FLORISSANT • As their teachers spoke, the 34 sixth-graders considered the role they could play in changing the course of the Ferguson-Florissant School District.
“This is a ground-breaking year for us, guys,” teacher Amanda Mathews told the group gathered in a classroom to kick off the school year Wednesday. “This is the time to make your mark here in this community.”
It involves creating a new school — one that’s unlike anything in St. Louis County.
Elyse Gipson, who likes building robots, listened attentively. So did Makayla Handlang, who loves art, and Mariah Savala, who thrives on hands-on science projects.
They are among the inaugural class of sixth-graders who will receive full-time gifted instruction this year at the district’s Probe Center, where gifted elementary school pupils have long come for weekly enrichment.
“This is probably going to be much more exciting than a regular school,” said Elyse, whose cousin Elyssa Gipson is also in the program.
This time next year, this class will be joined by another grade level and become a stand-alone middle school. One year later, the school will grow to include eighth grade. Classes at this new middle school will emphasize science, technology, engineering, art and math education, known as STEAM. District officials are working on plans to ensure that high school, once these students get there, also will be tailored to meet their needs and ambitions.
“Really think about college,” Superintendent Joseph Davis said as he welcomed the sixth-graders to the Probe Center on their first day. “Think about what you want to do with your life. We want to make sure you have the kind of experiences so you could begin thinking about who you’re going to be when you grow up.”
No other middle school in St. Louis County offers self-contained gifted instruction. Only St. Louis Public Schools has a magnet school for gifted middle schoolers — McKinley Classical Junior Academy.
A new approach
The sixth-graders at the Probe Center are pioneering an effort that many hope will become a model in the struggling Ferguson-Florissant system, which has faced challenges in recent years with academics, funding and community unrest.
Davis, in his second year as superintendent, is working to increase rigor, equity and access throughout the district. He speaks of the importance of identifying more students, particularly African-American and low-income students, as gifted, and giving them more exposure to problem solving and project-based learning. And he’s working to ensure teachers and principals have the support from district administrators to lift reading levels and overall achievement.
“What we hope will happen is that our students will be learning at a deeper level,” he said.
Last year, Davis commissioned a transition team to study the district. The team was led by one of his professors at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. In January, it reported there must be a stronger sense of urgency about immediate improvement in Ferguson-Florissant schools.
The study raised concerns about the district, including how well it is educating African-Americans and disadvantaged students. College readiness was also an a issue — just 16 students in the district of 11,000 took an Advanced Placement exam last year.
Davis is using the report to help set priorities as he moves forward in his second year.
Washington University’s Institute for School Partnership and the Santa Fe Center for Transformational Leadership are working with district officials to strengthen the leadership of principals, assistant principals and some teachers.
Davis is working with Equal Opportunity Schools to expand access to Advanced Placement courses in the district’s three high schools, particularly for minority and low-income students. Davis said he had reached out to International Baccalaureate in hopes of offering the program. “What we can do here is build that pipeline,” he said of the sixth-graders at the Probe Center.
“What we’re after is building a model within our district, a model school,” Davis added. “We’re going to start here. We’re going to begin to focus on those students who’ve already shown much promise. We want to create the kind of teaching environment where our teachers become consummate educators. As we build out the (STEAM) school, we want to scale that up.”
In 2015, district residents approved Proposition I, a $30 million bond issue that among other things, is to fund the conversion of a facility into a STEAM learning center. A permanent location for the new middle school hasn’t been announced. Gifted elementary school students will continue to get weekly enrichment at the Probe Center, 1005 Waterford Drive.
Andrea Savala said she and her husband had tossed around the idea of private school for their two daughters. But they’ve been reinvigorated by the changes they’re seeing in the school district. When they learned about full-time gifted instruction, they didn’t hesitate to enroll Mariah.
“She is a kid who will sometimes get bored,” Savala said. “This is a huge opportunity for her. It was too valuable to pass up.”