By Jeff Bryant
“This is a disaster.”
Walker Gaffney and I were at the entry of Cleveland High School in St. Louis. Broken glass speckles the floor. Black mold crawls up the sides of the stone walls. Rotted plaster hangs from the high arched ceiling.
“It’s worse every time I come here,” said Gaffney, who is the school district’s real estate director. “I once found a dog-fighting operation in one of these old schools.”
Gaffney led the way, first to the majestic swimming pool with its ornate tiled walls smeared with graffiti – the Olympic-size pool shrunk to a black, fetid puddle in the deep end. Next stop, the cavernous auditorium whose darkened mezzanine and decorative chandeliers are barely visible in the motes of daylight piercing through holes in the high ceiling. Then on to the gymnasium, its hardwood floors now warped and buckled from rot. In what was once the library, a carpet of green mold has sprouted.
From 1915 to 2006, between 1,200 to 1,800 students attended Cleveland High every year, according to Gaffney. The school’s specialty was career and vocational curricula, celebrated in a series of Art Deco depictions of various trades on the front of the building.
Many of these schools, like Cleveland High, are grand structures, built a hundred years ago or more, in a style that features intricate brick and stone exteriors with turrets and arches and spacious interiors with vaulted ceilings and sunlit classrooms.
But the story of St. Louis’s schools is about so much more than the buildings themselves. It’s a story about an American ideal and what and who gutted that ideal.
It’s also a story that merits important attention today as prominent education policy leaders, such as U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, contend conversations about education should not even include the subjects of buildings and systems.
Today’s current thinking that learning can “occur anyplace, anytime” prompts entrepreneurs to create networks of online schools and charter school operators to open schools in retail storefronts and abandoned warehouses.
But the grand schools St. Louis built for its children caution that the permanency of schools as buildings and institutions is worth defending.
ELLIOT SCHOOL AND WILLIAM ITTNER
More than a century ago, St. Louis embarked on a revolution in education that made the city’s schools the jewel of the Midwest and a model for urban school districts around the nation.
I was recently standing in at one of the places where the revolution started: Elliot School at 4242 Grove St. It was padlocked with a graffiti-covered “For Sale” sign out front. The district closed the school in 2004.
Elliot was one of the first schools in the city designed and built by architect William Ittner, the man most integral to revolutionizing St. Louis’s schools and transforming urban schools across the nation. Most of the abandoned school buildings in the city today, including Cleveland High, are Ittner designs.
City leaders hired Ittner as the school district’s first commissioner of school buildings in 1897 and tasked him to design and build scores of new schools for the booming city. Elliott was erected in 1898.
Ittner grew up in the St. Louis public school system and knew all too well the condition of urban schools in the late decades of the 19th Century. Urban schools at that time were usually crammed into narrow city blocks, with little to no landscaping or playgrounds. The buildings were frequently unheated, dimly lit, unsanitary, and unsafe.
Elliot, even in its current padlocked state, exhibits Ittner’s new vision. The school has a broad green lawn across the front, an impressive brick façade, and high arching windows to light the interior.
“Ittner’s designs were intentionally formulated to inspire students and parents,” Andrew Weil told me. Weil is the executive director of the Landmarks Association of St. Louis and teaches historic preservation at Washington University.
Over beers at a local watering hole, Weil tells me that Ittner schools were the first in St. Louis to have indoor plumbing, heating, adequate ventilation, and fire proofing. Not content to just build functional structures, Ittner was also “very interested in creating spaces conducive to learning,” Weill said.
The son of a brick maker, Ittner became a master of what became known as the “open plan.” The open plan used E-, U-, or H- shaped floor layouts and flanks of windows to allow sunlight to fill common areas and classrooms. The designs emphasized large, open classrooms where teachers had more flexibility to arrange learning activities. Students moved through sunlit hallways from classrooms to libraries and specialty rooms for art and music. Building exteriors frequently featured stone carvings, towers, cupolas, and grand entryways designed to create an impression of schools as civic monuments rather than just utilitarian structures.
Ittner designed 50 schools in St. Louis – 48 are still standing – and eventually designed over 430 more schools around the country.
“These schools are enduring investments made by and for the people of St. Louis,” Weil contends, and he points to the presence of Ittner schools in all parts of the city, not just in the neighborhoods of the well to do.
