Official Blog of the Education Exchange Corps

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

The Setting: St. Louis

The Gateway to the West, host of the 1904 World's Fair, the eastern metropolis of the Show Me State; there is a lot of history built into St. Louis, a history that still casts its shadow over the city today.

If you've ever seen anything associated with the city, you've probably gotten at least a glimpse of our famous landmark--the Arch.
The cityscape is incomplete without this monument, which is a memorial to President Thomas Jefferson's agreeing to the Louisiana Purchase and the nation's western expansion in general. If you take a close look at the picture to the left, you'll see a lighted building with a domed top that appears to be neon green beneath the Arch. That is the Old Courthouse, where the infamous Dred Scott case that upheld the evils of slavery was argued. While slavery is dead to us today, its legacy has found a way to survive our efforts to stamp it out in St. Louis.

Still, today, downtown St. Louis is nicer than it has ever been in my lifetime. The city has been one of the leaders in the urban renewal movement, and recent estimates suggest that the population flight, which has had a major impact on the city, has stopped. In 1950, over 850,000 people lived in the city. Estimates from 2006 had the city at under 350,000 residents, and more recent estimates report similar numbers.

While the city is arguably in a state of rejuvenation, blight is no uncommon sight. Driving 10-15 minutes either north or south within city limits unveils the lingering problems affecting the city, and the immensity of the project the city has undertaken. Much of the city remains economically and racially segregated, a remnant of restrictive community covenants, legally done away with in the mid-1900s, that prevented blacks from moving into white neighborhoods. Poverty levels are high, buildings are vacated and often dilapidated, old shops are boarded, jobs are scarce, and schools are struggling to educate the community's children.

The St. Louis Public Schools (SLPS), the city's public school district, has a huge challenge on its hands. Education is supposed to be our nation's best opportunity for the poor to escape poverty, but that charge is difficult to undertake for any school system that must cope with widespread poverty. In 2009, almost 70% of SLPS children received free/reduced price lunches. That number is often much higher at individual schools where virtually every student enrolled is considered to be "at-risk," sometimes reaching higher than 95%.

In this environment, some schools have shined, many have failed, and as a result the district is today unaccredited. Today, the reform process is accelerating. Schools have been closed and students were consolidated at fewer sites in order to shrink a district, once meant to serve the children of almost one million people, so that it can spread resources more effectively to the 25,000 kids who are enrolled today. The district is also embracing creative interventions in an effort to improve academic outcomes.

The challenges are overwhelming and the results have so far not been good enough. Children today are suffering because of the sins of our collective past, and the cycle of poverty too often remains unbroken.

With this history in mind, a lifelong St. Louisan, just into his sophomore year in college, made a phone call to the St. Louis Public Schools. When no one picked up, or called him back again for two weeks, he figured the lack of response was normal with a district not know for its great reputation. Little did he know that it was he who had faltered--the message he left with the Office of Volunteer Services was incoherent at best. After a call to the United Way in St. Louis, he quickly found himself calling the St. Louis Public Schools again.

This time, he got an answer:
"I wanted to get in touch with you, but I couldn't understand your name on the message!"

"Sorry about that. I just thought you didn't want to talk to me. My name is Elad."


Little did either person on that phone call know that out of their joint confusion would emerge a project bringing a handful of college students into a St. Louis summer school to work as teaching assistants, a project that has become a St. Louis tradition for the past 3 years.

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