By Kristen Taketa St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Four years ago, Darryll Wagner decided to enroll in a high school that didn’t exist yet.
The Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience, a new St. Louis city magnet school, had no building and no teachers at the time Wagner was applying to high schools. But it had a principal who promised him it would be unlike any other public city high school.
“I was like, sure, why not. Let’s try it,” Wagner said. “I want to do something different. I didn’t want to stay with my friends. I wanted to meet new people.”
On Sunday, Wagner walked in Collegiate’s first graduating class of just 44 students. In his four years of high school, Wagner has been trained and certified in CPR and worked with doctors. He’s practiced giving stitches to a human simulator model. For his senior capstone research project, he attended a psychology class at St. Louis University and worked with a professor to research racial identity and how racial stereotypes are formed.
“We’ve got the real-world stuff and making connections with people,” said Wagner, who will attend the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
Collegiate began in 2013 much in the way a charter or private school is started: It was founded by a group of interested community members, who worked with St. Louis Public Schools Superintendent Kelvin Adams.
The group conceived the school as an experiment in changing what a city public high school looks like. Collegiate markets itself as a private school education for a public school cost — which is to say that it’s free. Unlike many other public city high schools, it has its own college admissions counselor, a lecture hall that hosts talks by professionals such as St. Louis University and Washington University academics, and a requirement that seniors complete an internship or a capstone research project before graduating, said Frederick Steele, Collegiate’s principal.
And its students and leaders say the model is working. Out of the 44 students who graduated, 39 are headed toward four-year colleges, and one will attend a medical school in Pakistan.
“There’s just no way it would’ve been done in the system,” said Maxine Clark, founder of Build-a-Bear Workshop and a member of Collegiate’s advisory board. “It was a different way of thinking, and Dr. Adams embraced it.”
All students take two science classes at a time, in addition to electives such as orchestra and computer coding. The point of the school is to help supply a pipeline of highly skilled workers to St. Louis’ medical, bioscience and technology industries, which are struggling to fill jobs. BJC Healthcare alone has more than 600 openings for nurses in St. Louis.
“We really have a paucity of highly skilled workers to assume leadership in those fields,” said Will Ross, associate dean for diversity at Washington University’s School of Medicine and member of Collegiate’s advisory board. Ross said that was especially the case for people of color.
Collegiate performs well, partly because it culls good students from the beginning: Applicants must have at least a 3.0 grade-point average, plus complete an interview, write an essay and provide letters of recommendation to get in.
Steele said about half of the students at Collegiate qualified for free or reduced-price lunches, a measure of poverty, and about 17 percent are transfer students from St. Louis County. The school is also racially diverse — about 53 percent of students are black and 28 percent are white.
Many of the offerings at Collegiate that aren’t available at other district schools came from suggestions by the school’s own advisory board, another feature unique to Collegiate.
The board is a prime example of how community resources can benefit a school. The board of 14 was chosen to include some of the biggest names in St. Louis, including Clark and Ross; Dennis Lower, president and CEO of Cortex; and Bob Fox, founder of NewSpace Inc. and Casa de Salud.
It was the board that pushed to move the school from its original location near Forest Park to its current location in the old Wyman Elementary School, 1547 South Theresa Avenue near St. Louis University Hospital. The board suggested getting a college counselor and having Adams allow the principal to make his own hires, Clark said.
And the board has helped supply the resources to make these things happen.
The board has donated money for bus passes so students can get to their internships, money for students to take the PSAT, money to pay for college application fees and money for field trip buses, said Susan Katzman, a board member and retired director of career and technical education for the district.
The board will soon leverage its fundraising power for a much more ambitious project: a $13 million science wing with six laboratories, a greenhouse and a high school-size gym. Students currently take science classes in four mobile labs in the back of the school.
The board’s connections have secured internships at Cortex, the St. Louis Zoo, Danforth Plant Science Center, BJC, SLU Medical School and more. Every senior completes an internship or capstone research project with one of these sites, Steele said.
“I think it’s going to be a model for other schools in the future,” Ross said of the advisory board.
The school still has issues to work out. For one, it’s still trying to grow. Adams hopes to increase enrollment to 350 from the current 220.
Staff retention is another issue. The vast majority of teachers who were at the school at its founding have left.
“This is supposed to be equal to Metro, and you don’t get equal to Metro overnight,” Adams said, comparing Collegiate to the district’s most successful magnet high school. “But they’re doing well.”