Richard Baron led a broad civic effort to help students at inner city schools. He started with Jefferson School located in a neighborhood with housing that he developed.
By Evita Caldwell
Photos By J.B. Forbes/St. Louis Post-Dispatch
We didn’t think much about the man we knew as Mr. Baron back then. We just knew him as one of the suits who showed up now and then to see what was going on, to take our collective pulse. I am sure we were told at some point and in some way what his efforts were all about, but it went right over our heads. We were more interested in each other, having fun and doing what we could to stay out of trouble or not get caught if we did get into trouble. Basically, just like kids everywhere.
Most of us didn’t feel at risk, because we felt loved by our parents, by Mrs. Spencer and lots of other teachers.
But Baron knew better. We were at risk if you look at the numbers. A “report card” produced by Jefferson from the 1998-99 school year showed that only 27 percent of Jefferson’s 369 students were reading at grade level. Half of my fifth-grade class the following year was reading at a second- and third-grade level.
In the 1998-99 school year, 67 suspensions were issued lasting from one to three days. This is for grade school kids, not teenagers. If you live in the county, ask yourself if you know of a grade school child who got suspended for even a day.
Still, we thought we were living pretty normal lives. Most of us didn’t find enough trouble to get suspended. Most of us had parents who took good care of us. But many of us were falling behind and didn’t really know it. Though he was perceived as an outsider, Baron was no stranger to the neighborhood. I learned this in an interview we conducted at his office last year. Baron is chairman and chief executive officers of McCormack Baron Salazar, a firm that specializes in developing housing in underserved neighborhoods. Two of McCormack Baron’s developments – O’Fallon Place and Murphy Park – surround Jefferson School. So you can see why he took an interest in Jefferson and other schools nearby.
Baron believed that schools are crucial in developing strong families. Good families are the bulwarks of great neighborhoods. I didn’t know it at the time, but when Baron approached the St. Louis Public School system with plans to reinvigorate Jefferson School, he was met with some resistance and suspicion, not just from school officials, but from teachers and residents. Few people want to hear that they are falling short – even if it’s not their fault. And here was a white businessman with a financial interest in the neighborhood delivering that message.
Baron’s vision for school reform extended well beyond Jefferson. He started with Jefferson but then with other civic leaders and business people created the Vashon Compact in 2001, so called because it addressed the needs of the elementary and middle schools that funneled students into what was then the new Vashon High School.
Civic participants in the compact poured $40 million into those schools from 2001 to 2006. Jefferson got $4 million in upgrades. On the roster of supporters were companies like Anheuser-Busch, Bank of America, Edward Jones, Express Scripts, Energizer Holdings, Laclede Gas, to name just a few. The stakeholders believed that if they could make the compact work, perhaps the community would learn how to fix the entire school district. And if that happened, all of St. Louis could prosper.
Now you would think if some people came bearing those kinds of gifts, it would all go relatively smoothly. Not so.
Bill Carson, executive director of the compact, worked closely with Baron on the project. He is an African-American with a long record of working on urban issues. Still, he said, the organization ran into a raft of unanticipated problems. The compact members “didn’t know just how severe the issues were with student performance” at the target schools, he said. Beyond that he described a mistrust between school board members and the compact.
Carson said some in the district developed conspiracy theories. One was that the Vashon Compact was “an effort to take over the schools and improve them so that ‘they’ can push all of the black people out, and move all the white people into north St. Louis.”
Such theories abound. And not just in regard to Richard Baron. Many residents are suspicious of developer Paul McKee’s Northside Regeneration Project that at least on paper seems to be even more ambitious and costly than the Vashon Compact.
It should also be remembered that Jefferson School is just a stone’s throw from the old Pruitt-Igoe site. That project was supposed to provide superior, low-cost housing but in a decade became so degraded and crime-infested that the government imploded the buildings. The site never got redeveloped and remains a gated-off lot where weeds grow into trees. Given that context, could you blame residents for mistrusting the intentions of outsiders who say they are coming to help?
In an epilogue to the community in 2010, the compact administration neither claimed an outright victory, nor acknowledged defeat. But clearly if the compact had succeeded, it would have continued to this day. And it has not.
The epilogue was candid in admitting to “challenges,” including,
• Poor alignment at every level between the school board and mid-management, school to school, and principal to teacher.
• Leadership instability, including 17 board members occupying seven seats over the five-year period; six superintendents in 3 1/2 years; 23 principals over five years, and “an endless revolving door of middle-managers.”
• School closures. Four of 10 schools in compact were closed.
• Politics, entrenchment and bureaucracy.
Compact administrators admitted that they were naïve, “had no idea of the issues,” and did not “fully leverage our civic influence.”
Still the compact claimed to have accomplished “the majority of what we set out to do.”
Hundreds of students received a better foundation; schools got state-of-the-art technology; teachers and principals got training, which could be applied at whatever school they found themselves; and everyone got a deeper civic knowledge of education issues.
I think that translates to sadder but wiser. One troubling aspect for those who are sadder: Could they ever be persuaded to again back a broad-based effort to help school children? While the Vashon Compact fell short in many respects, what would have happened without it? Things could have gotten worse.
And at Jefferson School they did. After principal Anne Meese and Mary Spencer retired, several other teachers left as well. Between 2003 and 2009, Jefferson students saw four different principals. Test scores fell and enrollment dropped, according to figures compiled by the Missouri Department of Secondary and Elementary Education. In 2006, Jefferson classrooms were filled with 436 students, according to the state. But by 2011, enrollment fell to 197. At the same time, disciplinary incidents increased from 1 per 100 students in 2008 to 2.5 by 2011.
No one can say for sure that continuing the Vashon Compact would have prevented this. Jefferson was part of a school system in distress. Parents were losing confidence in the schools overall and Jefferson was just one of many subject to budget cuts, turnover and bureaucratic upheaval.
“What [the Vashon Compact] was fighting was the fact that the city schools were losing teachers and their families to the more affluent school districts, Clayton, Ladue and Parkway, ” Baron recalled.
“We were training and doing in-service,” Baron said, “and just about the time we would really get some outstanding performance and started to see kids really improving… the teachers would be gone [to another district]. It was frustrating, to say the least.”
Baron at his office at McCormack Baron Salazar discussing the many projects he has underway in underserved communities across the nation.