“Ittner spared no expense in designing schools for the north side,” Weil states, referring to the part of the city where, historically, African Americans lived.
Elliot is in the Fairground neighborhood, named for a park bearing the same name. On June 21, 1949, a race riot broke out there when city officials integrated the park’s swimming pool.
Today, the neighborhood is a poster of urban decay, with boarded-up houses and abandoned store fronts. Its population is 97 percent black.
“Missouri’s birth as a state was quite literally a compromise between Northern and Southern political economies,” writes Nicholas J. Eastman, a doctoral student at Georgia State University. The Missouri Compromise of 1820, that allowed the state to enter the union as a slave state, left Missouri divided on slavery. When war broke out, Missouri became a border state that took neither side.
Following the war, St. Louis was a magnet for industrialists, immigrants, and former slaves while the rest of the state remained mostly rural, agrarian, and not particularly hospitable to blacks.
The city’s isolation worsened when, “in an effort to wrest control over what was becoming an economic powerhouse,” Eastman writes, “St. Louis political and business elites established home rule in 1876, which erected a political and geographic barrier between the City of St. Louis and St. Louis County.”
Locking the city into its original footprint may have protected it from political outsiders, but it also encouraged suburban St. Louis to blossom. By the early decades of the 20th century, white flight from St. Louis to the suburbs was well under way. By the 1950s, there were over 80 incorporated municipalities bunched around St. Louis. Today there are 90.
While suburban sprawl promoted white flight, business and civic leaders in the city actively encouraged segregation within its boundaries. As a series of maps created by Colin Gordon at the University of Iowa show, during the 1940s and 50s, white and black populations coalesced in different parts of the city.
Gordon’s research correlates that increased racial segregation to “a tangle of local, state, and federal policies that explicitly and decisively sorted the city’s growing population by race.” Various realtor agreements and neighborhood covenants restricted where African Americans could live.
Policies made by the federal government further incentivized segregation.
In a report for the Economic Policy Institute, economist Richard Rothstein draws a direct line from residential housing policies made by the federal government to the isolation of low-income black children in American cities, including St. Louis.
In the heart of Desoto-Carr sits the dilapidated remains of Carr School, a school Ittner built in 1908 and the city closed in 1983.
For decades Carr School served the overwhelmingly high-poverty households in what city developers and local reporters called the “slum collar” surrounding the central business district. In the 1960s, a collusion of city officials, real estate developers, and business leaders, aided by federal programs, clear cut blocks of homes to make way for high-rise apartments that concentrated housing for low-income black families. By the mid 1970s, the housing project was deemed a complete failure, and the city demolished the high-rises.
The destructive pattern of urban renewal motivated black families to flee the area too, leaving Carr School behind.
A SEPARATE, UNEQUAL SYSTEM
The consequences of racial segregation in St. Louis were devastating to black students, said Mary Armstrong. “It was a separate and unequal system,” she told me in a conversation at the headquarters of the American Federation of Teachers, Local 420, where she has served as president since 2003. (She retired on June 30.)
Armstrong grew up in the segregated St. Louis school system, then spent most of her 47-year career as a teacher in St. Louis Public Schools during the district’s historic desegregation effort. St. Louis’s desegregation program, the longest-running and largest one in the nation, bussed over 70,000 inner-city black students to predominantly white schools in the suburbs. The court oversight of the program lifted in 1999, and the program is due to end in 2019.
Armstrong recalls what it was like to grow up in a segregated school system. “We were told that we had to compete with white kids even though we knew we didn’t have the same resources they had,” she recalls. “If we don’t have the same resources, we can’t be competitive.”
Even after court-enforced desegregation started in the early 1980s, “there was never an effort to give schools black children attended the same resources that schools white kids attended got,” she tells me.
The resource disparities were especially obvious when, in her third year of teaching, Armstrong was transferred from a school on the north side serving exclusively black students to an elementary school on the south side – Shenandoah – with a mostly white student population.
Armstrong was astonished the school had a supply room for teachers. “We could walk in and take whatever we wanted,” she recalls. “We didn’t have that on the north side.”
The abundance of resources had a direct impact on student learning opportunities in her science and math classes. “Projects I could do in my school on the south side, I could never have done on the north side,” she recalls.
