June 14, 2000
Story by Richard H. Weiss; Photos by J.B. Forbes of the Post-Dispatch
They take the good and bad. They look for a silver lining despite a dark past and an uncertain future. And at the end of a long, hard year, they get the sense that fate at last may be smiling on them.
They called themselves "The Committee to Catch Our Breath." It's unclear how many staff members at Jefferson Elementary School in the city make up this group. There were no signatures on the letter that first-grade teacher Patsy Saffold handed to principal Ann Meese just a few days after the winter holiday.
The letter said the teachers were "not mentally, physically or emotionally" able to deal with the abundance of new programs at Jefferson -- the paperwork, the committee meetings, the new discipline procedures and the computer technology program.
"We can only do so much in a day, the children can only do so much in a day," the letter said. "Can we stand back, regroup and suggest as a whole team better ways to meet our goals?"
Meese accepted the letter and did just what it asked by holding a discussion about how best to deal with all the demands placed on the teachers.
Still, she was a little hurt that some teachers felt they had to express their feelings through an unsigned letter. Meese believes in openness and solving problems jointly. She would hold meetings at which staff members were invited to bring problems to her attention.
CHAPTER 10: "We can only do so much"
She would form committees so teachers could find their own solutions and not have them handed down from on high.
She remembered their birthdays, organized a special dinner for them and remembered to frequently single out teachers for special recognition in front of the others.
The letter she got was couched in jargon that bespoke teamwork and doing what's best for the children. But Meese saw in the letter a subtext. Some staff members weren't up to the job.
Too many got frustrated and berated their students when they should have been using positive reinforcement techniques. Too many treated the computer program as an irritant rather than a critical factor in their students' future success. Too many failed to understand that only a rigorous reading program with -- yes -- lots of paperwork and follow-up was the best way to get the children reading at their grade level.
She needed a staff that was "mentally, physically and emotionally" able to march into hell for this heavenly cause. The test scores had to improve. Every student had to show progress.
Peter Mudd, the bright young technology coordinator at Jefferson, had b een on her case to move against these teachers who wouldn't get with the program. So had Lisa Angstreich, the vice president for community development at McCormack Baron & Associates.
But nothing made Meese's stomach churn more than wielding the ax. She was by nature an instructor, a coach. When it came to delivering bad news, well, sometimes she practiced what she had to say with her husband.
She had already filed the paperwork against one teacher. She would try to nudge an older teacher toward retirement, a younger one toward a transfer. Then there were a couple of more whom she had thought a lot about, but, well, maybe she didn't yet have enough documentation on them.
Whether those teachers choose to stay or go, Meese isn't backing off on instruction. "They all know where I'm going, " she says. "If I expect too much, well, that's part of the package."
CHAPTER 11: A teacher, not a robot
Teacher Mary Spencer isn't a member of The Committee to Catch Our Breath.
Spencer doesn't whine or complain.
Even so, she'll confide that she sometimes regrets promising to put off her retirement until after the next school year. She had promised the neighborhood residents at the dedication ceremony for the refurbished school that she would stay until Jefferson got back on the right track.
But it's been a struggle. On too many days lately she's felt more like a robot than a teacher.
Those are the days when she wants to stop to help a student grasp a concept in the "Success for All" reading program. But then the egg timer has rung and it's time for the next exercise.
It's on days when Spencer has to write detailed lesson plans and fill in progress reports that evaluate her 30 students' progress in 33 categories, rather than working one-on-one with a student and her story.
It's on days when special programs hatched at America's finest universities crowd out projects that Spencer has cooked up herself. She doubts those college professors could get any more out of her students than she has.
Yes, it's true, many students have left Spencer's classes reading well below grade level. "But where did they start from?" Spencer asks. How many turned out to be solid citizens? Those are the relevant questions to ask.
On this day, 39 days into the year 2000, Spencer is passing up a chance to get some after-school computer training.
Every teacher who completes the course will get a free laptop computer.
Spencer and the other teachers could use the laptops to organize their lesson plans, fill out those progress reports and keep track of grades. Or they could build a Web site that would show off classroom projects or encourage students to explore the world.
But in a way, that's what Spencer has been doing for these last four decades -- showing her kids the world. Until 15 years ago, Spencer took her class on a trip to New York. That's how they learned geography.
