Dorothy Rohde Collins: It’s going to take teamwork to uplift St. Louis schools

A school system tired of being ignored and a city grappling with population decline. These two entities, long viewed as unrelated, are now revealed to be inextricably linked. Schools exist to educate and support children, but neighborhoods without children cannot support schools. The system screams for change, demanding that the power of governmental collaboration be harnessed for good. The city and school district must work in tandem toward a common goal of aligning neighborhoods and schools.

The shared power of a major U.S. city and its school system working together to set policy and to plan for the future remains untapped. Yet, this is the perfect moment to change course, to create the long-lasting, systemic change that St. Louis craves and so desperately needs. The processes of redrawing ward boundaries and reducing the number of wards coincide with the urgent need for a citywide plan for education, providing the ultimate opportunity to design a city to serve every St. Louis citizen. No longer can those with authority and power move down separate paths; they must instead commit to following one path into the future together. It is time to stop doing the easy thing and do the right thing.

Currently, the limitless potential of collaboration between our city’s municipal government and its school district is hampered by fingers of blame pointing in all directions, by parties working in isolation that are simultaneously propelled by hubris and held back by cowardice. This moment calls for us to put aside our standard way of thinking and embrace a revolutionary approach.

Tuesday’s election gives us the chance to do just that when a new mayor, 16 aldermen, and three school board members will be elected to serve the city of St. Louis. And while education has been at the forefront of this election cycle unlike any other in recent memory, the conversation hasn’t risen above simple campaign rhetoric.


Too much confusion over who has the influence to improve the system, too many platitudes, and too many overly simplistic solutions to a generations-old and systems-level problem are all clear evidence that an innate sense of the public’s ownership of its education system is missing, and are proof that the city and school system have operated separately for too long. There can’t be a great city without a great public school system, and those elected to the highest offices in St. Louis can no longer hide behind ignorance. No one of us has every answer, and only by embracing the vulnerability of not knowing all the answers will the conversation be allowed to begin in earnest. We must reject standard doctrine and search for true solutions through intellectual honesty.

In this quest to create a cohesive system of schools that serves all kids all the time — one that preserves every child’s right to an excellent education — some truths are self-evident:

• Education is a human right and a social justice issue.

• The current system of education is the product of decades of decisions rooted in racism and made in isolation without regard to the importance of schools in the ecosystem of a community.

• Public education must belong to the people it serves.

A project of this magnitude will require all parties to contribute their expertise in the right ways and at the right times. Scholars, education practitioners, neighborhood developers, politicians and community members must commit to doing the work even — and especially when — it gets hard.

At every step of the way, it will be important to be skeptical of those individuals or organizations who claim to have all the answers, for those who are doing the real work of educating children every day know there are no quick fixes or easy solutions. Change, real meaningful change, doesn’t happen as quickly as philanthropists can write checks. Change only for the sake of change creates upheaval that wreaks havoc on those people most in need of something different. St. Louis needs a clear citywide plan that embraces its system of public education and we need it right now.