15 Years Ago: When They Were Kids

In June of 2000, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published a series of stories titled, A Better Place to Grow Up. Written by Richard H. Weiss, then a P-D editor, the opus focused on a St. Louis inner city neighborhood, a school, a teacher, and a gaggle of fifth graders. That school year Richard Baron, CEO of McCormack Baron Salazar, had launched an effort involving many St. Louis businesses that brought to bear financial and in-kind support for Jefferson School.  Their goal: Create a brighter future for the kids at Jefferson. Below are the original stories that appeared in the Post-Dispatch.

A Better Place to Grow Up

The Murphy Park and O'Fallon Place neighborhood once was a crime-ridden and hopeless pocket of poverty. Thanks to a visionary developer, persevering teachers and steadfast residents, this community is starting to blossom.

June 11, 2000

Story by Richard H. Weiss 

Photos by J.B. Forbes of the Post-Dispatch

 

Mary Spencer peers over the rims of her Walgreens half-glasses at her fresh crop of fifth-graders. They return her gaze, some with vacant stares, others with bright eyes, eager to please. Spencer already knows many of them, having spent nearly four decades at Jefferson Elementary School, a mile northwest of downtown. She taught their grandmas and grandpas, moms and dads. She's already got a fix on who's a sweetie pie and who's a momma's boy. Who's a braggart. Who's a bully. Who's headed for a high school cap and gown. Who's bound for trouble or may be there already.

 

One of them is a 10-year-old named Howard Small. He could fit into any of the categories, except maybe bully. Not yet having grown to 4 feet, and a shade under 70 pounds, Howard is too tiny to push around his peers. But he has been a handful since he set foot in Jefferson School six years ago.

 

Howard is a bright child who could go either way, depending on his surroundings. Principal Ann Meese has given Spencer the last shot at Howard before he moves on to middle school.

 

Spencer has arranged the students in five rows before her. And for the 40th time, she lays down the law.

"Ladies, you'll put your knees together when you slip into your desks. There will be no going back and forth to the cloakroom. You get everything you need at the beginning of the day."

 

"Do not sass. Do not sass any adult. If you do, I'm going to get you. I'm the momma. I have a loud voice. If I call you, you stop and holler, 'Ma'am!' You come and see what I want. Do you understand me?"

 

"Yesssss."

 

"I will fight your battles for you. You do not start fights. Is that understood?"

 

"Yessss."

 

"We're high class, " she says. "We're not ghetto!"

 

Not anymore.

 

There was a time when Jefferson Elementary School and the neighborhood in which it sits were about as ghetto as it got.

 

The Vaughn public housing complex cast a shadow on Jefferson School at 1301 Hogan Street. The boxy-bland high rises were so crime-ridden that some residents slept on the floor in fear of gunfire. Fourteen people were murdered there in a six-month stretch in 1981.

 

Just a few blocks away stood Pruitt-Igoe, another collection of public housing high-rises. In two decades, they had become so monumentally decrepit and unsafe that the government cleared everyone out, then blew the buildings to bits. The implosion made the national news.

 

Gang warfare erupted in the streets around the Vaughn complex in the late 1980s and early '90s -- not daily, but often enough to keep everyone on edge. The drug trade flourished in alleys and gangways.

In the last decade at Jefferson, most children were promoted up and out though they were reading far below grade level. Few had a prayer of ever catching up.

 

For a long time, Mary Spencer and a handful of other veterans held the fort, acting not just as teachers but as surrogate parents.

 

As for the rest of St. Louis, the citizenry sent in its social workers and tax dollars, its clergy and charitable contributions and the police. But how many believed inner-city neighborhoods could do anything but decay? Certainly not the businesses that built their superstores and factories far away. Nor the builders who found it easier and far more lucrative to create new neighborhoods in the suburbs rather than to salvage old ones in the city.

 

Someone else would have to figure out how to solve the inner-city puzzle.