That's how they saw stories they read in books come to life on the stage. That's how they learned their social graces.
This year, some of Spencer's students got to go camping for several days over spring break. That's always an eye-opener for the kids.
But when school starts again, it's back to the new program. She is expected to hit her marks. Teach the children exactly what they need to know so they can get good scores on their state achievement tests, so the district can secure its AAA accreditation, so the public will regain its faith in the city's schools.
Nothing wrong with that. She'll help her kids use the Internet to research subjects for Black History Month. She'll figure out how to use the e-mail system so the children can establish pen-pal relationships with adult volunteers.
But every so often, she'll draw outside the lines, stop class and make her kids think. "What, " she asks, "does your God look like?"
The kids outfit God in flowing robes or maybe tattoos and Nikes. Make God a him or a her. Black or white. Bearded or with flowing tresses.
That sort of discussion doesn't come from a lesson plan. Some might even consider it inappropriate in a public school. But Spencer knows it makes her kids think, reminds them that whatever may be happening in their lives, somewhere out there is a wellspring of goodness.
And it reminds her that she's a teacher, not a robot.
CHAPTER 12: Losing a friend
Marlene Hodges picks at her salad, looking like she had lost her best friend. Hodges is a community coordinator for COVAM, an organization established to give tenants in the Carr Square Village, O'Fallon Place and Murphy Park areas near downtown a say in what happens throughout their neighborhoods.
Actually, Hodges isn't losing her best friend. Lisa Angstreich is moving to Baltimore, but not until next year. Maybe by then Hodges will learn everything Angstreich has to teach her about community organizing. Maybe by then Hodges will learn how to write a grant proposal. Maybe by then the neighborhood will come together in the way it should. Maybe by then Hodges' career will be blossoming if not in full flower.
Though Angstreich is 15 years younger, Hodges looks up to her like a big sister. "She's had this good education, " Hodges says. "She's smart. She went to college and got a degree. I went to college and didn't get a degree."
Angstreich has a master's degree in social work from Washington Universi ty. And by anyone's measure she's precocious. She started with McCormack Baron in 1997 and was recently named vice president for community development.
Angstreich grew up in the suburbs with all the advantages that Hodges missed. But Hodges doesn't hold it against her. Angstreich was the first to recognize what Hodges had to offer when she noticed her volunteering for neighborhood functions and speaking up at meetings. She lobbied to get Hodges a paid position as a community organizer.
Hodges says she's learned a lot by watching how Angstreich handles a meeting; how she can be direct with people without angering them, how she can get people headed in the direction she wants them to go.
Hodges doesn't even harbor a notion that she could step up and take Angstreich's place. "I'm not a politician, " she says. "I hate to speak in public." She just wants to inch her career forward for her daughter, Te'Aura; for her mom; for herself.
She would like to have her own car instead of having to share one with her mother. She would like to toss out a pair of ratty panty hose without a pang of remorse. She would like to start saving for Te'Aura's college education.
Now, she would like to rally this neighborhood. Get people to start working together on keeping it safe and secure. The other day a resident called Hodges saying she was getting fed up with her noisy neighbors, with the drug dealing she sees outside her door.
The woman said she had a few friends who felt the same way. Wasn't there a block watch program or something they could get started?
CHAPTER 13: No big deal
Richard Baron sits at his desk. He looks unworried, unflustered, as if what happened several days earlier had been no big deal.
Word was that he had really been ticked. But that's over now. Nobody can turn the page quicker than Baron.
In mid-March, Baron's grand plan for new housing on the old Pruitt-Igoe site collapsed. Schnucks called and said it wanted out. When Harry Morley, the home builder, learned of this, he got cold feet, too.
What happened? It turned out Baron had everyone he needed on board except Alderman April Ford Griffin, D-5th Ward.
Griffin's ward includes Murphy Park, O'Fallon Place and the site of the old Pruitt-Igoe housing complex on Jefferson Avenue. It's not that Griffin opposed what Baron was trying to do. It's just that she has her own ideas about how to revitalize her ward.
