optimism must drive attempts to improve region's schools

     3 hours ago  •  By the Editorial Board

    The storm clouds over public schools in the St. Louis region have been charged with negativity lately. From the failure of the Normandy and Riverview Gardens school districts to reach state accreditation, to the fallout from the transfer crisis that followed their failure, to the slipping test scores in some of the provisionally accredited St. Louis Public Schools, to the Legislature’s failure to fund schools or deal with the transfer crisis, to the ridiculous attack on new Common Core standards by a few misguided Republicans, there has been more bad news than good.

    So the unbridled optimism that came from Richard Barth at a breakfast in the Central Library’s refurbished grand hall on Wednesday morning seemed out of place, if not manufactured from thin air.

    “You have every reason to be unbelievably optimistic about the future for kids in St. Louis,” Mr. Barth, the CEO of the KIPP Foundation, told a couple hundred St. Louis business and civic leaders.

    KIPP, which stands for the Knowledge is Power Program, operates the most successful nonprofit charter school organization in the country. On Wednesday, the director of KIPP St. Louis, Kelly Garrett, announced that the organization would open an elementary school in the city of St. Louis this fall. The new school would go along with with its successful middle school, KIPP Inspire Academy, which regularly has among the highest test scores in the city, among both charters and traditional public schools.

    The new elementary school, KIPP Victory, will be opening in the old Mitchell Elementary School in the West End neighborhood.

    Mr. Barth’s optimism is rooted in a convergence of related events. First, the success of the first KIPP school is creating demand for a second. Then there’s a deep bench of trained leaders ready to lead Victory and the other four schools the organization plans to open in the next five years. The relationship between KIPP and city leaders, particularly St. Louis Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams and Mayor Francis Slay, has created an atmosphere in which the school district and KIPP, a charter organization, cooperate better than in most cities.

    Mr. Barth applauded Mr. Adams’ recent decision to seek nonprofit operators for some of the district’s poorest performing schools, even though it’s unlikely KIPP will be a bidder this time around. Under the KIPP model, schools are best built from the ground up. But the entrance of other high-performing school models (assuming Mr. Adams chooses wisely) to the city will again increase demand.

    Eventually, Mr. Barth believes, that will create a culture in which more parents will realize that there are quality school options. They will demand those options and the system will find ways to meet that demand.

    Pollyanish?

    Perhaps. There are no good examples nationwide of troubled urban school districts dominated by poverty in which the achievement gap between white students and black students, or between rich and poor, has been erased. The most recent study on the achievement gap, issued last week by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, showed that every state falls behind in educating African-American children. Both Missouri and Illinois scored in the bottom third of states in that measurement.

    But there are pockets of success, individual public schools, both traditional and charter, that, like KIPP Inspire, have found success raising test scores of black children living in poverty.

    A common thread in those schools is that sense of optimism exuded by Mr. Barth.

    “Poverty is not destiny,” he says. “That has to be at the core of what you believe.”

    For a family living paycheck to paycheck, moving from one apartment to another to keep the lights on, depending on food stamps and the schools to feed their kids, walking through crime-ridden streets just to get to school, hope is a rare thing. But they must hang onto it.

    Amid the drumbeat of failure that is beat into the communities with struggling schools, a little unbridled optimism is a good thing. Without it, we can’t navigate the choppy waters that lie ahead. And unless this region navigates those waters, another generation of children will be left to drown.