Faced with years of declines in student enrollment, the St. Louis school district decided that one way to reverse the trend was to start small.
Starting in the 2011-12 school year, the 27,000-student school system began increasing its number of preschool seats, using part of the money from a 2011 court settlement of a long-running desegregation case. About $23 million over three years was earmarked to renovate classrooms, buy furniture and equipment, and pay teachers. The number of preschoolers enrolled grew from about 1,300 in 2011 to about 2,000 this school year. Space and money constraints have kept the program from growing further for the time being, but interest is intense: There’s a waiting list at nearly every school that offers the program.
The preschool program is counted as a bright spot in the troubled district, and an example of the working partnership between Kelvin R. Adams, 57, the district’s superintendent since 2008, and Mary J. Armstrong, the president since 2003 of the St. Louis Teachers Union, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. Born and raised in St. Louis, Ms. Armstrong, 60, has spent her entire career in the district. In February, Mr. Adams’ contract was renewed for an additional two years, until 2016.
In addition to the court-settlement money, the district and the union applied jointly for a three-year, $450,000 innovation-fund grant from the AFT. That money provided training in best practices in early education for the district’s teachers and paraprofessionals. The union has also supported extra training for teachers in a program intended to improve children’s oral-language skills.
Both Mr. Adams and Ms. Armstrong say the district could not have had the successful preschool expansion without each other’s help. It was part of a larger undertaking on the part of the district and the union to see one another not as adversaries, but as permanent partners in an effort to keep St. Louis schools viable and on a path of academic improvement. “We are both interested in the same outcome, which for me is increased student achievement,” Mr. Adams said.
The union has “to make sure our program in St. Louis public schools is as attractive as we can make it,” Ms. Armstrong said.
Which is not to say that all problems between the district and its teachers’ union are easily resolved, said Mr. Adams, who was the chief of staff in the New Orleans Recovery School District before coming to St. Louis. Negotiations over wages and teacher tenure can often be difficult, though the two sides try to meet in the middle when possible.
“It’s like a marriage—sometimes we need counseling, sometimes somebody sleeps on the sofa,” he said. “But we are committed to the relationship. We cannot have a divorce.”
The St. Louis district has been buffeted by bad news over the past several years, including persistently low test scores and management woes that prompted the state to revoke its accreditation in 2007 and appoint a board to oversee district management. That board hired Mr. Adams, and by 2012, the district had clawed its way back to a provisional accreditation status. The district remains under the supervision of the appointed special administrative board.
School officials reasoned that more preschool slots could potentially mean more parents who might be willing to stick with the district for elementary school and beyond if they see good results for their children, instead of moving to suburban districts or charter schools. So the district promoted its offerings as providing 3- and 4-year-olds with highly trained teachers who also provide free before- and after-school care, a lure for working parents.
Apart from the notion of attracting parents, the union supported early-childhood programs because of what it saw as a genuine need: The St. Louis union’s research found that 56 percent of the 3- and 4-year-olds in St. Louis prior to the expansion were not enrolled in any early-childhood-education programs, including private providers, district-run programs, or federally funded Head Start centers. The district’s enrollment is 82 percent black, and 88 percent of its students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.
Compulsory education in Missouri starts at age 7, and many students were arriving at school in 1st grade with school-readiness skills far below those of some of their peers, Ms. Armstrong said. The union had a five-point plan for improving the district, which included professional development, reduced class sizes, community engagement, and mentorship for new teachers, in addition to expanded pre-K.
Early childhood “was one of the key focuses for the union. We partnered on making sure that it was a focus for the district,” Mr. Adams said.
The union and the district have also leveraged their partnership to bring in outside heavy-hitters, such as Barbara T. Bowman, who was the chief early-childhood-education officer for the Chicago district from 2004 to 2012, to consult on the preschool curriculum. Susan B. Neuman, an expert in early-literacy development from New York University and a former assistant secretary of education under President George W. Bush, is also partnering with the district and the union to support oral-language instruction. Teachers are being trained in ways to expand their students’ vocabulary.
The results of the preschool program, and the larger partnership between the district and the union, has been exciting to Byron Clemens, the project director for the AFT’s innovation-fund grant and a former St. Louis union vice president. “We try to build positive relationships for the fundamental things we’re in agreement about,” Mr. Clemens said.
And when disagreements over other issues threaten to drive a wedge between the union and district leaders, Mr. Adams and Ms. Armstrong say they don’t hesitate to call in a “marriage counselor"—Linda Stelly, the senior associate director for the AFT’s department of education issues. Based in Washington, Ms. Stelly said she offers a sounding board to the two groups. In contract negotiations, for example, she has seen the union give concessions on wages. The district, for its part, has supported the union in its goal of increased professional development. And sometimes, the best thing for both parties is to take a breather if interactions threaten to get too heated.
“They are willing to step back and say, ‘I need some distance,’” Ms. Stelly said of the two leaders. That often helps both parties refocus on the bigger picture, she said.
St. Louis is still a district facing huge challenges. Student enrollment, though holding steady now, has plummeted since its heyday in the 1960s, when more than 100,000 children attended the public schools. New accreditation standards rank the district second-to-last in the state in student achievement, setting up another potential fight to stay accredited.
But amid those concerns are conversations about building a new school in a part of the city where there’s a big pocket of families with young children. And there are continuing conversations about expanding preschool further.
“We’re not maxed out by any stretch of the imagination,” Mr. Adams said.
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A version of this article appeared in the March 05, 2014 edition of Education Week