When protests erupted in this community last year after the death of Michael Brown, and then later when a grand jury declined to indict the white police officer who shot the black 18-year-old, Shawn Filer and Aniya Betts wanted to be part of the solution.
Spurred by the events, the two 11th graders at McCluer High School in the Ferguson-Florissant school district decided to focus on improving their school, first by participating in forums on race and then leading The Vision, a student group formed in the wake of the unrest.
In the past year, The Vision’s efforts have centered on in-school activities that could make a difference for students, including improving interactions between students and teachers, a step that could prove instrumental in reducing disciplinary infractions, suspensions, and expulsions.
“All of these kids here, they’ve had tear gas in their backyards. They have had family members locked up at the protests. They have themselves been at the protests,” said Shawn, 16, the group’s president.
“A school really represents what community it’s in. So if you can change the school, you can have hope to change the community in the future.”
Brown’s death, on Aug. 9, 2014, thrust this community of 21,000 residents— 67 percent of whom are African-American—into the national spotlight and ushered in a yearlong examination inside and outside of school here in St. Louis County and nationwide about race, police-community relations, bias, and inequities in core public institutions, from the criminal-justice system to schools.
Districts Step Up
That wake-up call has extended to local school systems, which are examining policies and practices that implicitly or explicitly lead to disproportionate student outcomes. Some of those school systems, in what is known as North County, educate primarily black and low-income students.
The St. Louis city schools, for example, have been reviewing discipline and suspension data to understand the reasons behind the high suspension rate for African-American boys. In the neighboring Normandy district, one of two in the state that are unaccredited, new teachers were trained this summer on culturally responsive practices. They will also be assigned mentors. The district plans to offer Advanced Placement classes at the high school.
Students in Ferguson-Florissant schools tend to fare worse than the rest of the state when it comes to graduation rates, family-income levels, and participation in gifted programs, statistics suggest. Within the district, the data show that black students are suspended far more often than their white counterparts.
Source: U.S. Department of Education Civil Rights Data Collector
And both the Ferguson-Florissant and Jennings districts have hired full-time mental-health counselors to help children work through the trauma of the tumultuous year and the daily challenges that may interfere with their education.
In addition, two dozen districts in the St. Louis County area have agreed to help Normandy and Riverview Gardens, the other unaccredited district, regain their state accreditation by the 2017-18 school year. That’s a shift in attitude from previous years, when Normandy parents had to sue some of the same districts in order to enroll their children in those schools. (Brown graduated from the Normandy district.)
The 11,200-student Ferguson-Florissant district, which educates a majority of students in the city of Ferguson but also draws its enrollment from 11 municipalities, has hired a new superintendent to lead the district through a period of change and at a time of intense scrutiny.
Joseph Davis, an African-American graduate of Harvard University who grew up in rural North Carolina, said he was attracted to the job precisely because of the Brown shooting, the racial and economic fissures it revealed, and his desire to make a difference in the lives of all students, particularly those who appear at the bottom of nearly all major educational analyses: black boys.
“I think we have to have an environment ... in which to have a safe conversation about race and how to move forward,” said Davis. “And, for me, this is the greatest opportunity for us as a country to do it right.”
Davis is the second African-American to hold the job. The first, Art McCoy, resigned in March, months before Brown’s death, after he was suspended without public explanation by the school board. His exit drew an outcry from students and parents who thought he was leading the district in the right direction and wanted him to stay.
School Board Under Scrutiny
The district is also facing a lawsuit by the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which charges that Ferguson-Florissant violates the federal Voting Rights Act because the election system makes it hard for African-Americans to win seats on the school board.
This yearlong series will examine efforts to recognize and overcome discrimination in schools. View the complete series.
When the lawsuit was filed in December of last year, one African-American sat on the seven-member board. Now there are two. About 81 percent of the district’s students are black.
Davis plans to conduct an “equity audit” that will examine teacher certification and placement, discipline rates, participation in Advanced Placement courses, and the division of resources among the different towns that feed into the district.
