ST. LOUIS • They packed into the Fox Theatre on Monday for a convocation, an event that’s become rare in St. Louis Public Schools considering the work and expense involved in getting nearly 4,000 staff — from teachers to cafeteria workers to district administrators — into one space.
But on Monday, they arrived in more than 70 buses to hear Bryan Stevenson, author and founder of the Alabama-based Equal Justice Institute, get them focused on the upcoming school year.
Next week, about 27,000 students as young as preschool will file into district classrooms throughout the city. One in five of these children will be homeless at some point during the school year, based on historical data. And statistically, one in two starting high school won’t graduate.
Stevenson urged every adult in the room to disrupt the cycle of poverty and create better outcomes.
“You are the children you are trying to serve,” he said.
Stevenson is a public-interest lawyer who has won national attention for his work challenging bias against the poor and minorities in the criminal justice system. He also serves on the task force on community policing created by President Barack Obama.
“When I come to St. Louis, when I come to Missouri, I cannot judge our education system by seeing how they treat the rich kids, the powerful kids, the talented kids,” he said. “I have to look at how we’re treating the poor, the marginalized, the disabled.”
The vast majority of St. Louis school students are low-income, black, and come to school with health and emotional needs that often go unaddressed. Stevenson urged city schools staff to think more critically about the challenges those children face in and out of school.
“There is a narrative behind why poor and minority kids have been so underserved,” Stevenson said. “There is a narrative behind our failure to confront many of the challenges that we’re dealing with.”
In the last 15 years, that narrative has increasingly led to an overuse of suspensions nationwide to address disruptive behavior in children as young as 4. It has also led to more police officers working in school buildings, putting children closer to the criminal justice system than ever before.
In Missouri, black elementary school children are more likely to be suspended than in any state in the nation, according to a report by the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA. Missouri also has the greatest disparity between how often black and white students get out-of-school suspension for infractions.
“We have to believe and see that all children are children, even the ones with behavior problems, even the ones with learning disabilities, even the ones that have done very bad and destructive things,” Stevenson said. “Too many school systems are looking to throw away the broken children. We expel, we suspend, we tell them not to come back. Those are the very children that need us.”
Superintendent Kelvin Adams has worked to reduce the out-of-school suspension rate since 2008, when he began leading the school system. The numbers are down by more than half, district data show, partly because disruptive older students have been steered instead to alternative schools and online education programs.
But the district’s suspension rate remains one of the highest in the state, with about 4,000 suspensions issued in 2013-14. It wascalled out in February in a study by UCLA that examined racial disparities in school discipline across the nation.
A therapeutic school for elementary and middle schoolers is about to open to serve children grappling with trauma. In Jennings, a district that touches St. Louis’ northern border, teachers and counselors are learning how to be “trauma sensitive,” so they can help children overcome circumstances of crime and poverty — an approach that Stevenson says shows promise.
Adams was interested in getting Stevenson to talk to staff after he read Stevenson’s book, “Just Mercy,” and heard his TED Talk. Stevenson was the only person short of Obama who Adams wanted for the keynote, he said.
“His message was the appropriate message for where we are right now in light of what’s happening in this country and this region in the last year,” Adams said afterward.
The district paid to rent the Fox. The St. Louis Public Schools Foundation and the Parsons Blewett Memorial Fund paid for Stevenson to come.
District staff gave Stevenson three standing ovations. Some teachers wore matching T-shirts emblazoned with their school’s name. They received mugs with the slogan, “Change Lives.”
Stevenson told them that by changing lives of students, they could change the world.
“Our hope is essential in making a difference in the lives that we serve,” he said. “I’ve been to school where I’ve seen hopeless teachers, hopeless administrators. Those kids are not going to get what they need to be successful.”