 

For 30 years, that someone else has been Richard Baron.

 

Baron and his St. Louis-based company, McCormack Baron & Associates, have moved into America's most devastated urban landscapes, cleared away the debris, and built decent, attractive and affordable housing for people with low and middle incomes.

 

And that's what he did in this neighborhood. In the late '70s and early '80s, he built the O'Fallon Place apartments, home to 675 families. In 1996, Baron, with the St. Louis Housing Authority, replaced all but two of the Vaughn high rises with the red brick town houses, peaked roofs and backyard patios of Murphy Park. One hundred-sixty families live there now. Three years from now, 402 families will call Murphy Park home.

 

Murphy Park and O'Fallon Place are populated almost entirely by African-Americans. But the neighborhood is economically integrated.

 

In Murphy Park, half the families are impoverished, but the rest have annual incomes of $17,000 to as much as $75,000. Whatever their means, tenants are entitled to the same amenities -- the 15-meter community swimming pool, day-care center, gated parking, security systems, plush carpeting, washers, dryers, dishwashers and garbage disposals.

 

Each spring, Baron's landscapers pile mulch 2 inches thick around each tree and shrub. They plant tulips and petunias in every median strip in the development.

 

Each morning, a maintenance supervisor motors around on a golf cart looking for signs of creeping blight. He plucks the stray malt liquor can or calls out a crew to power-wash away gang graffiti.

 

But Baron's ambitions extend far beyond housing and hostas. Two years ago, he went to the St. Louis school district with a plan for Jefferson Elementary School, which sits between his two complexes.

He would get St. Louis businesses and philanthropic groups to donate $3.5 million to launch Jefferson School into cyberspace, to train its teachers, to bring job-training opportunities to residents.

 

The district would redraw attendance boundaries so the neighborhood children who were being bused to dozens of different schools in the city and county could attend Jefferson. The district would hire a new principal and it would give her broad authority to make decisions.

 

All that has been accomplished. But Baron wants more. Last fall, he cast his eyes on the Pruitt-Igoe site, which has lain fallow and wee d-besotted since the buildings were destroyed in the early 1970s. If he could plant his flag there, it could stand as a beacon for the rest of the country.

 

And so Baron proposed not merely decent and affordable apartments, but single-family homes priced about $150,000 and built by one of St. Louis County's preeminent home builders. Fronting Jefferson Avenue would be a Schnucks supercenter plus a hardware store, a dry cleaner or video store, the kinds of establishments his tenants now have to drive to or take a bus for miles to reach.

 

Further west down Martin Luther King Drive stands the Jeff-Vander-Lou neighborhood. Baron is working with the Danforth Foundation to revive that neighborhood and a network of city schools that will feed the new Vashon High School.

 

Just a mile to the southeast are the abandoned Cupples Station warehouses near Busch Stadium. This fall they will emerge as an office and hotel complex with Baron as the developer. Baron believes that's where residents in his neighborhoods will find jobs. And not just as maids and custodians, but as technicians and managers.

 

After three decades of working with and alongside inner city residents, Richard Baron believes he's cracked the code. He thinks he knows how to narrow the gap between city and suburbs, haves and have-nots.

 

Narrow it so much that suburbanites with jobs and decent incomes could see themselves moving into neighborhoods like O'Fallon Place and Murphy Park alongside people economically less fortunate.

Narrow it so that people of all races will join African-Americans who live there now.

 

Narrow it so the great commercial interests will cater to these residents not from noblesse oblige but because it benefits their bottom line.

 

If all this sounds implausible or maybe even a bit pretentious, well, in Baron's view, doubters simply need to be brought along. Maybe he could show them his stunning before-and-after slides. They depict one urban sinkhole after another transformed into charming oases.

 

Or he could point to his track record -- 73 projects, worth $873 million, in 24 cities from California to New York. Not one has gone belly up.