Shenandoah was also an openly racist school community.
There were separate lounges for black and white teachers. One morning there was a noose hung in the black teachers’ lounge with the sign, “The KKK was here.”
“White parents would double park to block the black teachers’ cars in,” Armstrong says. “They complained about our clothes. Students would ask me, ‘Why did Africans make black people slaves?'”
The longer Armstrong taught at Shenandoah, the less white it became. Eventually she moved back to a school on the north side, taking with her some of the valuable supplies her south side school had afforded.
By segregating housing and education, St. Louis’s civic leadership doomed many of the district’s schools to chronic low academic performance, Rothstein argues.
Schools with high proportions of disadvantaged children, he writes, often have fewer and less-experienced teachers, higher concentrations of students whose learning is often impeded by the stress of poverty, and parents who lack the time and capacity to help their children’s academic development. “It is inconceivable that significant gains can be made in the achievement of black children who are so severely isolated,” he concludes.
Because all three schools were labeled low-performing, the demolition and new construction would have further concentrated and isolated black, struggling students. Only an outpouring of protest from local residents, preservationists, and city officials saved Shenandoah.
When St. Louis schools weren’t being undermined by racial segregation, they were under assault by a changing economic order.
As Brian Feldman wrote for the Washington Monthly, St. Louis once had a deep economic base to make the city, and its schools, thrive. “A quarter century ago, St. Louis was already …. a hub of many of the post-industrial industries that have gone on to experience the fastest growth, from pharmaceuticals, to finance, to food processing,” he writes.
But since then, the city has experienced an “economic uprooting,” Feldman argues, carried out by “presidents and lawmakers in both parties” who “quietly altered federal competition policies, antitrust laws, and enforcement measures over a period of 30 years.”
Legislation passed in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s deregulating a number of key industries – including airlines and banking – put large St. Louis employers at a disadvantage. Then, new laws lifting anti-trust enforcement, passed during the Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton presidential administrations, subjected St. Louis’s leading industries to corporate takeover or rendered them uncompetitive.
Consequently, St. Louis went from hosting 23 Fortune 500 headquarters in 1980 to hosting just nine in 2015.
While deregulation hollowed out St. Louis’s economy, Missouri state lawmakers attacked the city’s school funding.
Since at least 1995, St. Louis’s schools have been seriously shorted by the state, wrote Bruce Baker, Rutgers University professor and school finance whiz. The trend of financial inequity is worsening, he argues.
A recent analysis by EdBuild found that St. Louis schools have a cost-adjusted revenue per student that is 9 percent below Missouri’s average. The district gets only 35 percent of its revenue from the state even though the district is challenged to educate a student population in which 68 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, a common measurement of poverty.
While racism, economic upheaval, and underfunding took their toll, the next wave to hit St. Louis schools was arguably even more destructive.
From Elliot School, I drove south on N. Florissant Ave., and at the corner of Salisbury St., I came upon a new school of a different kind.
“New Free Charter School,” the sign read. The new school is The Arch Community School, a charter school opening a mere six blocks away from shuttered Elliot.
Charter schools, which currently enroll over 30 percent of students in the district, are the most prominent and lasting result of an agenda of “education reform” that transformed St. Louis schools.
Missouri passed legislation in 1998 to allow charter schools to open in the state, but originally confined them to Kansas City and St. Louis.
The mayor of St. Louis at that time, Clarence Harmon, welcomed them providing a keynote address, “Preparing for Charter Schools,” at an event hosted by the politically-conservative Heartland Institute. Heartland is funded by Charles and David Koch, the billionaire owners of Koch industries, and right-wing private foundations.
Harmon, an African American, was elected in 1997 as a result of a contentious primary in which he received 94 percent of the city’s white vote in defeating the popular black mayor Freeman Bosely. The New York Times reported, Harmon, who had never before held political office, was accused by many in the black community of being “propped up by business and white voters.”
Under Harmon’s leadership, St. Louis’s first charter school opened in 2000.
In the 2001 mayoral election, Harmon and Bosely split the black vote, which buoyed the election of Francis Slay, a white man, who would eventually serve four consecutive terms.
