• French shifts attention back to home and North Campus

    Jan. 19, 2015
    By Elisa Crouch

    ST. LOUIS • Every day after school, a white shuttle bus pulls up to an old church building on Red Bud Avenue in the heart of the O’Fallon Park neighborhood.

    About a dozen children from nearby Ashland Elementary School hop off. They enter a place known as the Sanctuary, the heart of North Campus.

    In a brightly painted classroom, paid and volunteer tutors help the children with homework and lessons. In another classroom, middle- and high-schoolers do similar work. In the evening they have enrichment activities, such as film club, yoga and chess.

    Alderman Antonio French spends much of his time here.

    After spending weeks this summer and fall on Twitter, alerting the world to the turmoil after Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, French has returned to this place. It’s a building he raised money to help buy, filled with stained-glass windows and long-forgotten German last names.

    French doesn’t tutor the children who come here. But he knows their names, where they go to school and the all-too-often heartbreaking stories about their home lives.

    “We’re here to provide stability to a lot of kids who don’t have stability otherwise,” French said, as he watched nine middle and high school students do homework in a first-floor classroom. “We’re always here. It’s the same people. It’s a safe place.”

    But much of the larger vision has been slow to take off.

    Last year, for example, French had a contract with the district to tutor more than 400 elementary and middle school children. But for reasons that mostly involved district bureaucracy, North Campus tutored fewer than half that number.

    The after-school program this year relies solely on grants and private donations. On Wednesday, about 30 children filled two of the three classrooms in the Sanctuary.

    The program is still working to gain its footing even as the state is poised to invest additional federal grant money in its expansion.

    When those dollars finally come, “We’ll be able to do more services in more buildings with more people,” French said.

    BIG PLANS

    The vision began in 2010 when French approached city schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams about creating a birth-to-college pipeline similar to the Harlem Children’s Zone in New York.

    He wanted to open a “baby college” — a program that instructs parents on issues from immunizations to the importance of reading to their young children. He also proposed that the district turn over the operations of Ashland Elementary and Yeatman Middle to North Campus in a contract arrangement.

    Adams has not signed off on either proposal.

    North Campus has two paid full-time staffers — former Teach For America corps members who have chosen to live in the neighborhood. Grants and donations make it possible to offer North Campus’ services free to students.

    In October, Gov. Jay Nixon stood with French at a press conference and awarded him a $500,000 federal grant to expand North Campus’ science and math tutoring services within its footprint and into north St. Louis County.

    That money would allow the program to add staff and activities for children in the O’Fallon neighborhood and sections of Penrose and College Hill.

    It would also bring support for children in Ferguson.

    French’s efforts there revolved around an organization he founded after Brown’s death called #HealSTL. Its office burned the night of the grand jury announcement not to indict Officer Darren Wilson in Brown’s death.

    Scott Holste, a spokesman for the governor’s office, said investment in French’s tutoring program made sense.

    “There’s a clear and continuing need for math and science tutoring, and the North Campus is an established organization that has been providing these services,” he said.

    But the money comes with limitations. Those stipulations will be spelled out in a contract between the Missouri Department of Social Services and the University of Missouri-St. Louis, which will monitor the grant.

    The university will use $25,000 of the grant to do this oversight work. It will spell out expectations in a different contract with North Campus.

    “We just want to make sure we are doing everything we need to do to be fiscally responsible,” said Carole Basile, dean of UMSL’s College of Education. “This is a lot of money, and it could help and support a lot of kids in north city and North County. We want to make sure the money is spent wisely.”

    French said he’d like to get started.

    “It takes a little time,” French said. “It is aggravating.”

    A SLOW START

    A year ago, North Campus was almost midway through a $150,000 contract with St. Louis Public Schools. French had agreed to provide in-school and after-school tutoring for at least 400 children at Ashland and Yeatman schools, two of the lowest-performing schools in the city.

    But by last January, several months into the contract, North Campus had yet to tutor a single child. By the end of the school year, fewer than 200 students had been served, according to a school district memo dated July 23.

    Adams said low numbers were largely the district’s fault. The school system launched a tutoring program last school year designed to boost achievement among the lowest-performing students. Four tutoring contractors — including North Campus — operated in 18 buildings. School administrators were slow to assign children to tutors, he said. And space for tutoring wasn’t immediately available in Yeatman.

    “His program started consistently late like the rest of the programs did,” Adams said. “It was a lot we were spending — some $4 million to do this. We had tutoring companies in all these places, 18 schools.”

    As for the overall experience with North Campus, “We had some concerns,” Adams said. “Those weren’t just on Alderman French’s side.”

    French said the chaotic environment in the schools made the work challenging.

    “What we found, if we had 45 minutes in the classroom, the first 20 minutes was getting them back into the proper space,” he said. Even so, “We’d do it again.”

    To make up for the low numbers, the district and North Campus agreed to extend the contract by a month to include Summer Academy.

    ‘A SAFE PLACE’

    French stood near a classroom door inside the Sanctuary as students did homework and worked with tutoring programs on Chromebooks and laptop computers.

    In the back sat Travis Dixon, a Vashon freshman, who started attending last year even though he wasn’t enrolled in school. French contacted Adams about getting him in class.

    Promise Taylor, also a Vashon freshman, worked at a table alone. She began coming to the Sanctuary in November.

    “At home, my family doesn’t help me,” she said. “I have to help myself.”

    And Jaylen White, a seventh-grader at Carr Lane Middle School, has been coming here for four years, he said, as he put together a timeline on energy production for a class.

    “It’s a safe place,” he said of the Sanctuary. “You can make good friends here.”

    French has been absent from the Ferguson protests since November, after the grand jury made its announcement. Instead, he’s focused on pushing for change in the makeup of the Ferguson City Council and the St. Louis Board of Aldermen.

    French plans to rebuild #HealSTL, he said, in the same location on West Florissant Avenue.

    He is working with UMSL and other partners to determine a location for North Campus work in North County.

    The months spent in Ferguson sharpened his focus for this work, he said.

    “If anything it shows how important a problem like this is,” French said. “I saw so many young people out there who would have really benefited from a program like ours. We want to make sure the kids we see now aren’t the statistics of tomorrow.”