 

Or he could take them on a tour of Jefferson School. They could poke their heads into the computer center where children are building personal Web sites or catch a tumbling performance the students put together under the tutelage of special instructors from the Center of Contemporary Arts, an institution that Baron founded in 1986.

 

And they'd be impressed. But a question might arise. Looks great, but can these children read?

It will hardly matter if flowers bloom on their streets and computers hum in their classrooms if kids like Howard Small leave Jefferson School without the ability to read, to compute and to think at a level consistent with their peers across the country.

 

This is where Baron's grand vision hangs in the balance.

 

Howard is one of the best readers in his fifth-grade class, his test scores show. Yet at the beginning of the school year, he was reading at nearly a year below grade level. Half his classmates were reading at a second- and third-grade level.

 

Last year, despite millions of dollars in corporate support, a huge investment in technology and a new spirit of cooperation, most students at Jefferson showed little or no improvement in their reading scores.

 

Baron and principal Ann Meese know they have to show results. So, they fashioned a community report card -- one that measures attendance, behavior, parental participation and reading levels.

 

The report card will be shown to lenders, civic leaders and phi- lanthropists. If the students earn high marks, Baron and his allies will be able to say: "Look, it's working. Give us more support. Help us make it work in another St. Louis neighborhood."

 

And if they fail? That's been known to happen. Urban planners, politicians and journalists once heralded Pruitt-Igoe, then Vaughn, as beacons of hope for city residents. Every few years another neighborhood project draws its share of acclaim as the answer to America's urban ills. Some, like Pruitt-Igoe, no longer exist. Others stand half vacant and riddled with crime.

 

Baron, Spencer, Meese and others in this neighborhood have set their sights high. They have promised that children at Jefferson will read at grade level, that disciplinary problems will abate, that attendance will improve, that every family will take a strong interest in its children's education.

 

And they invited the world to watch.

 

This is a nine-month chronicle of the O'Fallon Place and Murphy Park neighborhood -- a time in which great expectations ran neck and neck with abject frustration; a time in which lofty visions sank in the quicksand of reality; a time in which progress came inch by inch.

 

CHAPTER 1 Spencer to the rescue

 

When Mary Elizabeth Bond Spencer awakens for the first day of her 40th year as a teacher, the clock on her VCR silently displays 4:45 a.m.

 

This, give or take a few minutes, is always when she gets up; no alarm is necessary.

 

Before turning in the night before, Spencer picked out her outfits for the first week of school. They hang on a hook in her closet and they're draped over chairs. She puts on a blue dress, then runs a brush through her silver-streaked hair and fastens it into a ponytail.

 

Spencer, 62, is excited and already a little weary. For the first time in 30 years, she took the summer off to rest, to store up energy.

 

Principal Ann Meese has brought in new programs for reading, math and science. They will do discipline differently this year, too, through a program called "Love and Logic." Teachers will take control of their classrooms, creating an environment where children can learn.

 

That last category has never been a problem for Spencer. Her reputation precedes her, she likes to say.

Walking up the steps at school, she meets Maurice Fox, a handsome child with a brilliant smile. He wonders if he'll be in her class.

 

"You didn't pray too hard over the summer, " Spencer says. "You got stuck with me."

"Oh, no, " Maurice protests. "I want to be in your class."

 

He's one of 18 on Spencer's class list. But only 11 greet her when she walks into the classroom. Four more will show up by day's end. The pattern is repeated across the school. Slightly more than two-thirds of Jefferson's 369 students have shown up for the first day of class. Spencer knows many parents won't get around to sending their children to school for another week.

 

Nevermind. Spencer has learned to work with who she has and what she has. Her school has changed much since she walked into it Sept. 6, 1960, the year it opened. It wasn't air-conditioned then. It wasn't laced with fiber-optic cable for the Internet. But like today, it was bright, the floors glistened and there was someone in the principal's office who cared.

 

Poor people went to Jefferson School back then, too. But they got a first-class education. They used to call her school "THE" Jefferson. And teachers from other schools grew weary of having assistant superintendent Samuel Shepard Jr. single the school out for having the best test scores and most innovative programs.