Also under Slay, “St. Louis embarked on a unique experiment in public education to operate the school system like a business,” wrote local historian and former school board member Peter Downs.
At a Panera Bread, a national franchise based in a St. Louis suburb, Downs told me how a 2002 fiscal crisis – triggered when the state cut off funding for court-ordered desegregation – provided campaign fodder for a slate of candidates backed by Slay to take over the board.
Slay and his team set about quickly to remake St. Louis schools from the public institutions Ittner and his contemporaries had conceived into a corporate-like enterprise that would emphasize fiscal efficiency and a belief in the superiority of private operators.
Slay and this team attended training on how to remodel the district along business lines provided by the Broad Foundation, a private foundation that has long been a powerful advocate of charter schools. The district also contracted with corporate “turnaround” firm Alvarez & Marsal. Alvarez & Marsal made William Roberti, a former CEO of the Brooks Brothers chain of clothing stores, acting superintendent. None of these outsiders had any education expertise.
“They quickly ran the district into the ground,” Downs told me. In addition to ramping up more charter schools, Roberti and his associates were intent on outsourcing school services and attacking “cost centers” in the district.
Roberti outsourced the district’s school lunch program, computer education program, and buildings maintenance to private firms. He cut funds to the district’s special education services, curriculum development staff, teacher professional development programs, school counselors and social workers, and the district’s school buildings oversight.
With $750,000 in private donations and $50,000 from the district, Slay brought in Teach For America, which recruits recent college graduates and others to commit to two years of teaching after a short training period.
Roberti also proposed closing 16 elementary schools, 15 of them in majority African-American neighborhoods. Among Roberti’s criteria for closing a school was age– over 45 years old – which made Ittner’s famed schools a target. The age requirement made little sense, Downs argues, because the Ittner schools, with their high ceilings and open spaces, were easier to renovate. Also, many had recently been upgraded with new air conditioning.
By 2004, at the end Roberti’s temporary tenure, St. Louis had closed 21 schools and laid off over 1,000 employees. The negative effects made national headlines.
“Student enrollment continues to decline, teachers complain about poor morale and low pay, parents are unhappy about school closures, and voters are up in arms about high salaries paid to top administrators,” reported The Washington Post.
A business approach didn’t help school finances either. “The school system was in worse shape financially than Roberti had predicted it would be if he did nothing,” Downs maintains. While the operating deficit had indeed been reduced to $38.2 million, Roberti did it by borrowing $49.5 million from the state’s desegregation program, a loan that would have to be paid back over the next five years. The district’s $73 million debt was actually increased to $87.7 million.
An electoral backlash to Roberti led to the defeat of four of Slay’s school board team. But financial problems the turnover artists never truly solved became the primary excuse for the state to take over the district in 2007, install an appointed school board, and strip the district of its accreditation.
“Roberti was supposed to be a solution and he was such a failure,” Downs says. “The idea that business people can do a better job running schools than educators died in St. Louis.”
Downs may be right, but charter schools appear to be something here to stay.
A LEGACY OF REFORM
Missouri imposes a significant revenue penalty on districts where charters locate, Baker wrote in one of his studies on school finance. When the state allots money to charters, the amount is based on what the schools in the host district would have received in both state and local revenues. Then the state reduces the host district’s aid by the same amounts, so a district like St. Louis, which funds its schools mostly by local property taxes, loses that revenue as well as their state aid.
It’s not clear what academic benefits St. Louis gets in return for this financial sacrifice.
The academic performance of St. Louis’s charter schools is mixed at best, with a few of the schools performing better than the district’s average and more performing worse.
Confluence Academies, a chain of five schools, is the largest and longest operating charter in the city with a 14-year history. The schools have chronically lagged behind state averages on standardized tests, yet Missouri’s Board of Education grudgingly renewed the charter recently, because state laws give the board relatively little oversight authority. “We’re tired of having to approve something that obviously shouldn’t be going on,” a board member told a St. Louis news reporter.
More successful St. Louis charters, such as City Montessori, have student populations that don’t resemble the demographics of the city’s students.
The business of charter schooling in St. Louis is inextricably intertwined with real estate, and charter advocates have long wanted the district to let them take over the city’s abandoned buildings, including those designed by Ittner.
