If we had taken a vote in Mrs. Spencer’s class on who was most likely to succeed, Kiauna Jones probably would have won hands down. Smart as a whip in subjects like math, an incredible reader and a snazzy dresser, Kiauna exuded confidence and charisma. She knew how to put first things first and those were her studies.
By transferring to the Rockwood School District under the desegregation program, Kiauna and her mom figured she would benefit from better teachers. There would be more resources in every classroom and she would be part of an entirely different community where just about every kid was going on to college. They figured that was well worth the long bus trip from Kiauna’s rent-subsidized townhouse in Carr Square Village to Rockwood South Middle School, way past Interstate 270 and about as far south and west as you can go and still be in St. Louis County.
“The trip was an hour,” Kiauna recalled, “and I am looking at these buildings on the way to school and saying to myself, ‘It’s big, the world is really big!’”
The experience wasn’t just a revelation to Kiauna, it was as well to the kids who lived out that way. “A lot of them had never met a city girl,” Kiauna said. “They were different to me and I was different to them back. They expected me to come there just as dumb as a doorknob, big earrings, popping gum … and starting fights. And I wasn’t.”
Kiauna became an honor student at Rockwood South and then at Lafayette High School. She lived up to all the expectations her parents and teachers had for her.
Until one day she didn’t.
In her sophomore year, Kiauna got pregnant.
Angered, Kiauna’s mother decided Rockwood was not the promised the land but a place where she encountered some bad influences. She took Kiauna out of Lafayette and enrolled her in Sumner High School back in the city.
Kiauna described her time at Sumner as the worst year of her life. “I felt out of place,” she said. “I wasn’t used to the metal detectors and the frequent fights. It was scary for me.”
Kiauna doesn’t blame her mother, but she decided that she had to take responsibility not only for her child, but also for her education. She did not revert to the stereotype. After the year at Sumner and after adjusting to child rearing, she launched a campaign to be readmitted to Lafayette High. That took some doing because she was told she would have to go to the back of the line when it came to being admitted to the program.
“I called the principal at Lafayette numerous times, wrote letters to the district explaining my case and how I excelled while attending the district,” Kiauna recalled. “I mentioned my honors recognitions. I did everything in my power to make sure my high school graduation was at home – Lafayette.”
Kiauna realized her dream, graduating from Lafayette in 2007 with a high GPA and “bragging rights.”
Looking for a happy ending here? Well yes… and no. Kiauna had a few more ups and downs in her life, but found gainful employment and settled into a nice lifestyle in north St. Louis County with her daughter, Kyla, 9, and her 3-year-old son, Ayden Manuel. But it didn’t take long before Kiauna noticed something amiss at Kyla’s school in the Riverview district. Her class “would sit up and color all day,” Kiauna recalled. “I would ask her if she had homework, and she’d say, ‘No, we don’t have any homework.’”
The Riverview Gardens School District lost its state accreditation in 2007, and beginning in 2013 Kyla and hundreds of other students could transfer to another district. The accreditation issues and the looming transfers of students not just from Riverview Gardens but also Normandy caused an uproar in the region. There have been no easy answers, but there has been lots more discussion about what civic leaders and policymakers can do to level the field in education.
And doesn’t that sound familiar?
Given her experience, Kiauna knows it isn’t just about moving from one school to the next. It’s about giving your child a sense of possibility and finding teachers – like Mrs. Spencer – who will do the same.
“If I make Kyla feel close-minded about her education, she’s going to feel close-minded about her future,” Kiauna said.
Kiauna says she hardly remembers her fifth grade year at Jefferson school, except for her friends. “I do remember Mrs. Spencer,” she said. “I still apply the lessons she taught us to my life today.”
By Evita Caldwell
Photos By J.B. Forbes/St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Kiauna as a fifth grader.
Kiauna Jones with her son, Ayden Manuel.