ST. LOUIS -- St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay is seeing pockets of success at both the charter schools he aggressively promotes and city schools that sometimes compete with the rival charters for students and resources.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Friday that Slay has spent nearly seven years cultivating some charter schools intended to provide parents with a reason to stay in the city rather than move to suburban school districts. His efforts come in a city in which three out of four public schools are failing.
Charters are tuition-free public schools with independent operators. In the past two years, six failing charters have closed in St. Louis while five new ones have opened.
The city public school district takes a similar approach. Two low-performing district schools have closed since 2011, with two new schools opening.
Slay recently cut the ribbon on another new charter school, the EAGLE College Preparatory Academy in the Tower Grove South neighborhood. The new elementary school is largely attracting students who once attended district and private schools. Slay’s office grooms and supports a select group of charters even though the mayor has no formal authority over city education.
“You are the leaders of our future,” Slay told the 20 kindergarten through third-graders in the school’s courtyard. “We’re looking forward to making sure you get a good education.”
Despite an overall poor showing on the state’s annual performance report, individual success is apparent in the city system.
Of the district’s 72 schools, 20 earned enough performance points to warrant full accreditation if the state were to rate schools as it does districts. The St. Louis district is overseen by the state after losing its accreditation in 2007.
“It’s getting better in St. Louis,” Slay said. He later added, “We all know that, overall, we need to do a better job.”
Three years ago, the vast majority of the city’s charter schools performed worse than the St. Louis school system on the reading and math sections of the Missouri Assessment Program. This year, students at 12 of 21 charter schools outperformed peers in the city school district in reading. And students at 17 of 21 schools outperformed district students in math.
In the 2010 census, the city had lost 29,000 people over the previous decade. About 75 percent of that loss consisted of school-age children.
Some high-performing charter schools are beginning to reverse at least some of that decline. In the Botanical Heights neighborhood, families are renovating homes and building on empty lots so their children can participate in the lottery to enroll in City Garden Montessori, a school that received 100 percent of performance points on the state’s score card.
The school is among 18 charters that Slay’s office has cultivated since 2006. Once a charter school receives Slay’s backing, his staff offers support ranging from help with the city’s permit process to finding a building.
Robbyn Wahby, Slay’s education liaison, said she expects more rapid closure of low-performing schools that don’t work.
“Eventually what we’ll find is the sector continues to grow in size and quality,” she said. “That is our goal.”
Skeptics of charter schools argue that they don’t educate the most challenging children who are more likely to attend district schools. They point to differences in the percentages of special needs children, who made up 14 percent of the enrollment at St. Louis Public Schools last school year, according to the state. At charter schools, the overall percentage was less than 9 percent.
They also point to the disparity in percentages of impoverished students at high-performing charters versus underperforming district schools in the same neighborhoods.
At City Garden Montessori, 46 percent of the students are living in poverty, based on the number of children who qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch. At Adams Elementary, a district school a few blocks away on Tower Grove Avenue, the number is 98 percent.