One charter, the Paideia charter school, was so intent on occupying a vacant city school that it announced it had moved to Lyon School, an Ittner designed school, when in fact, the charter never signed a lease agreement with the district.
The charter even ran an ad campaign featuring its CEO in radio spots and television ads encouraging parents to enroll their children in the school. When the school failed to open, over 500 students who had applied were stranded.
Months later, an investigation of the school found over half a million dollars in taxpayer money was missing from the school’s financials. Eventually, the school’s board chairman was arrested for embezzling more than $250,000 of public money from the school and paying himself $150,000 for a no-show job.
In 2007, Imagine Schools, a for-profit chain of 69 schools currently operating in 12 states, moved into the city and opened four new charters. By 201, Imagine had six schools enrolling nearly 4,000 students, over 10 percent of the district’s student population.
District officials and local reporters noted Imagine’s students performed consistently worse than city and state averages on standardized tests, yet the company was reaping huge profits from its real estate business.
In addition to charging its schools a 12 percent management fee, which the district paid, Imagine also has an associated real estate business, Schoolhouse Finance.
Once Imagine acquired a school building, the company quickly sold the property to Schoolhouse. Schoolhouse then leased the building back to Imagine at significantly higher costs.
Annual lease payments from Imagine charter schools in St. Louis were topping 20 percent of total outlays, while lease payments for other charters were in single digits.
This financial arrangement was further complicated by a real estate investment trust that ultimately owns all the buildings and reaps tens of millions of dollars annually from the charter leases. Investments in St. Louis charters operated by Imagine were seeing rates of financial return that were almost 10 times the original investment within 3-4 years, courtesy of the taxpayer.
Imagine’s creative financial practices are not unusual in the charter school industry, where the line between providing a public good, like education, and operating a private business often is blurred by lack of regulation and the essentially free hand charters have.
Missouri state officials, alarmed at Imagine’s fiscal stunts and persistently low performance, closed all six schools in 2012.
Gaffney recalls how the district quickly had to absorb over 3,800 returning students from closed Imagine schools, the largest single closing of charter schools ever in the nation. The district responded by reopening three closed schools which Gaffney tells me cost millions to upgrade and outfit with new equipment.
“Fortunately, we had the buildings,” he said.
THE RESURRECTION OF SHERMAN SCHOOL
Charter school operators aren’t the only entrepreneurs with eyes on St. Louis school district real estate.
Gaffney has sold 10 district properties so far, many to developers seeking to turn the historic schools into retail space, office buildings, or residential apartments.
Gaffney took me to one of these works in progress, a conversion of Sherman School in the Shaw neighborhood into apartments. The Ittner-designed school was built in 1898 and closed in 2013.
Advertisements for the project’s 38 new apartments boast of one- and two-bedroom “high end loft style units that feature beautiful refinished Maple floors, polished interior concrete floor in the bathroom, stainless steel appliances, [and] quartz counter tops.”
Representatives of the Advantes Group, including developer Brian Minges, met us in front of the building, eager to take us on a tour of the still incomplete renovation (units became available August 1).
Minges points out the many historic features of Ittner’s design the new construction is retaining, including the 13-foot ceilings, 10-foot windows, and solid oak bookcases. The spacious classrooms Ittner designed provide the classic loft look of the units.
Advantes purchased Sherman from the district for $750,000 and will rent one-bedroom units for $1,050 and two-bedrooms (one bath) for $1,295, which is competitive in the Shaw neighborhood but considerably above St. Louis average rents.
Under the terms of the financing, which was provided with the help of federal and state historic tax credits, the rental apartments could convert to condominium sales in seven years, according to Gaffney.
Advantes Development also received a 10-year tax abatement as an incentive to invest $4.6 million into the project.
Cooperman points to evidence that much of the abatement has gone to incentivize development that benefits private businesses and luxury residential housing for singles and young couples. City leaders have freely admitted they consider families with public school-age children a “cost” the city is increasingly unwilling to bear.
It’s true the city benefits from retail sales and user fees that result from this new development, but because the city’s public schools are funded overwhelmingly by property taxes, they largely lose out in the deal.
Despite the negative consequences to the city schools, Gaffney and Weil argue the financial incentives are necessary to preserve the legacy of Ittner’s architecture and stimulate revitalization of St. Louis neighborhoods.
