The long-troubled East St. Louis school district is savoring some of its best news in years.
Long known for the low achievement of its schools and the rampant mismanagement of its business affairs, the 12,000-student Illinois district has posted some of the most dramatic gains of any system in the state on this year’s standardized exams, according to preliminary data.
“I’m proud of our effort and hope this gives our community a lift to continue,” said Nathaniel Anderson, who is in his second year as the district’s superintendent. “We just don’t want to fall back.”
The state education department has not officially released the test results statewide. Instead, it has given the preliminary numbers to districts.
Mr. Anderson reviewed that data recently before the school board. He said the district’s biggest gain was in 8th grade writing, where the number of East St. Louis students who met or exceeded state standards rose 26 percentage points over last year. The state’s average gain was 11 percentage points.
But the city, which has for decades suffered from high poverty and a declining job base, has a long way to go. While the 8th grade mathematics scores shot up 25 percentage points, more than double the statewide improvement, they still were 20 percentage points behind the state average.
Fifth grade writing scores rose by 12 percentage points, far above the 1-point increase for the state as a whole.
Mr. Anderson, himself a product of the city’s public schools, credited a new and more focused approach to staff development, a curriculum that concentrates on state standards, and higher student attendance for the improved test scores.
“We’ve just been trying to get on the playing field,” Mr. Anderson said in a reference to the amount of work it has taken to begin turning the district around. “We are doing education in East St. Louis.”
News of the test scores was especially sweet for East St. Louis, an impoverished blue-collar city of 40,000 people along the Mississippi River. The school district received national attention when the education author Jonathan Kozol’s 1991 book Savage Inequalities detailed how the community’s poverty had spilled over into the local schools.
In subsequent years, the bad news piled up. In 1994, the state named a three-member panel to oversee the district’s budget. In 1997, the district had one of the longest teacher strikes in the country, and eight of the system’s 25 schools were on the state’s academic watch list that year.
Things got so bad that many local leaders sought greater state intervention in the schools.
The district’s fortunes began to climb, however, in 1997 when voters threw out the school board and elected new leaders. The board hired Mr. Anderson in 1998. (“New Superintendent Brings Hopes Home to East St. Louis,” June 24, 1998.)
In a recent interview, Mr. Anderson pointed to several areas that he believes have contributed to the higher scores. For starters, teacher in-service time is now mandatory and focuses on the standards that are tested by the state. Student attendance has gone up 10 percent in the past year, in part a result of more visits by educators to the homes of absent students.
Classroom materials are also getting to students more quickly than before, and spending priorities have shifted. “If I ever have a bill I can’t pay,” Mr. Anderson said, “it will not be for a contractor, but for books for kids.”
Peggy Lewis LeCompte, the president of the East St. Louis Federation of Teachers, the local affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, said a turning point for the community was seeing how poorly district students did on the first round of state testing last year.
“We got tired of seeing bad news, and we knew our kids could do better,” Ms. LeCompte said. “We decided to march up the hill at the same time.”
The Rev. Johnny Scott, who is the president of the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, welcomed the good news. But he said he was worried that the improved test scores might be the one-time byproduct of test-preparation programs.
“We are pleased to have the improvement,” he said. “But the emphasis has to be on sustained improvement.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 14, 2000 edition of Education Week as Test Scores in East St. Louis Raise Hopes of a Turnaround