Last year, she got the city to spend $250,000 to create a master plan. The city hired Schwetye Architects to do the work, and in March the firm rolled out a draft plan that, among other things, called for a par-3, nine-hole golf course on the Pruitt-Igoe site and adjoining property. The single-family housing that Baron suggested for the site would go elsewhere; so would the grocery.
When Baron got wind of the proposal, he tried to call Griffin. He said she didn't get back to him. If she had, he might have told Griffin that Schnucks wouldn't want to put its store where the plan called for. He might have also told her that he had one of St. Louis County's premier home builders ready and willing to build 121 homes on the site and that Bank of America was prepared to commit financing.
Baron says he doesn't know why his relationship with Griffin is so cool. Baron backed Loretta Hall in the 5th Ward race in 1997. Hall, who was then the resident manager of Carr Square Village, had worked with Baron for more than 30 years on tenant rights issues.
Griffin says she wants single-family housing in the area, too - the golf course could be a centerpiece and attraction for such development. Baron, she points out, isn't the only builder with a proposal to redevelop Pruitt-Igoe. She wants to consider them all.
When the golf course plan surfaced in the Post-Dispatch with Griffin's name attached to it, Baron's office got the call from Schnucks. He didn't even call back to argue. Schnucks had gone through a protracted battle with Alderman Sharon Tyus, D-20th Ward, to put a store at Union Boulevard and Natural Bridge Avenue just a few years ago. The company didn't want another fight, and Baron couldn't blame Schnucks.
And he couldn't blame Morley, either. It's so much easier to build homes in St. Louis County, where the system is greased for development. Who needs the red tape and the hassle?
So, Baron called the Housing Authority and withdrew his proposal to turn Pruitt-Igoe into a Shangri-La called CityView.
But did that mean he was throwing in the towel? Never. He would simply turn his attention to another project. Baron has a mantra that his staff has heard hundreds of times.
"Nobody said it would be easy restoring urban America."
Marlene Hodges, the community activist, looks out at a sea of faces and thinks it just can't get any better than this. Here it is a cold, blustery March night -- a Friday no less -- and 30 people have shown up for her neighborhood block watch meeting.
She had sent them all a letter, imploring them to come. "Come on, be concerned, " she wrote. "Take some pride in your neighborhood and get involved. Don't leave it up to a few to do the job we all should be involved in. You live here, too."
And Hodges is ready for them. She set a table with cold cuts, potato salad, coleslaw and dessert. Another table holds brochures on everything from breast self-examination to adult classes to anti-gang activities. Now she has butterflies in her stomach because she will have to get up and speak.
She starts by presenting a fruit basket to Sherolynne Waller, the first to arrive. "This is just us, " she says. "You can say anything you want. Let's be open, honest and frank with each other."
Then she presents the star of her show, Patrolman Donnell Moore.
Moore, looking snappy in his blue uniform, keeps his audience rapt and chuckling with stories about how he, a cop, had been ripped off by thieves in his own neighborhood. Moore has been a police officer only four years and acknowledges that he has a lot to learn.
"I know what it feels like to lose my TV, " Moore says. "I know what it's like to come out of my house and find my license plates stolen. Every time it heightens my awareness. One thing I never had was the help of my neighbors. You have the chance here to meet each other and put a neighborhood watch program together."
"Sign me up, " booms Willie Jackson, a longtime resident at O'Fallon Place.
Hodges ends the meeting by asking residents to call her and tell her about any unusual activity in the neighborhood or just to ask for help.
Usually, no one calls. Hodges has to call residents and ask them what they thought of the meeting, asking what more she could do.
But this time it's different. In the weeks that followed the meeting, Hodges says, she has received 60 calls from residents with reports about what is going on in their block. Some just want help with landlord-tenant issues; others want to report problems with noise or report on suspicious happenings.
"They're beginning to feel that if they report something, maybe something will get done, " Hodges says as she leafs through her log of phone calls and follow-up memos.
"It's coming together. Slowly but surely, it's coming together."
CHAPTER 15: The good books
Maybe this is a passing fancy, like Pokemon cards. Maybe his interest will fizzle when summer begins to sizzle. But at the moment, nothing has fifth-grader Howard Small quite so absorbed as a couple of paperback books.
