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By Hank Pellissier
Mark Twain quipped, "I have never let my schooling interfere with my education." His sarcastic dismissal of Missouri "readin, ritin, and rithmetic" classes that he attended (or avoided) as the young Samuel Langhorne Clemens is not a sentiment you want your children to feel if your family is moving to the "Show me" state. St. Louis, in particular, is a difficult district that parents must approach carefully. In 2007 it was declared a "failed" district due to its deep budget deficit and inability to meet passable standards in attendance, math scores and language scores. At that point Missouri's state government took over St. Louis' district.
Today, the river metropolis has upgraded its schooling, but the district earns a mere 4 out of 10 on GreatSchools' rating. The schools still have a long way to go in this historic city that offers huge family-friendly amenities: low cost of living, lovely parks and attractions, stellar sports teams, and free admission to the St. Louis Art Museum, Missouri History Museum, and St. Louis Zoological Park. Plus, if you're a parent who likes the smell of fermenting hops, you can always tour the Anheuser-Busch brewery.
The St. Louis school district's website and its phone system (314-231-3720 or 314-633-5200) can be as difficult to navigate as the Mississippi River on a moonless night. But here are some tips:
1) Go here for enrollment info.
2) Drop by the district office if it's convenient. It''s located at 801 North 11th Street, just a few blocks away from America's Center Convention Complex.
3) The district email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
St. Louis provides convenient placement in neighborhood schools. Your child is guaranteed a spot in a close-to-home location. All you have to do is walk into that school office with your papers in order, and your child gets a chair. But... is that school a great school? Maybe, maybe not. Our advice: Before you rent or buy your St. Louis home, check out this downloadable map to determine the school assignations of your potential residence. Or, just search for homes that lie only in areas attached to excellent schools.
While the majority of St. Louis parents seem content to put their kids in their "neighborhood" elementary school, the 23 magnet schools offer a diverse array of educational choices. Some offer specialty curriculum dedicated to technical, visual art, math and science, performing arts, business, culinary, and language arts; plus, there are six "choice" schools with college prep ambitions and three "pilot" schools. Get information and descriptions of all these intriguing academies here. Don't delay your inquiry into these schools. Open houses occur in October, with applications due in November.
Admission into the alternative magnets and other options isn't guaranteed, as only 33 to 50 percent gain entrance via a lottery in January. There are also academic application requirements, like having a minimum 2.5 GPA. This, not surprisingly, creates a serious "brain-drain" in the neighborhood middle and high schools. If all the "A" and "B" students stream off into magnets, who is left in the local hallways? But... what happens if your child doesn't get into one of the magnets? Three options remain: 1) go local with the poor-performing classmates, 2) hunt for an open slot in a public school outside the neighborhood that might have room, 3) investigate charter schools, or 4) open your wallet, and go private.
St. Louis has 16 charter schools, but only one of them — Gateway Science Academy — has received a high GreatSchools Rating (GS rating 7). Another option, City Garden Montessori (GS rating 6), recently expanded into the elementary grades after operating as a quality preschool for many years. City Garden Montessori offers numerous field trips to its students, and it has many close community contacts, but children are only eligible to apply if they live in the surrounding geographical zone. Another promising charter is KIPP Inspire (GS rating 3), a praise-worthy national franchise that opened its St. Louis doors to 5th graders in 2009, with the eventual goal of serving grades 5-8. Any St. Louis resident can apply to KIPP, but preference is given to children in the adjacent Fox Park neighborhood. Selection is determined via a random lottery system, and enrollment info can be found here. Imagine Academy also offers five distinct campuses in St. Louis, but they've all received a GreatSchools Ratings of 1.
If your family is Catholic, you'll find yourself in educational heaven. St. Louis is 50 percent Catholic due to French, southern German, Italian, and Irish immigration. It has one of the strongest dioceses in the United States, enrolling thousands of children — both Catholic and non-Catholic — in its numerous high-quality parochial schools. St. Louis also has almost twenty Lutheran schools (the northern Germans), and an equal number of Christian schools, plus a handful of Jewish academies, and an Islamic school. There are also secular private schools, of course, like the prestigious co-ed Thomas Jefferson School, with its boarding option, formal wear, classical curriculum, and nine-hour days.
St. Louis is a smallish city (population 356,587) surrounded by a teeming greater metropolitan area (population 2,892,874). If you decide to live right outside the St. Louis city limits, there are myriad choices, with University City reigning as perhaps the most popular. Nicknamed "U-City," it's praised as a well integrated cultural hotspot, adjacent to the ivory towers of Washington University. Like many St. Louis families, the Warren family has experienced the typical trials in locating schools for their two daughters: Valerie, 14, and Keira, 8.
"Valerie went to the neighborhood public school, Flynn Park (GS rating 7), for her elementary grades," says Susan Allen-Warren. "After that, we tried to get her into Metro Academic & Classical High School (GS rating 9). It's an excellent St. Louis college-bound magnet. She didn't get in. Then we applied to Webster Groves (GS rating 8), it's a progressive public school, outside of our county, but she didn't get in there either. So now we have her at Crossroads College Preparatory School (private, coed, GS community rating: 5 out of 5 stars), and she's very happy there."
"Keira, our other daughter," continued Susan, "is 'twice-exceptional' — this means she is extra-bright with an upper-level IQ, but she also has a learning disability. Because of this, her school environment has to be right or she gets extremely frustrated. We have her at the local school, Flynn Park, and she's getting good services there, but she probably won't go to a private school like her sister because they're not equipped for students like her. We'll do a lot of research and we'll probably find a public middle and public high school with learning disability services that's successful at educating students like her."
With shrewd steerage from parents or guardians, children can thrive in St. Louis schools, but keeping their grades up can be key since so many of the best schools — magnets, private schools, etc — have competitive admissions standards. Then cross your fingers for a good lottery draw. If you never draw a winning magnet ticket, you can shell out cash for private school as the Warrens did, or you can commute to the suburbs, exploring faraway territories of scholasticism. One parent, Jim Grandone, sent his son all the way across the Mississippi River to attend a good school in Edwardsville, Illinois. In 1804, Lewis and Clark embarked from St. Louis on an 8,000 mile journey. We hope your child won't have to travel so far.