“At least someone is putting money into the community,” Weil says.
THE COLLEGIATE APPROACH
It would be a disservice to St. Louis Schools not to mention the strides the district has taken recently.
In 2012, the district extended free, all-day pre-kindergarten education to all 3- to 5-year-olds in the city and staffed the programs with certified early childhood education teachers.
In 2014, SLPS regained its accreditation. From its depth in 2004 – with a 56 percent graduation rate, a bloated deficit, and a string of six superintendents in five years – the district had improved to a 72 percent graduation rate, 95 percent attendance rate, a $19.2 million surplus, and steadily improving test scores.
In 2015, St. Louis Public Schools achieved its best performance in more than a decade on state exams, and the city’s neighborhood schools were primary drivers of the gains.
More recently, there have been discussions about abandoning the appointed board and moving to an elected one.
Yet the district’s return to full accreditation came about in part from a state Supreme Court ruling that would have saddled fully accredited districts with the cost of receiving student transfers from St. Louis’s unaccredited schools, Eastman points out. Also, full accreditation was in some sense a reward for the district’s decision to pay off debt with money reserved for desegregation and improving infrastructure.
Nevertheless, many Ittner-designed schools continue to thrive, especially those that have been converted to magnet schools.
In the final stop of my tour of St. Louis schools, Gaffney took me to one of these schools, the Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience on S. Theresa Ave. The school opened in 2013, quickly outgrew its building, and then moved to a renovated Wyman Elementary, a school Ittner designed and built in 1901.
Collegiate is one of 13 selective-admission magnet schools in the city that now make up the fastest-growing segment of schools under the district’s purview. These schools are designed for students labeled “gifted and talented” and draw from students who live in wealthier neighborhoods, including those in St. Louis County suburbs, though not in large numbers yet.
Principal Frederick Steele showed me and Gaffney a group portrait of the first graduating class from the school in May 2017 – a racially and ethnically diverse mix of 44 students, all of whom have been accepted into colleges and 39 into four-year institutions. Its newest enrollment class of ninth graders is the school’s largest ever: 75 students.
Collegiate’s program is a rigorous four-year medical professions preparation, making use of its close proximity to St. Louis University Hospital.
When I asked Steele if his school is known as a school for nerds, he replies, “Absolutely!”
Steele is upfront about his school not being for every student. The percent of applicants turned away is two-thirds. He admits, students designated as needing special education or English as a second language services are in very low percentages compared to district averages. A significant portion of the students – 18 percent Steele says, “the highest in the district” – is drawn to the school from St. Louis County suburbs.
The school’s program is impressive. Students in their senior year must complete capstone projects, equivalent to a high-level internship. The school offers ten Advanced Placement courses that are college equivalent, and every student has to take, at minimum, the Science AP course. The district pays the full cost of AP course enrollment and testing.
“We sometimes get accused of being like a charter school,” Steele says. “Half of the students we get come from charter, private, parochial, and other magnet schools. But our students do well when they get here. We don’t counsel anyone out,” he says, referring to a practice charters are accused of when they persuade difficult students to leave the school.
When I ask Steele whether individual school successes like his are indicative of whether the whole system is doing better, he replied, “Well, we weren’t doing so well as a system.”
WHO CARES ABOUT BUILDINGS?
While St. Louis schools may have resembled much of what is commonly now called “a failed system,” the legacy of Ittner and his buildings proves the failure wasn’t by design.
It’s certainly imaginable that what Ittner and his contemporaries envisioned could have succeeded had the city’s leaders not deliberately segregated races, had state lawmakers not intentionally under-funded the district, had the federal government not promoted policies that concentrated poverty and undermined local industries, and had business-minded reform advocates not dismantled and sold off the district’s assets.
Today’s education theorists may regard Ittner’s vision of schools, as special places for learning and as icons of community identity and pride, as a relic.
But the lesson from St. Louis is that the promise of a neighborhood school for every child that would uphold great education and serve as an anchor of community identity did not fail us. We failed it.
Correction: An earlier version said that Shenandoah School was designed by Ittner. It was designed by his successor and protege Rockwell Milligan. Also, Nicholas J. Eastman is a doctoral student at Georgia State University.