Howard carries them wherever he goes, reading them in the back seat of the car, in the tub, under the covers late at night with a flashlight. When it gets noisy around the apartment, Howard pulls a lamp into an upstairs closet and settles in with his books.
He's still a scamp. His teacher, Mary Spencer, had Howard move his desk to the far corner of Room 201 and face toward the windows so he would be less likely to clown around with classmates. But when Howard finds he can't be the center of attention he's content to knock down another chapter in one his books.
The books have been a godsend to Howard's mom, Toni McNeal. McNeal hasn't been able to put in the time she knows she should with Howard and his studies. She's supposed to read with Howard for at least 20 minutes every weeknight. That's a critical factor in Jefferson's Success for All reading program.
But McNeal can't always summon the energy. Her day starts at 4:30 a.m. when she gets ready to drive busloads of kids back and forth across the city; it ends with baby-sitting duty for her daughter's 10-month-old while the daughter works the late shift as a nurse's aide at DePaul Health Center in Bridgeton. Since her mother died at the beginning of the school year, McNeal has taken on more than she's used to handling.
Fortunately, it's been a lot easier this year to keep Howard busy. He stays after school most weekdays to take part in activities that the Center of Contemporary Arts has brought to Jefferson School. On Mondays and Wednesdays, he builds a personal Web site as part of a computer arts program. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, he practices backflips in COCA's gymnastics program. He can take African dance, creative writing, music or ceramics, if he's so inclined.
But nothing has captured his attention like this book that Mary Spencer had them reading in class. Spencer copied the chapters and assigned every student in Howard's reading group to play a character.
There was Dudley Dursely, the piggish bully, and Voldemort, the evil wizard; Hagrid, the friendly giant; and the hero of the tale, a skinny kid named Harry Potter, who keeps slipping into and out of trouble. All the kids experimented with different voices to bring their characters to life.
Spencer got so wrapped up in the reading that she neglected to start the egg timer to signal the end of read-aloud segment. So they kept right on going.
But not far enough for Howard. He came home one day in March demanding that his mother take him to the store right away so he could read ahead.
When they got to the store, Howard talked his mom into buying not just the first Harry Potter book, but the second.
McNeal enjoyed a quiet ride back home. Howard had already begun to read.
CHAPTER 16: No magic wand
It's May 16. Call it a day of reckoning. With the school year nearly complete, Lisa Angstreich, a McCormack Baron vice president, convenes a meeting to discuss the progress made at Jefferson School. She scheduled three hours.
Richard Baron is there. He's the developer and visionary who raised $3.5 million to refurbish the school. So is Chris Lee, a Southwestern Bell executive whose company had contributed more than any single donor -- $750,000 to place computers in every classroom and wire the school to the Internet. And Jim Laffey and Linda Espinosa, of the University of Missouri at Columbia, who have been working with the teachers to improve their classroom skills.
Principal Ann Meese passes out a sheaf of papers that describe the progress Jefferson's 367 students had made over the 1999-2000 school year.
She regrets that reading scores aren't better; that the school hasn't gotten a better grip on student behavior, that she hasn't moved more quickly to dispatch underperforming teachers.
"I guess everyone thought I would wave a magic wand, " she says.
Actually, no one in the room had any illusions that Meese would perform miracles in the 1999-2000 school year. They would like to have seen more progress, yes.
But Meese's humble report shows that she and the students at Jefferson have taken several steps forward. The painstaking Success for All program has been rooted firmly in most classrooms. Students who had been showing no progress at all are inching forward.
Final reports would show that by the end of the school year 24 percent of the students were reading at grade level, among them Howard Small. That's 3 percentage points below the previous year. But many who fell short of grade level still managed to take leaps of a year or more. One of them was "Tonya, " the fourth-grader whose poor writing skills had demonstrated to Meese what an uphill battle she faced. Meese says the Success for All coordinators had told her it usually takes a school three years before students begin to move up a grade level or a grade level and a half in one school year. She hopes that 80 percent of students will be at grade level by 2003.
The numbers tell another tale, too. Some teachers are doing much better with Success for All than others. They need to be encouraged and rewarded. Others simply can't cope. Several teach the lower grade levels, the most crucial years when it comes to reading.
"We're not making much progress" with some teachers, Laffey says. "If we have those same teachers under the same conditions, we'll have the same problems."