While the audit is underway, he is concentrating on helping principals to become better instructional leaders. Principals have received training on how to distribute leadership, improve teacher observation, and give more constructive feedback to teachers, he said. Davis also wants to work with the community to open a STEM academy, launch an International Baccalaureate program, and expand AP participation. His strategy includes listening to students about the changes they want to see in the district.
His goal, he said, is to transform the district into a top-flight system, similar to the ones that are featured in the annual U.S. News & World Report ranking of the country’s best high schools.
To achieve that, Davis must improve student achievement. Although the district is accredited, student performance on state assessments has lagged behind the state. In 2014, for example, 26.7 percent of all 3rd graders showed proficient or advanced-level proficiency on the state’s English/language arts tests. Eighth-grade English/language arts scores were better, but not by much: 25 percent were proficient, and 9.5 percent were advanced.
The city is also making adjustments as it heals from Brown’s death and the resulting protests.
Following a scathing U.S. Department of Justice report in March that revealed unchecked biases against African-Americans in the police and municipal court systems, the police chief and the city manager resigned. Both replacements are black.
Focus on Youth
In late August, a majority of establishments along West Florissant Avenue, the center of the demonstrations, appeared to be back in business. But others, including Jade Nails Plaza, which was burned to the ground during riots in November, were still boarded up. A memorial of colorful stuffed animals—including Kermit the Frog, teddy bears, and a yellow-and-black-striped caterpillar—still occupies the median on Canfield Drive, where Brown’s body lay for nearly four hours after he was shot.
Ferguson Councilman Dwayne James, who also serves as the president of the board of directors of the 5-year-old Ferguson Youth Initiative, said there has been more focus on youth since Brown’s death.
On a recent Saturday morning, about a dozen parents and teenagers sat in the basement of a decommissioned firehouse to hear about strategies for improving their chances of getting into and through college. Programs like these and others that seek to expand educational, recreational, and enrichment opportunities for teenagers had been in the works, but Brown’s death created an urgency to carry them out, James said.
“We should have had these conversations about race two years ago, five years ago, 10 years ago,” he said. “We should have had more of a focus on youths and how [to] better engage them in the community a long time ago.”
Residents also have been awaiting the report of the Ferguson Commission, a 16-member body that Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon appointed last year to review the underlying issues that led to the rupture in Ferguson and recommend changes. The final report was due by Sept. 15, but the commission has already approved “calls to action,” which were expected to form the basis of the final document.
Its education recommendations include reforming school discipline, suspension, and expulsion procedures; ending out-of-school suspensions for pre-K-3 students; implementing universal prekindergarten; retooling the state’s student-transfer law; ensuring that all high school students have access to rigorous courses to prepare them for college and careers; and expanding partnerships between districts, higher education institutions, nonprofit organizations, and the business communities.
State Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, who represents Ferguson and is a school board member in University City, near the city of St. Louis, is impatient. Many of the commission’s proposals were already included in the dozens of Ferguson-related bills that were filed in the legislature in the last year, she said.
Chappelle-Nadal argues that part of the fundamental inequity in education in St. Louis County is that the student-transfer law, which allows students to move from a failing district to an accredited one, is not being followed, and that Gov. Nixon, a Democrat, has vetoed attempts to fix it. She wants a Justice Department investigation.
“Education is ... what gives a child a chance,” she said. “It’s what allows a child to go outside their four-block radius in which they live and dare to dream, and dare to challenge society and demand what should be given to them, naturally, because they were born in the United States of America.”
Meanwhile, Aniya Betts and Shawn Filer, the Ferguson-Florissant students, said that in the year since Brown’s death, they have seen little difference in school policies, but they have noticed a willingness among administrators to allow students to discuss race and the events in Ferguson. They said some teachers discussed the underlying problems that may have sparked the protests, but were quick to move on.
Back at the firehouse, James, the city councilman, said the Ferguson Youth Initiative was planning a job-placement and mentoring program for youths. The group also plans a youth summit this fall.
James said he remained hopeful that things will get better.
“Personally, I think we are going to be the community that figures it out,” he said.
A version of this article appeared in the September 16, 2015 edition of Education Week as Students Are Hope, Impetus for Recovery in Ferguson