“After months of research, making phone calls and onsite visits, it was clear that there are amazing schools of all shapes and sizes here in the city.” It’s true. Perception in St. Louis is often different than reality, especially when considering schools. Now, a new website and online community called STL City Schools aims to fix this, by giving parents easier access to better information.
The site is the product of extensive research by parents for parents. If you have ever tried to navigate existing resources about St. Louis area schools, and St. Louis City schools in particular, you understand the dearth of information. The STL City Schools database includes all schools in the St. Louis Public Schools district (including magnets), as well as city charter schools, and private schools in St. Louis city and county – 275 school options in total.
When someone says that St. Louis City will continue to struggle until it “fixes” its schools, at some level they lack information, and context. There are great options in the city. The quote above is from Angelee Brockmeyer, the parent of three children aged 1 to 4, and a former Chicago Public Schools teacher with a Master’s degree in Early Childhood Education. She and her husband Paul led the effort to create the STL City Schools site.
Now that the site has launched, organizers plan to expand and continually update information, including more parent reviews, school highlights, long-term trends on enrollment and test scores, and information on extracurricular activities. A discussion forum for parents to ask questions and share their experiences, and a blog to report on the latest city education news is planned as well.
The organization – City Parents League of St. Louis – behind the site is a non-profit collection of parents committed to raising their families in the city of St. Louis and “improving the city we love.” They hope that giving parents access to better information about educational options will ultimately lead to more families raising their children in the city of St. Louis.
Perhaps the greatest value of the STL City Schools website is the coherent outline of basic information that can be so difficult to find. From the website:
Understand the 4 Types of Schools
PUBLIC Conventional – 41 Schools
Each neighborhood is serviced by one or more traditional public schools covering Kindergarten to 12th grade, operated by the St. Louis Public Schools (SLPS) district, supported by local, state and national tax dollars. Your child is assigned a school based on your address. Like all public schools, these are tuition-free and follow curriculum and evaluation guidelines established by the state of Missouri. LOOK UP YOUR SCHOOL VIEW SCHOOLS
PUBLIC Magnet – 27 Schools
Magnet schools are also (tuition-free) public schools within the SLPS district, but with a couple key differences:
- Magnet schools don’t have boundaries, and can attract students from any neighborhood in the city (hence the name). This generally results in a more diverse mix of social, economic, ethnic, and racial backgrounds.
- Each magnet offers something different than a traditional public school, be it emphasis on certain subjects, a particular educational approach, or theme.
- Some magnets require students to meet certain academic, skill, behavior and/or attendance requirements.
- Advanced application is required and because of their popularity, spots are allocated by lottery.
PUBLIC Charter – 27 Schools
Charter schools are also public, tuition-free schools and receive public money, however, charter schools are not part of SLPS. Each charter school is governed by an independent school board and adheres to rules defined in its charter. This independence allows each school a lot more freedom in how they operate, the curriculum they choose, and how they serve their students. Some schools have themes and/or a geographic enrollment focus. Advanced application is required and spots are usually allocated by lottery.
PRIVATE 180+ Schools
Private Schools are tuition-based, though almost all offer some form of financial aid. They’re typically run by an independent body (a school board, the Archdiocese, etc.) and because they’re exempt from state oversight and mandated testing, they have the freedom to choose their own standards and educational approach. While the majority (80%) of the private schools in St. Louis have a religious affiliation (over half are Catholic), there are also many nonsectarian schools focusing on a wide variety of methodologies and approaches.
Establish your Priorities
Choosing a school is very personal, and every family will approach the decision differently. With that in mind, here are some questions you’ll want to consider as you identify the most important characteristics of your ideal school:
- Does your child tend toward a particular learning style? Are particular environments better suited to their needs than others?
- Are there particular educational methodologies you’re looking for (Montessori, Reggio Emilia, etc.)?
- Do you value economic and/or racial diversity? How important is it that your child be exposed to students of varying racial backgrounds and income levels?
- Does the location of the school matter? How far are you willing to drive your child or have them bused?
- Do you require an extended day program or do you have flexibility in your work schedule to accommodate pick-ups and drop-offs?
- Is a religious education important to you?
- Can you afford tuition? Most private schools offer some form of financial aid, but you’ll want to have a good idea of what you can afford.
- At what age should a school assign homework, and how much is too much?
- How involved would you like to be as a parent in your child’s school?
- How important are the are programs like art, music and physical education?
- Are there particular extracurriculars that you feel are essential for your child (sports, chess, music, debate, etc.)?
It helps to consider each of these before you start your search, then revisit them often as you look at different schools.
Do the Legwork
Always visit the schools. Things may look great on paper, but every school has a different personality, and you’ll want to experience it first-hand before making your decision. Come prepared with questions and if you can’t get answers on the tour, don’t be shy about asking for a contact to follow up with afterward. Do students look happy and engaged in learning? Take note of how you feel when you leave, and trust your parental instincts. The school you pick for your child should make you feel at least a little excited and happy!
This process can take a long time. Plan ahead and leave yourself as much time as possible. For instance, applications to the magnet schools are due almost a year in advance of the school year. Put together a timeline right away and make sure the important dates don’t sneak up on you.
- Tour Dates and Open Houses – Some schools give tours by request, while others require prospective parents to attend scheduled tours or open houses. Check with your target schools and give yourself plenty of time to make your visits.
- Know what’s involved in each school’s application process. When are the applications due? How much time will it require to gather up the necessary pieces (some require essays, etc.).
- If the school requires an entrance exam or a gifted evaluation, you’ll want to schedule those sooner rather than later as test spots can fill up as the deadlines approach.
- If there’s a magnet or charter on your list, read up on how the lottery system works and make note of the important application dates.
Keep your Options Open, and Be Persistent
You are your child’s #1 advocate for a great education. As parents, it’s our responsibility to do everything in our power to fight for our kids. That may mean following up many times to get our questions answered, or hounding someone repeatedly to get a tour scheduled, or to check on the status of an application.
Many of the popular schools now have lotteries and/or wait lists. There is a very real possibility that your child may not get to attend your first choice on your first try. Don’t depend on winning a lottery. Don’t bank on your child attending a gifted school if they haven’t yet tested gifted. Don’t put all your educational eggs in one basket – have contingency plans and stay flexible.
It may take a couple years to end up where you want to be. Stick with it, and be prepared.
You’re not Alone
We meet city parents everyday that have been in your shoes and found places for their children to thrive. St. Louis is on the rise, and the more organized and engaged we are as parents, the more quickly we can improve the educational situation in the city. A cohesive group of parents can quickly turn a good school into a great school through their advocacy and involvement. There’s strength in numbers.