Meese starts to explain that it would take 100 school days to build a case against some tenured teachers. That means getting into the classrooms, observing and outlining expectations. But Meese had been besieged most of the year, putting out day-to-day fires that come with dealing with too many unruly students and with teachers who lack the skills to keep them on task.
At that point, Baron interrupts -- politely, but emphatically. District administrators promised that they would help rid the school of ineffective teachers. But Meese needed to ask. "Just transfer them out of the school, " Baron says. "Go down and say they aren't cutting it."
That, of course, does not address what teachers might take their place. Who would come to Jefferson School at the low wages the St. Louis district offers to take on such a formidable task? And Jefferson can't simply settle for people who are willing. They have to be able.
For a good part of the afternoon, they talk about incentives and bonuses -- perhaps $5,000 a year per teacher. That might amount to as much as $75,000.
Not to worry, Baron says. "This is peanuts compared to what we've already done. We cannot spend any more time talking about the reasons why things can't happen. I'll go get the resources to make it happen. We've got the infrastructure here. Now we've got to improve the quality."
Baron turns his gaze to Lee, the Southwestern Bell executive who has been listening quietly.
"No one is asking you to write a check today, " he says. "But what about funding teacher incentives? Would Southwestern Bell be willing to help out?"
Lee smiles and says he'll look into it.
Friday, June 2, couldn't come soon enough for Howard Small. Promotion Day. Nothing could compare to the anticipation, except maybe his first trip to Six Flags when he was 5. And this is going to be better because back then Howard was too little to go on the scary rides.
Grade school promotions generally don't get nearly the attention of high school or college commencement exercises. But at Jefferson, promotion is a big deal. The school holds a banquet at the Salad Bowl restaurant in midtown and everyone dresses up.
Students have been practicing for weeks for the ceremony, singing songs, reciting poetry, writing personal reflections. And for Howard and his family, it's an even bigger deal because so many of his family members have attended Jefferson. Howard's mom, Toni McNeal, has attended 10 Jefferson ceremonies for children, cousins, nieces and nephews.
On Thursday, Toni and her daughter, Nikia, took Howard shopping for a new outfit at Sears. Howard picked out a snappy herringbone double-breasted jacket, black crew neck shirt and pants, and shiny wing-tip shoes. A gold chain completes the ensemble.
Howard went to bed at 6:30 that night in the hope that Friday would come quicker. But it turned out to be a long night. There was so much to remember -- the hand motions for when the class sings "Wind Beneath My Wings, " jumping in at the right time when it's his group's turn to recite a verse, and, of course, delivering his personal reflection. For that he'd have to stand alone with a microphone in front of all his friends and a bunch of strangers -- AND NOT MESS UP!
He had put together a short, sweet statement. "The reflections I am about to say is that I will miss Jefferson and the teachers in it. I will miss Mrs. Spencer and the other teachers that taught me."
With all that rolling around in his head, Howard didn't really fall asleep until 5 a.m. At 6, he awoke from a dream. His grandmother, who had died in September, was at the promotion ceremony watching him perform. She was smiling.
Howard arrives at the Salad Bowl barely on time. A fifth-grade teacher, Karen Jones, lines the children outside the banquet room by size. That means Howard, the smallest of his 34 classmates by several inches, gets to lead the procession inside.
Flashbulbs pop and video cameras roll as students stand in front of the head table and deliver their poetry. Next come the reflections. There's a sympathetic murmur as the first student gets so flustered that she stops and puts down the microphone and takes a moment to gather herself. Then Ashley Westbrook follows, poised and smiling. She talks about how her teacher, Mrs. Spencer, is like her second mother and that her classmates are her sisters and brothers.
Soon it's Howard's turn. As he accepts the microphone and turns toward his audience, he's not looking nervous at all. In fact, he's adopting a bit of a swagger. He's tossed humble Howard overboard. Suddenly he's Will Smith. "My grandmother took me to school when I was a 1-year-old baby and let the teachers squeeze my cheeks, " he intones. "I'd cry as loud as I could till they finally let me go."
As his audience roared, Howard describes how each of his teachers took turns trying to keep him in line without enjoying much success.