 

Spencer and the other teachers laid a pipeline to the parents, taking the elevators to the 11th floor at Pruitt-Igoe or the 9th at Vaughn. She introduced the latest reading program and established ground rules for homework and discipline.

 

Spencer could see her students didn't have much, but that didn't faze her. She grew up in a cold-water flat with an outdoor toilet at 2807A Easton Avenue. That didn't keep her from reading every book she could get her hands on, and True Confessions besides. It didn't keep her from graduating from Vashon High School, and being the first in her family to graduate from college, or from going on and completing a master's degree.

 

What her students lacked, Spencer believed, was refinement. Many had never ventured much beyond their neighborhood. Some had never been to a museum or to a restaurant with a white tablecloth.

 

So Spencer began showing them the world, taking them on plane trips to Washington and New York. At holiday time, the class prepared a five-course Thanksgiving dinner. Then her pupils dressed up, sat down and ate it, making sure to start with that small fork on the left.

 

Spencer proudly calls herself old-school. She still keeps on her desk a basal reader issued in 1969.

Despite Spencer's efforts, Jefferson changed -- and not for the better. If you want to look at root causes, it likely had something to do with the city losing its tax base as middle-class families moved to the suburbs; it may have had something to do with an inept housing authority that allowed Pruitt-Igoe and Vaughn to fall so far into decay that many respectable families fled; possibly it was the Vietnam War that brought home disillusioned veterans, or the 1960s that bred cynicism and the drug culture.

 

Spencer could see the change in the insolent stares of her students; the lack of response when she sent notes home to parents; their indifference to her phone calls. Meanwhile, the school district was changing, too. Principals came and went. Increasingly, she felt, teachers were told what they couldn't do, not what they needed to do.

 

Increasingly, Spencer found her children needing not just an education, but rescue. She would take home many students with her in the afternoon, knowing they had no place to go after school. One was a bright but withdrawn fourth-grader named Tisha. Soon Spencer was taking Tisha shopping and treating her as if she were her own.

 

One day, Tisha's mother, beset with personal problems and wanting a better life for her daughter, asked Spencer if she would raise Tisha. Spencer said yes. And it wasn't the first time. She adopted another child, April, whose mother gave her up shortly after birth. And there was a boy, too, whose mother was murdered in a restaurant. Spencer raised him until his family moved to Texas.

 

But she couldn't rescue them all. Today, second-grade teacher Andrea Williams hands her a copy of the Evening Whirl, a weekly newspaper. "Remember him?" Williams asks.

 

The front-page story recounts the shooting death of Mauritius Larkin, 18, in the Cochran housing complex. "You could see he was headed for trouble, " Williams says.

 

The name is familiar. Spencer pauses, trying to conjure up a mental image of Larkin as a child. The picture is hazy. She gives the paper back to Williams, grimaces and shakes her head.

 

Now Spencer sits at her desk with her hands folded. She is explaining the classroom rules. There are so many that you wonder if she will soon get to directives on how to breathe.

 

Then out of a corner of an eye, Spencer notices Howard Small. Spencer taught Howard's aunt, his uncle and his sisters, both now grown. She knows Howard's mom, Toni McNeal, a school bus driver.

 

Howard says he'd like to go to the bathroom.

 

Spencer shakes her head. The class had just been given a bathroom break not 10 minutes ago.

 

Howard stamps his feet.

 

"We're going to have to get you a Depends, Howard, " Spencer snarls. "You know I don't put up with that."

At his desk, Howard writhes. A tear courses down his cheek and drips on his desk. His face goes slack, then sullen. No one takes an interest in his pain.

 

Minutes pass.

 

"OK, Howard, you may go to the bathroom, " Spencer growls. "You have exactly two minutes."

Howard returns in less than a minute.

