• By Kristen Taketa St. Louis Post-Dispatch 

    ST. LOUIS • When it was time to choose a school for her only daughter, Andrea Rybialek first thought of applying to Kennard or Mallinckrodt — St. Louis Public Schools’ gifted and most prestigious elementary schools.

    Rybialek also thought of sending her to Gateway Science Academy, a popular charter school network in south St. Louis, because “that’s what everyone else was doing.”

    Instead, she ended up choosing Mason, a no-frills neighborhood school in Clifton Heights.

    Out of the nine St. Louis district schools that earned a perfect score from the state last year, Mason was the only one that was a neighborhood school, which takes any students within its attendance boundaries. All the rest were magnet schools, which get to choose which students they admit.

    There’s nothing flashy about Mason. It has no theme or brand as St. Louis magnet, choice and charter schools do.

    But the school is gradually becoming one of the city’s more popular schools, so much so that it turned away students for the first time this school year because of a lack of seats. It’s a rare moment where a neighborhood school outcompetes charter and magnet schools in attracting some students.

    “We’re a neighborhood school, but we’re almost a school of choice,” said Deborah Leto, Mason’s principal.

    To compete with a larger number of school choices in the city and to combat declining enrollment, St. Louis Public Schools has worked to cultivate its magnet and choice schools, which are often branded with themes and where families have to apply for admission.

    It’s created a divide within the school district between high-performing magnet schools, which tend to educate more white and wealthier students, and generally lower-performing neighborhood schools, which tend to educate poor, black students. The high-performing magnet schools, meanwhile, help balloon the district’s overall scores.

    The district is now developing a selective-admission gifted school at Columbia Elementary and rebranding eight neighborhood schools with themes from engineering to international studies in an effort to attract students. Meanwhile, it is closing two, nearly all-black, north St. Louis neighborhood schools — Cote Brilliante Elementary and Langston Middle — because of low enrollment.

    But Superintendent Kelvin Adams still says neighborhood schools like Mason are “incredibly important.” There are benefits to neighborhood schools — such as a sense of local community and seeing your neighbors at school — that can be lost with schools where students are bused in from all over the city.

    “People like to apply to stuff, but people also like to walk out the door and walk to their school,” Adams said. “People want a good school irrespective of the place. We try to do both.”

    Building a reputation

    Mason is so popular that it draws families across the city. Half of the school’s students don’t live within the school’s boundaries, but choose to drive to Mason themselves under a district policy that allows city students to attend any neighborhood school, as long as they find transportation and as long as there’s room.

    Parents are drawn to Mason for its reputation for safety and community. There hasn’t been a school fight in five years, said Leto, while knocking on a wooden table. Leto, who has anchored the school as its principal for a decade, said the school wasn’t always so safe. Her first day as principal, she suspended a female student for pushing another student down the stairs.

    “She said, ‘You don’t suspend me,’” Leto said. “I said, ‘Yes, I do.’”

    Now, the school enjoys advantages that many other neighborhood schools would envy.

    It has an active parent-teacher organization, a partnership with the Center of Creative Arts that integrates arts across curricula and a comfortable neighborhood, where popular restaurants Chris’ Pancake and Dining and Adam’s Smokehouse are down the street.

    In addition, the school tends to draw parents who are committed enough to their children’s education that more than half of them provide transportation on their own.

    Mason is also grounded by its high-demand preschool. Leto built up Mason’s preschool from one classroom a decade ago to five classrooms today with 80 children. The preschool has a wait list of about 30 families every year. Parents like it because it’s free and all-day and includes breakfast, lunch, art, P.E. and academics, Leto said. Many preschool families stay at Mason through elementary school, a continuity that helps make for lower student turnover.

    “I know if you get the little ones in, they stay, and that’s how you build a population,” Leto said.

    Building relationships

    In the main hallway of the school, a row of 21 national flags hangs from the ceiling. They represent the 21 foreign countries Mason students hail from, including Bhutan, Brazil and Cambodia. Some of the languages students speak include Arabic, Somali, Swahili and Kirundi.

    While parents say they like the community feel of the school, many say they primarily came here for this racial and ethnic diversity, which contributes to that favorable school climate.

    “We didn’t want them to go to a school where everybody looks the same,” said Suzie Earley, a St. Louis resident whose son attends Mason’s preschool and will enter Mason’s kindergarten next school year.

    Unlike most St. Louis Public Schools, more than half of which are at least 90 percent black in neighborhoods segregated by housing discrimination, Mason has a rare diversity of 51 percent black, 30 percent white, 15 percent Hispanic and 3 percent Asian pupils. A lot of that is due to Mason’s large international population.

    Out of 400 students, 120 are immigrants or refugees. Leto said that’s because Mason is the closest English language learner school that pulls students from the Hodiamont area, where many immigrant and refugee families live.

    Racial and ethnic diversity makes for popular schools. That’s the case for many of the city school district’s high-performing schools such as Collegiate, McKinley and Metro. That’s the case for charter schools like City Garden Montessori, Lafayette Preparatory Academy and The Biome, which are becoming so popular they are worried about low-income families being pushed out of their admission pools.

    “Diversity always builds connections. It builds relationships,” Leto said. “It’s a great strength because the kids are so accepting of each other.”

    At Mason, cultural learning seeps through in small ways. Once, a student asked why girls were wearing hijabs. So the staff brought in a cleric from a nearby mosque to explain their cultural importance. The day after Eid al-Fitr, a Muslim holy day that celebrates the end of Ramadan, teachers ask students to share about it with their classmates.

    “Our mission is to build kids for a global society, which this building is,” Leto said.