"My fifth-grade teacher was Mrs. Spencer." (Pause.) "She was the baaadest teacher on the block. If you did some stuff, she'd dust your butt." (Pause and a smirk.) "But I got away with a few things. That's all I've got to say."
Howard's mom watches it all unfold through the lens of her video camera. "That's Howard, " she says, shaking her head.
It's a tough act to follow. But the Jefferson class of 2000 meets the challenge, first with a soft rendition of "Wind Beneath My Wings, " then at Karen Jones' urging, a more stirring reprise. Tears flow down the cheeks of Kiauna Jones as she sings, setting off the parents and the teachers.
Toni McNeal puts down her camera and flees to the women's room. When he's finished singing, Howard picks up a red carnation and begins searching for her. He raps on the women's room door until it opens.
"Mommy, you should have stayed there. Everyone's crying."
Then he grabs his mother around the waist and weeps.
CHAPTER 17: Four-letter words
Mary Spencer missed the promotion ceremony. Somebody had to stay behind to watch the fourth-graders who had been mixed in with the fifth-graders for most of the school year.
For Spencer it was just another tradition that went by the boards this year. She had said her farewells to her fifth-graders on Wednesday amid one of those harried end-of-term days when most textbooks have been packed away, the bulletin boards have been cleared and even teachers like Mary Spencer ease up on the rule of law.
"May I have your undivided attention, " she asked. "Kimberly, close the book.
"We're coming down to the end of our association with each other. It will be a joyous thing and a little sad."
"The end of school, " she chuckled. "I know some of you better not get in my way come Monday. I'm going to be the first one out of the building.
"Many of you will be going off to different schools. But all of you will be able to tell your grandchildren about this teacher you had in the fifth grade.
"Torture little children, " the class murmured in response.
"Everything they told her not to do ...
"... she did, " the class finished in unison.
"I may not have been able to teach you to read as well as you might, " Spencer continued. "I may have fallen short in teaching you how to add and subtract, multiply and divide. But I certainly didn't fail in teaching you the most important thing in the world."
She spread her arms wide, stifled a sob. "It's something everybody ne eds. Love. You may not want me to love you. But everyone wants someone to love them."
She reached for a tissue.
"The next most important thing is a four-letter word, too."
Some of the children knew the answer.
"I'm going to have to let the fifth-graders go now, " she said, wiping away her tears. "You will grow older and change, but always have hope.
"Keep hope alive."
Richard Baron finally got in touch with Alderman April Ford Griffin, D-5th Ward, and invited her to his office. They didn't speak of Pruitt-Igoe. Instead, Baron showed her his plans for a child and family development center to be built adjacent to Jefferson School.
The center for 100 infants and toddlers would be staffed with a pediatrician, a nurse, a social worker and teachers and aides, some hired from the neighborhood. The center would teach reading readiness lessons from the same university that designed the Success for All program used at Jefferson. Parenting classes would be offered and space would be made available for the many people in the neighborhood who provide child care in their homes.
Griffin loved the concept and promised Baron she would work with him to get the city permits for construction.
Ann Meese, the principal, is already looking ahead to next year. She's working on an incentive package to lure new teachers and to retain the best ones she already has. She says she's tired and looking forward to spending more time at home with her husband, Jon, in Columbia, Mo. For all the difficulties at Jefferson, she says, she still feels like she's got the best job in the world.
Mary Spencer, the fifth-grade teacher, will teach summer school in the Wellston district. Back at Jefferson next school year she would like to arrange a series of field trips for her students that show them their city from top to bottom.
Marlene Hodges has met a music teacher who has access to some used band equipment. She's thinking of starting a neighborhood band and choir.
Toni McNeal will enroll her son, Howard Small, at Pruitt Military Academy next year. Pruitt offers a program heavy on discipline.
Howard will wear a uniform next year and may not get away with as many things as he used to.
Over the past year, Howard has given a variety of answers when he's asked what he'd like to be when he grows up -- scientist, doctor and soldier, among them.
At last check, Howard had decided -- without a doubt -- that he would become a movie star.
Copyright: Copyright (c) 2000, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Nobody said it would be easy”
n June of 2000, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published a series of stories titled, A Better Place to Grow Up. Written by Dick 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.