• by Ray Hartmann

    January 6, 2017 10:25 AM

    This week, a strange occurrence took place in St. Louis, the educational equivalent of a UFO landing: It was announced that the St. Louis Public Schools were recommended for regaining full accreditation.

    Talk about messing up a perfectly good narrative. The notion that city schools might be making progress must be disorienting to those convinced that all hope is lost. It is an article of faith among activists who fancy themselves reformers that the public school bureaucracy is permanently inept and cares about nothing but its own corrupt self-interest.

    Imagine their incredulity on hearing that the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education was recommending that the State Board of Education restore full accreditation to city schools. What’s next? Hearing that state numbers show the district’s schools outperforming nine of the reformers’ 16 prized charter schools in St. Louis?

    Well, there was that.

    It is counterintuitive to new-age educational thinking on the political right that any public school bureaucracy might change for the better from within or that “anything is better than the status quo” solutions might produce outcomes worse than the status quo.

    But the political right just won an election. Electorally energized foes of public schools are not likely to let the facts stand in the way of a satisfying narrative, so the progress of city schools shouldn’t have much impact on the new legislative session. That progress won’t change anyone’s mind in Jefferson City.

    But it ought to get the attention of fair minds in St. Louis.

    A history lesson is in order. Nearly 10 years ago, the St. Louis Public Schools endured one of the darkest chapters in its then–167-year history. On March 22, 2007, the state revoked the district’s accreditation and seized control of the district.

    There were emotional protests from students, faculty, and administrators. There were lawsuits and arguments that democracy had been destroyed with the elected school board’s disenfranchisement. There was widespread fear.

    It was a big deal—and it was a tragic one. A once prosperous school district was in ruins, dramatically failing in student performance, attendance, and dropout rates. It was awash in $25 million of debt, with bigger deficits seeming inevitable, and its management was considered noncompliant with even the most fundamental reporting requirements.

    SLPS was a hot mess, and when a little-known businessman with scant education experience named Rick Sullivan was introduced as the guy who would head up something called the Special Administrative Board to oversee the schools, he appeared to many as more of an undertaker than a caretaker.

    You could have gotten some long odds back then on a bet that SLPS would survive 10 years, much less return to accreditation by the state board that had seized it. It seemed only a matter of time before the district would be dismantled.

    Turns out, it would have been a good bet to take.

    Across virtually every metric in student performance, governance, and finances, the district has returned from the abyss and is showing steady progress. The $25 million deficit is now a $20 million surplus. Respectability has been restored. A school district that state education officials previously viewed as spiraling out of control is now complying with basic standards.

    To be clear, the district is not prospering, and critics will gladly point to numbers that show majorities of students falling far short of test score standards. This remains a challenged, underfunded urban school district trying to serve an impoverished school population—nearly 90 percent qualifies for federal school lunch programs—so it’s not as if anyone can be satisfied.

    But what an accomplishment it’s been to get to this point. The district’s turnaround has been nothing short of amazing, and serious credit goes to Sullivan, as well as fellow SAB members Richard Gaines and Melanie Adams (and Darnetta Clinkscale, who replaced Adams last summer).

    I’m one of those who in 2007 criticized the notion of torching an elected school board in favor of an unelected one, with the caveat that I knew that Sullivan was a smart guy. I’m happy to admit that I was wrong about the need for extraordinary action.

    It turns out that the key to success was one great hiring decision: the selection in 2008 of Kelvin Adams as superintendent. Since arriving from New Orleans nine years ago, Adams has been nothing short of remarkable in his ability to achieve slow but steady progress where so many before him had failed miserably.

    To put this in perspective, when Adams was hired, he was the district’s eighth superintendent in five years. Today, he is the longest-serving SLPS superintendent in the past half-century.

    On his watch, the school district has improved in every way you can measure it: Test scores are up. Attendance is up. Graduation rates are up. Dropout rates are down.

    None of these numbers is great, though, and Adams never talks about any of it without doing two things: handing out praise to the kids, parents, teachers, and people who work for him and saying  that the district must do better. He’s a hardline guy, perpetually data-driven, and I’m told that he’s sent more than a few principals packing when they weren’t getting the job done. He’s a “no excuses” guy—a phrase he employs often.

    Adams would have been entitled to excuses. The city schools face all kinds of obstacles that don’t afflict wealthier districts, at least not to anywhere near the same degree. There’s the aforementioned 90 percent poverty level, as well as homelessness, broken homes, drug abuse, and gun violence.

    There are plenty of loving, hardworking parents and eager students in Adams’ district, but there are cold realities that make the city’s task very different from those of many other school districts. No education statistics can ever account for them.

    It never ceases to amaze me how many times people will take the per-pupil expenditure in the city schools and compare it to the same statistic in rich county districts, citing it as proof positive that Adams’ district (and all its teachers) must be incompetent, corrupt, or both. Such brilliant analysis always ignores small details, such as the city’s unique financial burdens for special needs students (handled by a separate district in the county), maintenance of aging buildings, and higher security expenses. And those cold realities of poverty are conveniently overlooked.

    When you talk to Adams and his people, though, you won’t hear excuses. They will bend your ear about the 12 schools in the district that rank in the state’s “accredited with distinction” category—meaning that they compete favorably with some of the top public schools in the area—as well as the 22 schools that are fully accredited.

    They will also talk about Adams’ passionate focus on the lower half of his institutions—“superintendent’s zone” schools—which aren’t making the grade but consistently show tangible progress. There’s no hint of satisfaction from him, but there’s serious pride in winning some battles on the front lines.

    At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about: students and teachers and schools interacting, one day at a time, one outcome at a time. That’s as true in public schools as it is in private ones.

    Even though some might find it comforting to boil things down to something as simple and easy as closing a charter school when it fails—which happened twice in the past year at the presumably minor inconvenience of just a few hundred kids, most of whom had to be absorbed, ironically enough, by the dreaded city schools—I’d say the best long-term answers to public education lie in those front-line battles.

    In that regard, I see Kelvin Adams as the sort of guy Teddy Roosevelt was envisioning when he offered this famous passage in 1907:

     “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

    For now, Adams and the city schools will keep plodding along with what they’re doing, and with any luck a few more people will appreciate the effort and a few fewer will denigrate it as hopeless. But with the political climate being what it is, we’re about to see what the critics (a.k.a. “reformers”) can accomplish in Missouri and nationally.

    I have a feeling they’ll be remembered as cold and timid souls. But we’ll just have to wait and see.