ST. LOUIS • Within the walls of the Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience is a success story taking shape in St. Louis Public Schools.
It’s captured on a slip of paper inside the main office: math scores that outdid Ladue, Clayton and Marquette high schools in St. Louis County this past spring. Upstairs, in a pathophysiology class, freshmen and sophomores work on a year-long project to solve the murder of a fictional character, using a fusion of math and science. In another classroom, they’re learning Latin.
One out of four students at Collegiate comes from a high-performing suburban district. Students are drawn to the school’s science focus, its diverse student body and its access to medical internships.
“The science classes at this school are the most hands-on that I’ve ever had,” said Helen Ingley, a sophomore, who transferred to Collegiate this fall.
But not just anyone can get into the school.
Collegiate is among a growing group of campuses within St. Louis Public Schools that restrict admission to those who can meet and maintain certain standards. At Collegiate, it’s a high bar — with a 3.0 grade-point average among the requirements. Other schools are less selective.
Since 2008, the number of selective-admission schools has grown to 13 from three in St. Louis Public Schools. Their enrollment has increased more than fivefold to 5,181 students — making this the fastest-growing segment of the district’s portfolio.
As a group, these schools offer hope to an urban system that has struggled academically for decades. Metro High School, Kennard Classical Junior Academy and McKinley Classical Leadership Academy — three of the city’s schools for gifted and accelerated learning — have long ranked as top performers in Missouri. And now Central Visual Performing Arts High School, Cleveland NJROTC Academy and the Collegiate School are posting math and reading scores that meet or exceed the state passing rate.
The gifted and accelerated learning schools are the most popular with parents. Children take an intelligence test to see if they qualify for admission.
“The other schools are kind of rough right now,” said Christopher Briggs, a city parent, who sends his three sons to a mix of district magnet, private and charter schools. “Some of these schools right now are so busy correcting they don’t have time to teach.”
The schools are part of the district’s magnet and choice schools — buildings that offer a specialized focus of study, such as the performing arts, international studies or sciences. To district officials, they present a tantalizing upside. They attract families who tend to be more affluent and who might otherwise leave for the suburbs. They also draw some families back to the city — though not in huge numbers.
Of the 133 children from St. Louis County who attend St. Louis Public Schools this year, 113 attend selective magnet schools, according to the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corporation. Under the desegregation court settlement, non-African-American students from some parts of the county can enroll in city district schools.
“You need to have a mix of parents in the community to make schools work,” Superintendent Kelvin Adams said. “You have to have a mix in any city to keep an urban district in the right direction.”
A TIERED SYSTEM
But selective-admission schools also can present challenges. In any urban district, they can create a tiered system that concentrates a city’s top students in a few schools, leaving the most challenged students in the rest of the buildings.
Students in these lower-performing schools — most often neighborhood schools with no entrance requirements — feel the rub.
Last month, more than 100 students at Vashon High School walked out of their building to protest poor learning conditions, such as a high number of substitute teachers and a lack of challenging classes.
“They don’t care about our school,” said Jazmyn Holmes, a Vashon student who held a sign. She said she believed Clyde C. Miller Career Academy and Gateway STEM High School — both with selective enrollment criteria — had access to more resources and better teachers.
This is despite the fact that Adams has sent an additional $6.4 million to the 18 lowest-performing schools — most of which are neighborhood schools — for intense tutoring and other support.
When asked if there was danger in isolating some of the best students in a few district schools, Adams said no. The selective requirements help create schools that provide better environments for students serious about learning, he said. “We’re taking kids who really want to do well, and we’re pushing them, and we’re encouraging them to do well.”
Adams also said that many of the selective schools were accessible to a broad range of students. Most often, the admission requirements are a 2.5 grade-point average.
“Parents have so many choices right now,” Adams added. “Choice is what people are looking for, more than anything else.”
City parents also have a growing list of charter schools scoring high on Missouri’s annual performance report. Among them: City Garden Montessori, Lift for Life Academy High School, North Side Community School, Gateway Science Academy, Grand Center Arts Academy and KIPP: Inspire. These schools have no entrance requirements, through critics often accuse them of “creaming” the best students.
Charter schools are tuition-free public schools that operate without affiliation with school districts.
Even with the increasing number of schools that are performing well by state standards, about 19,000 children in the city — about 60 percent of those enrolled in public schools — still attend schools that fall below that mark, according to a study released last summer by IFF, a Chicago-based nonprofit.
THE RIGHT MIX
On Oct. 1, city parents began applying for magnet and choice schools for 2015-16. For some city parents, the process can be overwhelming.
“There’s just a lot of time and research involved,” said Angelee Brockmeyer, a former Chicago teacher who moved to St. Louis in 2010 with her husband, Paul.
The couple, with three children, sought to untangle the process by creating an online school guide. The guide can be found at stlcityschools.org.
Once parents have a list of potential schools, “They really should visit each one,” Brockmeyer said.
As of Monday, 1,353 applications had come into the district’s Student Recruitment and Placement Office. Half of them were for admission to the gifted or accelerated learning schools, including Collegiate, said Louis Kruger, executive director for the placement office.
Getting accepted into the Collegiate school is like applying for a prestigious college or university. In addition to meeting the academic threshold, students need to submit two letters of recommendation and an essay, plus interview with the principal.
“You know as well as I do, if the academic piece wasn’t there, or the rigor, we wouldn’t be taken seriously,” Principal Chip Clatto said.
In its second year, the school’s student body is one of the most diverse in the district. About half of Collegiate’s students are African-American, 20 percent are white and 23 percent Asian.
“The mix is such a great thing,” said Allen Mehta, who lives in the Lindbergh School District and sends his twin son and daughter to Collegiate.
The student body is also more affluent than in most district schools, with 34 percent coming from poverty last year, Clatto said. Most of the students live in the city. But that could change next year. Of the 30 students who’ve completed the application process for 2015-16, just three are attending other schools in the city school system, Clatto said.
The school is outgrowing its brick building at 450 Des Peres Avenue, in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood. The enrollment is 112 students and rising. Another location for Collegiate is to be announced before the end of the month, Adams said.
“You can get great results,” he said. “It goes back to this notion of having a real focus.”