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St. Louis Schools: Have-Nots vs. Have-Lots

Magnet schools, created to aid integration, are criticized for the limited access they provide blacks, the majority of the city's students

JUST blocks from one another on the depressed north side of St. Louis, Beaumont and Central High Schools look about the same from the outside. Yet inside these two schools, the students are receiving distinctly different educations.

Under a court-ordered desegregation plan implemented in 1983, St. Louis has established a magnet-school system. Twenty-five of the city's 106 schools are designated as magnets and given extra resources with which to attract a racially diverse enrollment.

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But the attempt to bridge two classes of schooling divided along racial lines is now being criticized for creating another form of discrimination. While some black students are getting the advantage of the resource-rich magnet schools, more than 80 percent of the African-Americans in the 43,000-student district attend regular, or nonmagnet, schools that offer fewer opportunities.

Each magnet school is organized around an academic focus or theme such as art, science, foreign languages, or the classics. The schools work hard to attract a diversity of students and must be racially integrated. Under the city's voluntary busing program, about 1,100 white, suburban students choose to attend magnet schools in the city.

Central Visual and Performing Arts High School is one of the most popular magnets in the St. Louis system. With less than 700 students, the school is comparatively small and offers many opportunities beyond basic academics.

Students choose to major and minor in fields of study ranging from drama and dance to fashion and photography. In addition to the required academics, students receive 10 hours of art instruction a week in their chosen fields.

Students pay nothing for the many extras they receive at Central. Photography students are loaned cameras for the year; all art and jewelrymaking supplies are free. Music students have access to state-of-the-art instruments.

Jack Crowson, a white student who lives on the south side of St. Louis, chose to travel across town so he could take advantage of Central's strong art program. ``My whole life revolves around art,'' he says, ``and the art teachers here are spectacular.'' Attending the racially integrated school has also provided an opportunity to make friends across racial lines, he says.

One morning recently, students throughout the school's three floors were not only learning math and English but working on art projects, making jewelry, dancing, sewing, and developing film.

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It's not only the students who prefer magnet schools to regular schools. Teachers scramble to get positions in the 25 magnet schools.

``You get kids who either want to be here because they are into the arts, or their parents want them here because they don't want them in just any old school,'' explains art teacher Bill Perry.

``The kids really want to be here,'' adds math teacher Wilfred Moore. ``They're not just lost, not knowing what they want to do with their lives.''

The extra resources at magnet schools require significantly more spending per student. Average per-pupil spending was 30 percent higher at magnet schools than nonmagnets last year. In 1992-93, the district spent less than $7,000 to educate a student in the regular high schools and more than $9,000 for each student in the magnet schools.

Students and teachers both cite the advantage of safety at magnet schools. ``The magnet schools are tamer,'' Crowson says. ``You hear all kinds of stories about what goes on at other schools.''

Up the street at Beaumont High School, security is tight and tension seems to bounce off the cold metal hall lockers. Just a few months ago, a group of 20 gang members forced their way into one of the classrooms, carrying a handgun and searching for a particular student, who escaped out one of the school's windows.

At 8 a.m. on this Monday morning, tardy students line up at the front doors. Security guards frisk students for weapons and dole out hall passes.

Once they arrive in class, many students find they aren't missing much. ``I'd be on time to all my other classes,'' Damon Franklin, who is late for his first-period class. He sits down to watch a game of chess between two other students.

The first period at this all-black school of 1,300, one of 47 single-race schools in St. Louis, is a class called Project Courage. Beaumont is not a magnet school, and this class is intended to compensate for the school's lack of special programs.

Project Courage, which began in the city's three all-black high schools in 1991, is intended to build ``self-esteem'' and ``life skills.'' Yet there is no curriculum and teachers are free to use the 50-minute class time any way they choose.

``It forces the teacher to be creative,'' says English teacher Alan Mitchell, who acknowledges that not all the school's teachers meet the challenge.

Some classes discuss current events. Others play games. Many offer an opportunity to catch up on homework - or sleep. ``It gives you time to get ready for the rest of the day,'' says freshman Melissa Sneed. But her classmate Robert Fowler, who is playing chess, says: ``We could be working.''

For the past two years, most teachers have given the course low marks for effectiveness. ``I don't know that you need four years of Project Courage,'' Mr. Mitchell says. ``After teaching it for a few years, I'm ready for a change.''

In March, the St. Louis School Board agreed. They plan to replace Project Courage with a different class next fall but have not yet announced what the new course will be.

Little about Beaumont's physical structure distinguishes it from Central, its magnet-school neighbor. It is what goes on inside the classrooms that makes all the difference. The school district just spent $10 million renovating the building that houses Beaumont High School. But in spite of the shiny new facility, many of the students and teachers here seem to have given up on education.

In a business-education class, a student sleeps in front of an idle computer, his head leaning back on the ledge of a chalkboard. The teacher, working at her desk, fails to notice. A tour through the school reveals few teachers engaged in active teaching. Most classes are working independently on assignments, with the teacher available for individual questions. At least one student is napping in nearly every class.

At Central, classes are beehives of activity. In the music wing, two students accompanied by two teachers are playing violins in a practice session. Fashion students are sewing outfits for the upcoming school fashion show. In math class, the teacher is engaged with the class rather than focused on his own desk work.

Earlier this month, a federal judge ordered the St. Louis School Board to improve student performance in the city schools. Standardized test scores, attendance, and graduation rates are too low, while suspension and expulsion rates are too high, the judge said. But student performance at all the magnet schools is superior to regular schools.

Many of the students at Beaumont say they would like to transfer to magnet schools like Central. Most of the schools select their students by lottery rather than requiring exams. But since the magnet schools must be racially balanced under the court-approved plan, only a small percentage of the district's African-American population is accepted. Blacks outnumber whites by more than 3 to 1 in the district.

LaKeisha Boyce, a black student at Central, has attended St. Louis magnet schools for most of her life. ``What I want to do in the future is here - not there,'' at her neighborhood school, she says. ``They don't have what I need to achieve my goals.''

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