School & District Management

Hopes Riding on Leader for Troubled St. Louis District

By Lesli A. Maxwell — October 28, 2008 7 min read
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Kelvin Adams, who takes over next week as the St. Louis schools’ seventh superintendent since 2003, will arrive already familiar with the dynamics of a district under state supervision. Still, the leadership and management challenges he faces are daunting.

The St. Louis schools have been run since June 2007 by an appointed, three-person Special Administrative Board set up by the state of Missouri after it stripped the district of its accreditation for poor academic performance. The arrangement is similar in some respects to that of the state-run Recovery School District in New Orleans, where Mr. Adams has served since July 2007 as chief of staff to Superintendent Paul G. Vallas.

“This is a state-takeover district, and the focus is on raising student achievement, and that’s the same environment and focus area I’m coming from in New Orleans,” Mr. Adams said of St. Louis, which will be his first superintendency. “Having the SAB in place should ensure that we don’t lose our focus on that critical piece and get distracted by a bunch of other issues.”

Though the St. Louis district made some modest academic improvements in the 2007-08 school year, the long-term survival of the city’s school system is at stake, local and state leaders say.

After the Missouri board of education revoked the district’s accreditation in March 2007, enrollment went into a free fall. Last fall, the district enrolled roughly 36,000 students, but just more than 27,000 students are enrolled this school year. In 2000, enrollment stood at 44,000.

Parents are increasingly opting to enroll their children in the small number of charter schools that are operating in the city or to send them to neighboring suburban districts that are accredited—an option allowed under state law once the city schools lost accreditation last year. For nearly 30 years, under a desegregation agreement, thousands of St. Louis students have enrolled in neighboring districts, while a smaller number of students from the more affluent areas of St. Louis County have enrolled in the city’s magnet schools.

At the same time, the district has had to grapple with a deficit that this school year stands at roughly $20 million in a $345 million annual budget.

“I think we are definitely at a stage where we understand that if labor, management, and the entire community do not find a way to work together and improve this district, we aren’t going to have a district at all,” said Mary J. Armstrong, the president of aft St. Louis, Local 420, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

Hands-On Board

Now, parents, teachers, and community leaders are cautiously optimistic that the district’s decline can be stemmed. Mr. Adams, 52, is set to begin work Nov. 3 and will have a three-year contract, at an annual salary of $225,000.

The administrative board, which is expected to govern the district for at least another three years, named Mr. Adams to the job last month. About six months after taking over, the board announced it would conduct a national search for a superintendent and asked then-Superintendent Diana Bourisaw to apply for the job. She declined.

Rick Sullivan, a home builder and businessman appointed president of the SAB by Gov. Matt Blunt, a Republican, said in an interview that Mr. Adams is the right leader for steering the schools back into good academic standing and for working with an appointed board that plays a large role in the day-to-day administration of the district.

To that end, Mr. Sullivan said, the new superintendent will be charged with dealing aggressively with human-capital issues. He will have to hire a chief academic officer, a chief accountability officer, and a chief operating officer right away.

“We need someone who is fair and objective in making assessments of the people we’ve got working in the district who are doing their jobs and those who need to be replaced,” Mr. Sullivan said. “The district is no longer in a position to tolerate anything other than holding every person accountable for student-achievement results, and Kelvin has the demeanor, work ethic, and leadership qualities that it will take.”

The Special Administrative Board also includes Melanie Adams, a former executive director of Teach For America operations in St. Louis, who was appointed by Mayor Francis Slay, and Richard K. Gaines, a local businessman and former St. Louis school board president, who was appointed by the president of the city’s board of aldermen.

Familiar Challenges

Some of the enormous challenges facing St. Louis will be familiar to Mr. Adams.

For one, Mr. Adams, a longtime educator who rose through the teaching and administrative ranks in the New Orleans public school system, worked in St. Louis after Hurricane Katrina devastated his hometown. He spent 10 months in the district working under two superintendents, first overseeing the middle schools and later serving as the executive director of human resources.

As chief of staff in the Recovery School District—a state-run entity set up to govern New Orleans’ failing schools—Mr. Adams has helped Mr. Vallas hire hundreds of new teachers, implement a managed-instruction curriculum meant to address some of the lowest achievement levels in the nation, and oversee an explosion of charter schools that have opened since the hurricane. Mr. Adams was seen as the most likely successor to Mr. Vallas.

Mr. Adams said his work with Mr. Vallas would likely show up in St. Louis, perhaps in the form of longer school days and a longer school year. Mr. Adams also wants to tap in to outside groups, such as Teach For America and New Leaders for New Schools, as a source for teachers and principals for St. Louis.

“We need the best and the brightest here,” he said, “and can’t do things the usual way anymore.”

“Kelvin understands very well what the core reforms have been here in New Orleans and how those can apply in a place like St. Louis,” Mr. Vallas said in an interview. “He’s had a taste of managed instruction and has seen how effective that can be. He knows how to deal with charters and how to work with a host of diverse education groups.

“He has navigated very well the Balkanized landscape of public education that’s occurred here since Katrina.”

Roslyn Johnson Smith, a former New Orleans regional superintendent who now runs a charter school, supervised Mr. Adams while he was the principal in one of the city’s largest high schools.

“It was a load off my shoulders having Kelvin in charge of that school, which had had lots of problems with discipline,” Ms. Johnson Smith said. “He brought order, he was calm, and by the end of the year, people were requesting to be assigned to work there.”

Favorite Choice

That experience, coupled with his brief time in St. Louis, made Mr. Adams the favorite choice of many parents and community members, even those who have opposed the state’s intervention in St. Louis.

“He seems like someone who will really listen and wants to hear what parents are concerned about,” said Doris Walker-McGahee, the president of the Parent Assembly, a group that opposed the takeover. “What we care most about are the long-term academic prospects for this district, and we feel like if he can help turn the Recovery School District around, he can do the same thing here.”

Though the district is unaccredited, individual schools have remained in good academic standing through a separate accreditation process, said James L. Morris, a spokesman for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Peter L. Downs, the president of the St. Louis school board, did not support the hiring of any of the finalists for the superintendent’s job, though he said that Mr. Adams was probably the best choice.

The elected board—which was sidelined last year when the state stepped in—unsuccessfully sued to overturn the loss of accreditation and to reinstate itself as the governing authority for the district. The board continues to meet.

“At least he knows something about the district’s culture, which should be helpful,” Mr. Downs said of Mr. Adams. “But it remains very unclear how much latitude he will have under the SAB.”

Mr. Sullivan, the president of the SAB, said that while he and his fellow board members will closely manage the district, especially budget and debt issues, Mr. Adams will be the architect of the district’s academic reforms.

“We have defined this as a partnership among us four people who must make every decision based on how it will improve student achievement,” Mr. Sullivan said. “He’s the expert on raising student achievement.”

Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation, at
A version of this article appeared in the October 29, 2008 edition of Education Week as New St. Louis Superintendent Facing Big Job in State-Supervised District


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