In a move signaling the profound change in store for the St. Louis public schools, the superintendent has broken up the district’s most troubled high school in the middle of the year, creating a separate school for the freshmen and placing the most accomplished seniors on a college campus.
Superintendent Creg E. Williams, who began his tenure nine months ago, billed last week’s changes at Vashon High School as the first step in overhauling a district long plagued by financial and academic problems. But he said the problems at Vashon could not wait until his districtwide plans come to fruition.
“For me, it was a question of, do I wait an entire year and risk losing them, or intervene now? I decided to intervene now,” he said in an interview.
As soon as he arrived in St. Louis, Mr. Williams said, it was obvious that Vashon High, with 1,300 students, was the school most in need of help. Half its 9th graders were failing one or more courses, and only seven in 10 showed up at school consistently, he said. Eighty percent of the discipline problems were caused by freshmen.
Beginning last week, all 266 of the school’s 9th graders, along with their teachers, began daily shuttle rides from Vashon to an empty former middle school, their new campus. They are to return to Vashon as sophomores in August.
Mr. Williams also set out to rescue the most motivated 12th graders by allowing them to move with some of their teachers to the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where they will continue their high school classes, but also enroll in two college courses.
The fact that only a third of the members of the senior class met his criteria illustrates the problem. Students had to have a C-plus grade point average, be up to date on their credits, attend class at least 85 percent of the time, and volunteer for the program. The 65 seniors who met those requirements began attending class at the university last week, accompanied by four of their teachers. About 120 of their peers remained at Vashon.
Darnetta Clinkscale, the president of the school board in the 38,000-student district, said the breakup of the school would allow more focused attention to be paid not only to the students in new locations, but also to the sophomores, juniors, and seniors still at Vashon High.
“This will afford them a better quality of education because by lowering the numbers, we can better focus in on their needs,” she said.
‘Learn to Crawl’
Not all the newly transplanted students were happy, however. One freshman shouted at the visiting Mr. Williams that he wanted to be back at Vashon, and many of his classmates murmured in agreement, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.
Mr. Williams said that the student’s poor manners only proved the need for solving student-conduct problems at the high school.
Dorris McGahee, the president of St. Louis’ Parent Assembly, said most parents she knew welcomed the change, especially combined with Mr. Williams’ recent addition of parent safety patrols in a dozen schools.
She lamented that all the Vashon seniors couldn’t have the chance to improve their situations. But she said Mr. Williams “has the right idea” and “had to learn to crawl before he can walk.”
The new superintendent inherits a complex landscape. The district was in such dire shape in 2003 that the school board hired Alvarez & Marsal, the New York City-based turnaround company that is now managing the New Orleans public schools, to overhaul its noninstructional operations. The company finished its work in mid-2004, but despite some stabilization of the district’s finances, St. Louis’ troubles with leadership, money, academics, and the school board persisted. (“St. Louis District Faces Feuding School Board, Labor Unrest, Red Ink,” Jan. 12, 2005.)
Albert E. Bender Sr., a professor emeritus of education at St. Louis University and a former school board member, said the district has been so preoccupied with management problems that academics have taken a back seat.
“Nothing’s been done for a couple of years to improve our academic situation,” he said. The superintendent, he said, has “inherited a district that’s gone backwards.”
For Mr. Bender, the breakup of Vashon High is a strong, positive sign that the administration is focusing on delivering high-quality academic programs.
“The fact that he did it, and that he’s doing other things to take control, is very good,” he said of Mr. Williams.
Sending a Message
The district clearly intended the move to send a clear message—its public-information department alerted reporters nationwide to ensure that it received notice.
District leaders are moving ahead with plans to scale down the size of high schools by establishing separate freshman academies, and to phase out middle schools in favor of K-8 configurations. A similar approach unfolded in Philadelphia, where Mr. Williams oversaw efforts to improve secondary schools before going to St. Louis. The district is also increasing the availability of advanced coursework.
St. Louis, criticized in a 2004 report by the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools for having “no instructional focus,” also moved last fall to a “managed instruction” approach, as have Philadelphia and several other urban districts. In addition to using several highly structured reading programs, such as Direct Instruction, the district asked the Kaplan K12 Learning Services Group to write its high school curriculum. The district also customized a curriculum called CLEAR, purchased from the Houston school district, for its own K-8 program.
A version of this article appeared in the January 25, 2006 edition of Education Week as St. Louis Breaks Up Troubled H.S. at Midyear