• School named after Bertha Knox Gilkey, community organizer
    Gilkey Archive Photo

    October 11, 2014 12:00 am  •  By Elisa Crouch ecrouch@post-dispatch.com 314-340-8119

    ST. LOUIS • The school that Bertha Knox Gilkey persuaded district officials to open in 2011 was renamed in her honor Friday, before a crowd of about 100 students, community leaders and school officials who packed inside the school gym.

    Gilkey, who died in May at age 66, was a community organizer who became known locally and nationally for fighting for tenants’ rights and public housing improvements. But she was also a stalwart when it came to education, working in her later years to get parents more engaged in schools and to connect students in failing schools with better opportunities.

    Yet her support for charter schools often put her at odds with some in the district.

    It was the work that she did in education that was the focus of the renaming celebration at Pamoja Preparatory Academy @ Cole, a three-story brick building on Enright Avenue. The school has an African-centered curriculum, where reading, math, and science are taught alongside African values, customs and culture. Among those values are self-control, respect toward elders and giving back to the community.

    The school is modeled after similar programs in Kansas City, Detroit and Los Angeles, where African-centered schools have been popular and are growing.

    Richard Gaines, a member of the Special Administrative Board of St. Louis Public Schools, recalled the trip Gilkey persuaded him to make to Kansas City. There he saw the Afrikan Centered Education Collegium Campus, which had a proven track record.

    “The student body come from the same kind of community that this school’s student body came from,” Gaines said. “They were charged with a belief from that community that it is imperative that you learn and you learn well.”

    Gaines and Gilkey returned with a mission to open a similar school in St. Louis. Superintendent Kelvin Adams quickly got on board.

    Adams called called Gilkey a “stalwart” when it came to education.

    Missouri Education Commissioner Chris Nicastro told the crowd that during her own years in north St. Louis County, where she led the Riverview Gardens and Hazelwood school districts, she thought of Gilkey as her mother, sister, adviser, mentor and friend.

    Months before Gilkey’s death, Gilkey helped Nicastro put together a meeting with Normandy district parents, when the district was in turmoil over the school transfer situation.

    “If I truly believed that Bertha was gone, I do not believe I could go on another day,” Nicastro said. “But Bertha is here with us today, in everything we do and every action we take on behalf of our children.”

    The dedication ceremony featured children dancing and an east African choral performance. Fifth-graders Semja Wallace, Jada Smith and Cerokie Gason read poetry.

    Behind them, against the wall, was the new name of the school, The Bertha Knox Gilkey Pamoja Prep Academy @ Cole.

    Gilkey’s daughter, Yvette Gilkey Shuford, accepted the honor for her mother. She said Gilkey would have been proud of this moment.

    “My mother would say this moment was not about her, but about the children,” she said.

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    Richard Gaines, Afrikan Centered Education Collegium Campus, Kelvin Adams, Bertha Knox Gilkey Pamoja Prep Academy, Bertha Knox Gilkey, St. Louis Public Schools