Though the Vashon Compact has long been out of business, programs that it brought to St. Louis Public Schools endure. One, as mentioned, is College Summit. The Center of Creative Arts, which provided programs that I enjoyed, has gotten even more active in Jefferson. In fact, Jefferson was designated an art-integrated themed school in 2009. Students received in-classroom support from 30 local arts organizations including COCA, Metro Theater Company and Springboard. The district says the collaborations use the arts to engage students in core subjects like English and mathematics.
Another is Teach For America. At a time when the district was struggling to retain talented teachers, TFA provided a cadre of young, energetic and idealistic teachers to the schools. This year Teach For America placed 89 teachers in 43 city schools. Each year, some teachers move on to other fields and careers; some decide teaching is their calling. Forty-eight TFA alums are still working in the city schools.
One of them is North Carolina native Nathalie Henderson, 34. Henderson arrived in St. Louis in 2003, Teach For America’s second year here. She moved on a very fast track, teaching at Sumner High for two years, then serving as a principal intern at Beaumont High School, and as an assistant principal at Blow Middle School and McKinley Classical Leadership Academy. In, 2009, and at age 28, she was named principal at Jefferson School. Her tenure marked at least for a time the end of the revolving door at Jefferson. And as noted, attendance dipped and performance declined.
Henderson did not work miracles immediately. She had to win the trust of parents and teachers. She had to get the students refocused on learning.
All was going well when a crisis erupted in the winter of 2013. A sixth grader brought a gun to school. Coming just a couple of months after the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., the incident caused a tempest locally and even made the national news. Some parents refused to send their kids to school for the next several days. Some suggested the school ought to have children pass through metal detectors.
Henderson worked even harder to engage parents and to assure them that the incident was an aberration. Metal detectors would have sent the wrong message, she said.
An even bigger confidence builder was that for the first time, Jefferson reached full accreditation. (The St. Louis school district is provisionally accredited by the state, but the district also keeps track of each school, designating each as unaccredited, provisional, accredited and distinction.)
Reaching accredited is a huge source of pride. But so too are all the outreach efforts going on at Jefferson.
“I tell my teachers that we are more than a school here at Jefferson because of the kids that we serve and the neighborhood that we’re in,” Henderson said. “You just have to do those [extra] things.”
Residents and parents who don’t have a high school diploma can take GED classes at Jefferson. The school provides clothing and toiletries for families in need. Students can receive free dental care, participate in art therapy, and are encouraged to keep “emotional journals” for dealing with the effects and/or trauma that happens in the neighborhood.
“I think some people [have] the mindset that an education should just be about educating,” Henderson said. “But you can’t educate somebody who has these other needs as well or you’re not going to educate them well.”
She says the staff is eager to maintain Jefferson’s upward trajectory. “In the last couple of years, we have made some significant academic improvement,” Henderson said. The staff “is hungry to prove that we can do that consistently.”
Henderson’s mother is a teacher and so was her grandmother. She grew up in a middle class home and went to a suburban school, which in a counter-intuitive kind of way makes her all the more passionate about urban education.
“It just doesn’t make sense to me that based on where you live, you would get a crappy education,” she said. “I recognize I was very fortunate in my upbringing and experiences that I had. And I feel like, ‘Why can’t my students have all that too?’”
Alas, the 2014-15 school year was Henderson’s last at Jefferson. She has accepted a Teach For Teach For America School System Leadership Fellowship and will be working with principals across the St. Louis Public School System. She's on track to someday be a superintendent.
By Evita Caldwell
Photos By J.B. Forbes/St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Nathalie Henderson started as a Teach for America recruit and was named principal at Jefferson School at age 28. She put the school on track for accreditation.