It was after a lunch at one of those fancy places without prices on the menu that I officially broke up with the education reform movement in St. Louis. I’d been working as a parent advocate for a group pushing for education equity, and when I had a chance to talk to one of our funders, the CEO of the Opportunity Trust, Eric Scroggins, I rattled off a list of ideas I had for turning the district around. Things like smaller class sizes, wrap-around services, highly-certified teachers, and literacy initiatives.
“That won’t work,” he responded. “We have to burn it down.”
I didn’t want to burn it down. My kids were in those schools.
To understand how I ended up in that room—and why I walked away from it—you need to know a little more about my story. I grew up in St. Louis, and when I was six years old, my mother went to prison. It was devastating for my family. I wound up in foster care and lived in North City St. Louis until I was old enough to move away.
I came back here with my husband in 2014, right after the birth of my son. Michael Brown had just been killed in Ferguson, and I had a feeling that I couldn’t deny anymore: St. Louis is home and I’m supposed to be here. We wanted to purchase a home in my old neighborhood of North City—not an easy thing to do as the banks consider this part of this town a risk. The duplex we ended up buying had eight bedrooms and had been appraised for just $80,000.
Before I knew it, it was time to start thinking about schools. I knew where I wanted my son and daughter to go: Kennard CJA Elementary School in South City, the premier gifted school in the Saint Louis Public Schools. The magnet program where they ended up was nothing like it.Thinking about all that Kennard had to offer made me angry. Why couldn’t all kids in the city have those kinds of resources? I fired off a letter to the superintendent. He asked to meet with me and encouraged me to get involved. A parent activist was born.
In 2018 I joined the staff of WEPOWER, a nonprofit advocacy organization. I was a “mad mama,” as I thought of them, who saw the inequity in the St. Louis Public School system that I’d graduated from myself, then chosen for my children more than 20 years later. We learned tactics of organizing and came to understand that making change is not always nice, so we pushed on and disrupted the district with our policy demands. I was hooked.
Over time, though, I began to wonder if our efforts were actually in service of St. Louis’ public schools. At times I felt that these initiatives went beyond holding the district accountable, and were instead undermining the district at every turn. I started to ask questions. Why was there such a big push to open more charter schools even though our struggling schools were dwindling, failing and closing on a regular basis? Why was everybody on our team from out of town? Why were they all part of Teach for America?
I could see for myself the toll that education “reform” was having on my city. Kids were spread out all over St. Louis, crisscrossing the city to attend school. The result was that our sense of community was dropping away. We were also losing our history. Every school I attended is now closed.
After I heard the CEO of the Opportunity Trust, WEPOWER’s funder, state outright that the goal was to burn down the school district, I started to view the initiatives of my organization and the education reform movement in St. Louis through a different lens. How does this goal, new campaign, etc., serve to burn down the district? And why am I here?
I resigned from my position at WEPOWER last spring. It hasn’t been easy. I’ve made enemies and lost friendships. But maybe friendship is overrated. I’d rather have democracy.
These days I’m doing everything I can to educate the residents of St. Louis about what’s happening in our city. People see all of the charter schools coming in and the school district getting weaker, and they know something is wrong with this picture. To help them understand, I started making TikTok videos. In videos that are between one and three minutes long, I explain the “who” and the “why” behind what’s going on. What’s wrong with treating education like a business? Why do the same legislators who want to ban teachers from talking about race also support the expansion of urban charter schools? And I point out that these lawmakers would never open charter schools in the places that they live. These are all experiments and band aid fixes. We don’t want those. We want true solutions.
Don't miss Gloria's TikToks on the privatization of public education in St. Louis
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