 

CHAPTER 2 "It's just that mouth and that attitude"

 

Toni McNeal knew nothing about the bathroom dustup. But she's glad Howard landed in Mary Spencer's class. "She's going to handle him, " she says. "She's going to keep him in order."

 

McNeal figures this is a critical year for her Howard. He'll be going to middle school next year, and she tells him there won't be anyone around to baby him in the way that he likes.

 

So far, though, this year has not gone well.

 

On Sept. 7, just a few days after the start of school, Howard's grandmother died of colon cancer. Howard said he found her in the bathroom "with her eyes rolled back in her head."

 

McNeal says that's just a story Howard's telling. But Marie Mixon did die at home, and her passing has been hard on the family. Mixon helped take care of Howard while McNeal drove her bus. Howard's father and mother split seven years ago. Howard sees him occasionally, McNeal says, but not frequently enough. And he spoils him, she says. So do his two grown sisters.

 

That's an easy thing to do. Howard is the definition of adorable, with his wide brown eyes and his tiny but perfectly proportioned body. He knows how to speak respectfully to adults, addressing them with yes ma'ams and no sirs, and he remembers his pleases and thank yous.

 

When Howard is asked who would play him if a movie were done on his life, he says Will Smith. And there's some resemblance in manner and appearance.

 

But as McNeal relates -- in front of Howard -- the child "gets over on you." That means he's sly. He will tell you he's going one place and you'll find him in another. He'll say he's got no homework tonight, when in fact he does. If a polite request doesn't work, Howard will whine, wheedle and cajole until someone gives him his way.

 

Sometimes McNeal feels like she alone can see through Howard and stand up to him.

"Howard is good at reading, math and running his mouth, " McNeal says, again within Howard's earshot. "He doesn't listen. You try to tell him something and he's got to get in the last word."

 

But he's smart, McNeal says. Howard likes to take things apart to see if he can figure out how they work. He's disassembled several bicycles. "I don't know what he rides around on, " McNeal chuckles, "because he never puts them back together."

 

When Howard was in kindergarten, a visiting fireman warned the children that they should never stick anything in an electrical socket. That afternoon, Howard went home and conducted an experiment by doing just that. He discovered that he could shut down the apartment's electrical system, turn his hand completely black, throw his grandmother into a panic and get a ride to the emergency room in the back of an ambulance.

 

McNeal wants Howard to become a scientist or a doctor, to be the first in his family to graduate from college. At the moment, she's not at all convinced that he'll make it and she's letting him know.

"He's got potential, " McNeal says. "It's just that mouth and that attitude."

 

CHAPTER 3  A fresh but uncertain start

 

Ann Meese, the principal, pulls out a sheaf of test scores and shows them to a visitor. Lots of numbers, columns and decimals points. You would have to study them a bit to get the picture.

 

Then Meese reaches across her desk for a crumpled piece of paper. It's an essay of sorts by a third-grader. "Tonya" (a pseudonym) is explaining how she got into a fight.

 

Whenever pupils are sent to the principal's office -- and that happened more than 500 times in the 1998-99 school year -- Meese requires them to do some writing. It helps calm them and gets them thinking about what they might have done differently. It also provides Meese with a quick take on the pupils' literacy level.

Here's what Tonya wrote:

 

I didn't rid om hes hord. hes rid om my bak W We Wh play at ers. to bres rord om my bak. Thu say. ti.

 

Like Tonya, scores of students at Jefferson cannot write a meaningful sentence. Test scores show that after Meese's first year at Jefferson, only 27 percent of Jefferson's children were reading at grade level. Worse, Meese could see that many children were losing ground at an accelerating rate -- like cars spinning their wheels in the mud.

 

Most of her first-graders were entering second grade reading on average at a first-grade level. But most of her fifth-graders were leaving Jefferson for middle school reading at only a third-grade level. In fact, just one of 42 fifth-graders was reading at grade level.

 

"You wouldn't want your kids to come to school here, " Meese says. "Not yet."

