When Charlesetta Clark began teaching preschool at North Side Community School, she set up her room as though she were teaching kindergarten.
And for good reason.
“We are doing kindergarten work,” Clark said, placing iPads, worksheets or dry erase boards at each pupil’s workspace last week.
Four weeks into the school year, her 4-year-olds are learning to write their names, count toward 100 and master their sounds and letters. They are among about 400 other children at this charter elementary school who offer a glimmer of hope in a neighborhood riddled with abandoned properties, poverty and shootings.
For several years, North Side has proved that children can overcome these circumstances when a school has the right combination of ingredients. The school offers small class sizes — 15 to 18 students per teacher. A compact outlines expectations for parents and staff — both sign it at enrollment. A full-time social worker does individual and group therapy for children. And the school offers preschool for free or minimal cost to families, thanks to private donations.
Sixty-five percent of children at North Side scored proficient or better in both English and math this past spring, according to scores released in August.
This means its students were twice as likely to pass English, and three times more likely to pass math than students at other high-poverty elementary schools in the region, where more than 80 percent received a free or reduced-price lunch in 2014.
The Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education gave North Side a perfect score on its annual report card in 2014.
‘THE MOST IN NEED’
North Side opened its doors in 2009 inside a former orphanage building in the heart of the Kingsway East neighborhood, just off North Kingshighway. Preschool and some kindergarten classes are in a different building donated by the Nursery Foundation.
High-performing public schools in this part of the city are hard to come by. The school was the vision of Ross Woolsey III and John Grote, childhood friends with decades of experience in private, public and higher education. Woolsey retired as the school’s director of operations last year. Grote remains the executive director.
The school began small, with just kindergarten and first grade. It now stops at fifth grade. It has several school buses that pick up children who need transportation.
“The one philosophical thing that glues us all together — everyone is committed to providing the best school for those in St. Louis who need it the most,” said Stella Erondu, the principal. “This school had to be on the north side. The north side is the most in need of high-quality education.”
According to a 2014 study, nearly 19,000 children in the city — about 60 percent of those enrolled in district and charter schools — still lack access to schools that meet state standards. Most of these children are concentrated in the extreme south and north parts of the city.
The work isn’t easy. Many children come from unstable households. Children often move in and out of apartments or relatives’ homes depending on their parents’ work situation or other factors. Some have witnessed violence. Several years ago, a kindergartner was holding his father’s hand during a walk when a bullet killed the man. The boy still attends North Side.
It’s not unusual for Erondu to have a student in her office. She listens. A social worker provides counseling sessions throughout the day.
“That’s the humanness in this job,” Erondu said. “You need to know when they’re hurting.”
But the unpredictable nature of the neighborhood isn’t allowed inside school doors. There’s a rigid structure to North Side.
‘SETTING THE STAGE’
Kindergarten classrooms are filled with books and numbers. There are no play kitchens or dress-up areas. Last week, fourth-graders learned the definitions of spelling words by looking them up online, working with partners on how to use them in a sentence. All students are responsible for growing and cultivating gardens outside their classrooms.
The school is trying co-teaching, which allows two teachers to share two classrooms of students. Teachers must know more students, but it allows them to focus on fewer subject areas and spend more time developing each lesson.
Children walk in line with hands behind their back. They’re expected to listen when a teacher is speaking to them.
The school day is long – about seven hours for preschool through first grade, 8½ hours for second through fifth grades. For older children, the last part of the school day is spent on tutoring for those who are behind, and enrichment for children at or above grade level. Children are expected to be in school during the summer.
“People will say, ‘Well, it’s too regimented,’” Erondu said. “It’s not too regimented. ... We have done them a disservice if we have not taught them the skills they need to go from one grade level to another.”
Cynthia Brown stumbled upon the school when her son, Antwoin Craig, was entering second grade. He completed fifth grade at North Side last spring and now attends Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School on scholarship. Her daughter and youngest son are in third grade and preschool at North Side.
“It’s setting the stage for a change,” Brown said of the school. “When you have children who are being brought up right, being educated right, the outcome is much different. There is so much turmoil in St. Louis. A lot of it has to do with the lack of education.”
Four years ago, North Side Community School did something almost unheard of at charter schools in Missouri: It opened a preschool program.
Many children in city and charter schools arrive in kindergarten without having attended preschool, arriving sometimes two years behind on their first day of school. Some don’t know their colors or letters, or how to count beyond 10.
And if they begin kindergarten not knowing what the letter A is, there’s often too much to learn in one year for that child to meet all the Common Core requirements by the end of kindergarten, said Anne Miller, director of North Side’s preschool program.
“There are bodies of research showing if kids aren’t where they need to be at the end of kindergarten, it’s going to be really heard to catch up,” she said.
North Side’s preschool program began in 2011 with one class of 15 children. The next year, another section was added. And then a third. According to the school, there is twice the number of applicants as space.
“Here, we have to be laser-focused on moving them academically,” Miller said. “Otherwise they’re not going to be where they need to be.
Inside Clark’s classroom, 12 goals were on a bulletin board, with places for each child’s name. “I know my sight words,” is one. Another: “I can cut a curved line.”
By December, Clark said, the charts will start to fill. Last spring, 94 percent of her preschoolers had mastered all 12 areas, she said.
Last week, Brown’s youngest son, Success Nettles, sat at a table and traced the letters in his first name. At another table, children listened to stories on iPads. And at another, they did exercises to help them properly hold a pencil.
Last year’s fifth-grade class is now attending sixth grade at a number of charter and private schools throughout the area, such as Whitfield, Hawthorn Leadership Academy, Chaminade and Loyola.
Brown said has high hopes for her three children.
“At North Side, it’s a safety net for our children.” Brown said. “They’re teaching them. They’re protecting them and they’re building them up.”