By Richard Jackoway
In his sixth year as superintendent, Kelvin Adams said he sees progress for the embattled St. Louis Public School District and is optimistic about the future.
The district has 25,200 students, down from 34,000 as recently as a decade ago. But enrollment has risen by just more than 10 percent since 2012, when the district gained provisional accreditation.
Still, the district remains under scrutiny. Despite gains in test scores and graduation rates, accreditation is in jeopardy because the district remains below state standards. In 2014, 36 percent of students attended a school that met state standards. Six years ago, only 18 percent of city students were in schools that met half the state standard or better. Still, over the next two years the district will need to increase the number of schools meeting the state standard or it will lose its accreditation again.
Therefore, Adams and the district are working on a number of fronts to better prepare students, keep them in school and get them ready for college.
The district has a $300 million budget and employs more than 4,000 people, including some 2,500 teachers.
Adams spoke with the St. Louis Business Journal earlier this month as schools opened for the new semester.
How are things going in the district?
I think things are going relatively well. Obviously a lot is happening at this time in the district. Testing will be going on the next few months. We are hopeful about what's going to happen with that. Enrollment has kind of stabilized. Finances are in a good place. So I think things are going well, though we still have a lot of challenges.
One of those challenges is making sure students graduate. What is the district doing on that front? Graduation rates have increased from 56.9 percent in 2011-12 to 71.2 percent in 2013-14. We are trying to identify students who need support early on, as early as middle school, and then support those students as they get to high school. We find a large number of students drop out in ninth grade. We have several programs, one called Check & Connect. That's a federal program that identifies approximately 200 students who are at risk, and we provide social workers and counselors to work with those students. The data indicate that overwhelmingly the students who are identified are doing well.
Are there programs addressing the needs of young children?
We have increased the number of students in our pre-K program by 100 percent from 1,200 to 2,400 in the past three years, with an intentional effort to ensure we are identifying kids early and supporting them throughout the process. If we can provide them with a sound foundation in reading and mathematics, it's a lot easier to get them to graduation.
Much has been made about the lack of advanced placement (AP) classes and how that puts underrepresented students at a disadvantage. How is the district addressing this? We have received federal dollars over the past six or seven years that have supported the notion of having more minority students in AP courses. We have tripled the number of minorities in AP courses. We have made an intentional effort to make sure that all of our high schools have at least one AP class, from our comprehensive schools to our magnet schools. Also another piece that isn't well known is that we want to work with local colleges to make sure they accept the AP course credit. If students take the class, they should get college credit for it. We are having some success with that.
How are the issues raised by the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson playing out in the schools?
We are taking the opportunity to leverage the notion of diversity — diversity training of students and diversity training of teachers. It's a negative situation, but we are taking it and using it as an opportunity to look at what we are doing as a district. I think it has created some real opportunities for dialogue and really challenged us in ways that we haven't been challenged before.
The state legislature is expected to address the issue of unaccredited districts having to pay for students to transfer to other districts; what do you see happening on that front? To tell you the truth, I don't know. I think it's a crapshoot. I don't know that anyone really knows. The last few years they have tried to address it and not gotten very far. So I'm basically an observer.
What would you like to see happen?
A solution that works for everybody but that keeps kids in mind. I think that's the only solution that anyone would hope to have. We don't want to destroy districts. We don't want to create more problems. I think it's a difficult problem to solve in light of the law that exists, but the legislators have the ability to change the law.
What is the biggest issue for your district in 2015?
I think the elephant in the room is this whole notion around what's happening in this region around diversity or race or cultural sensitivity. It's something that we have to help our kids navigate. We have to do a better job of making sure our kids understand it and empower them to come up with better solutions than we have.
Richard Jackoway is a St. Louis freelance writer.