 

But when? Meese arrived at Jefferson in the fall of 1998 as the dust was settling on a bitter dispute. Richard Baron had sought drastic changes in the faculty when he went to the school district with his offer to raise money for Jefferson. The new principal was to be given a free hand in building a new staff. Teachers who wanted to remain at Jefferson would have to reapply for their jobs.

 

They were outraged. Many had struggled for years, some for decades, at Jefferson under grim circumstances.

 

So, when Meese arrived just before the start of the '98-'99 school year, she was confronted with low student achievement, unruly children, plunging teacher morale and a neighborhood disengaged from its school.

 

She couldn't wait to get started. At age 60, Meese found a place where she could make her mark, to put a lifetime of preparation and study into practice.

 

Meese was a principal and superintendent for a tiny school district in northwest Missouri when she heard from a friend about the Jefferson job. Most of her degree work had focused on educating disadvantaged children, African-Americans in particular.

 

Over the years, Meese moved frequently, following her husband from job to job. They had finally settled as empty-nesters in Columbia, Mo., when the Jefferson position came up.

 

As part of her commitment to her new job, Meese said, she wanted to take an apartment in the neighborhood, to live among the families she would help. Baron arranged to give her a unit in Murphy Park rent-free. She sees her husband and tends her garden back home only on weekends and vacations.

Meese stands 6 feet with gray hair so silky that her students can't resist running their hands through it. She walks Jefferson's hallways briskly, tilted slightly forward as if she's steaming into a headwind. Arthritis affects her gait and her ability to sit comfortably.

 

She carries a to-do list. As she makes her rounds, she's got one eye on the children, making sure they are behaving appropriately, and another for a teacher to whom she has delegated a task.

 

Meese believes in delegation and committees and in sharing information. Her staff is not used to any of that. The veterans have seen a long line of principals come and go. Some were authoritarian; others were remote. Some were well-liked; others despised. But no one had encountered anyone quite like this whirlwind who is by turns warm and folksy, clinical and demanding.

 

The staff is a mixed bag as far as Meese is concerned. A few teachers, she feels, are clueless; just as many are savvy; the rest she can bring along.

 

Meese asked the district to give up on having the teachers reapply for their jobs. She doubted that -- given the city district's salary schedule and its tattered reputation -- she could find qualified replacements in so short a time.

 

She would work with this group, train and help the people grow. She would also introduce a rigorous new reading program called "Success for All."

 

The program, developed at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, is sweeping the country. At last count, it could be found at 1,550 schools, many in inner cities.

 

The program demands that schools set aside 90 uninterrupted minutes a day for reading, that teachers follow plans precisely and that they do it according to a posted schedule. Each child's progress is charted assiduously. Tests are given every eight weeks, and children are grouped according to their ability, not by grade.

 

The program demands that parents take part by reading with their children at home. And if they're not, it's up to the school to find out why and to make it happen.

 

Some schools that have adopted Success for All have shown impressive gains. Others have continued with discouraging results.

 

Program administrators say much depends on the enthusiasm teachers bring to the program and their attention to what at times can seem like mind-numbing detail.

 

If enthusiasm is what it took, Meese would not get caught short. She arranged a retreat for the staff just before the start of school at Trout Lodge near Potosi, Mo. Though just half the faculty showed up, those who did seemed grateful and challenged when Meese asked that they help her set the agenda for the school year.

 

A trainer took them through team-building games using balls and buckets and ropes. It all went smoothly until they got stuck for more than an hour on a game that required the staff to change places in a line without getting out of the assigned order. The trainer kept telling them the answer was fairly simple. You just had to look at the problem in a different way.

 

Everyone was on the verge of giving up when the trainer stepped in to help. But then he couldn't. He either had set up the game wrong or he had given improper instructions.

 

Frustrating, but not altogether meaningless, Meese thought. She was certain the coming school year would test them all. And fairly sure no one would be around to provide them with easy answers.

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