Commentary: Reshaping St. Louis Public Schools
Ray Cummings of
AFT ST. LOUIS
By Ray Cummings
Jul 23, 2021
Updated 2 hours ago
Students, educators and parents are anxious to move on from the stormy, challenging year we just experienced and prepare for a new school year, one in which all kids are welcomed back to their brick-and-mortar school buildings, learn and play together, and feel confident that they are safe, secure and getting the education they need to grow and thrive.
But we must do more than just throw open the doors of each public school and go back to what was. We have a moment in time to reshape the return to schools — five days a week, in person — in ways that will fully support our students. Public schools have the chance to create a renaissance and provide kids with the freedom to thrive with the right resources, supports and programs. We can and should begin this process now and over the summer with collaboration between educators, school leaders, parents and other community members. There is no dispute that many St. Louis public school students have academic, social, emotional and trauma-related needs. AFT St. Louis has long advocated for what our students need to succeed. While some would rather put their heads in the sand and refuse to acknowledge the reality, we are education first responders who see the consequences of children’s poverty, lack of health care, traumatic situations at home and other circumstances that interfere with a child’s learning.
St. Louis has just four full-service schools — formerly known as community schools — far fewer than in the past because of budget cuts. St. Louis public schools could be transformed if kids and their families have access at the school site to wraparound services they need to grow and thrive. They should be able to tap into health and dental services and have access to psychologists, social workers and guidance counselors to help with trauma and other mental health difficulties — made even more urgent by isolation during the past year’s pandemic. Many kids need mentoring, tutoring, before- and after-school enrichment programs, food and clothing banks, and other services and programs that more affluent families take for granted. We know that when these supports are provided at schools, kids can concentrate on lessons, not on being hungry, sick, cold or emotionally troubled.
Evidence from school districts across the country that have created full-service-type schools shows they help to improve student outcomes and can make a real difference in the lives of children and their families.
This is a far cry from the scant, at best, evidence that comes from school privatization efforts, despite advocates’ puffed-up claims and promises.
With the support of school Superintendent Kelvin Adams, we will work tirelessly for expanding the number of full-service schools.
It’s time our district got its fair share for a fair shot at providing what St. Louis children need to succeed. AFT St. Louis is proposing that the state legislature help fund the development of additional full-service schools with $2 million – the same amount that the legislature gave to the Opportunity Trust, which supports privatization models that have poor track records. The school district also should use funds from the American Rescue Plan to hire more school counselors, psychologists and nurses and ensure that funding from the ARP and other federal and state sources is spent equitably and effectively.
We have a rare chance to seed a renaissance in St. Louis public education. Now is the time not only to reopen our schools fully and properly and help children recover academically and emotionally, but also to reshape our schools in a way that makes every public school in our city one in which parents want to send their children, educators and support staff want to work and students thrive.
Ray Cummings is president of AFT St. Louis Local 420.