School Then and Now

An uplifting article leaves me sad

From the Washington University Alumni Magazine, September 1, 2021.

Just two miles from Washington University’s Danforth Campus lies University City High School, a stately Art Deco-styled brick building that first welcomed students in 1930. Today, the school serves some 800 students, many of whom are low-income and approximately 90% of whom are students of color. Rowhea Elmesky, an associate professor of education in Arts & Sciences, first entered the high school’s doors back in 2014. At the time, administrators were working through a seemingly intractable problem.

…In the three years leading up to 2014, UCHS recorded approximately 4,000 disciplinary infractions, including a significant number of suspensions. In one class Elmesky observed, the teacher was unable to talk over or even make eye contact with students. Simply put, the school’s culture was in need of a fundamental shift.

…“There really was not a feeling of trust, responsibility, and respect,” Elmesky recalled. With this background in place, she, Marcucci, and UCHS staff prepared to put knowledge into action. “We all said, let’s cogenerate this. Let’s do it together. Let's find a series of mechanisms that will allow us to shift the culture from one that's more punitive to one that's more restorative.”

…Their recommendations were promptly translated into action, including initiating classroom “restorative circles” to encourage students to talk openly, offering an elective course on restorative justice, partnering with nonprofits to train staff in trauma-informed care, establishing mentorship programs, and hiring a restorative justice coordinator.

…the transformation is evident. Suspensions are down by 41% and absenteeism has decreased by 7%. In 2019, the school board passed the “Resolution to Humanize School Climate Through Restorative Practices and Social Emotional Learning,” the first resolution to address student well-being, equity, and the school-to-prison pipeline in Missouri. Susan Hill, the former principal of UCHS and now the University City school district’s director of college readiness, says the shift in school culture has been drastic.

This reads as an uplifting story. But it left me sad, because of the severity of the initial problem—the lack of trust between students and teachers.

The rest of this essay is going to be rambling and autobiographical, so I can understand if you don’t finish it.

I am on a mailing list of alumni of an elementary school that used to feed up into UCHS, the high school in suburban St. Louis that is the subject of the story. So I note the following:

  • When I attended that elementary school, from 1959 to 1964, the atmosphere was completely the opposite of UCHS as of 2014. Our teachers were trusted, and several were adored. I cannot recall any problems with discipline or absenteeism. I came upon the magazine story because the 50th reunion of the UCHS class of 1971 was supposed to be this year, and I contacted one of the organizers in order to instigate a Zoom reunion just for our elementary school. The attendees shared memories that were very fond. We are about to have another elementary school Zoom reunion, and one of the attendees sent the rest of us the story.

  • When I attended high school (not UCHS), students were rebellious and sometimes obnoxious toward teachers, but I would not say that there was distrust. We certainly made eye contact.

  • I taught statistics and economics from 2001 through 2016 at a private school in the D.C. suburbs that caters to Orthodox Jewish families. While student behavior was sometimes disappointing, we teachers experienced nothing like an absence of trust or eye contact.

  • My two youngest daughters attended a public school in the D.C. suburbs in the late 1990s that had a very diverse population (roughly 30 percent white, 30 percent black, 30 percent Hispanic, and 10 percent other). More than one third qualified for free or reduced-price lunch. Teachers did not face problems of trust or eye contact.

  • University City is not a crime-ridden, godforsaken ghetto. St. Louis has some of those, particularly in the city proper. But U. City is part of Saint Louis County, which surrounds the city to the North, South, and West (the Mississippi River sits to the East), and many of those suburbs are affluent. When I visited U. City a few years ago, it had sections that were gentrified, with many trendy restaurants. My old street was quiet and peaceful.

All this is to say that I would not have guessed that the atmosphere at UCHS would have deteriorated so much by 2014. Everything I knew would have led me to predict that University City in the 21st century would have a decently functioning high school.

Here is where I lived back then:

I lived in the white stone building, in the apartment behind the third red door on the right (almost obscured by the trees in the picture). The nearby homes, which were duplexes, were built in the late 1950s. They were inhabited mostly by renters. If you were a sociologist you would have called them “on the margins,” and if you were someone else you might have called them “white trash.” I made friends with some of the kids, but my parents had nothing to do with any of the adults.

But this was probably the worst street in the whole neighborhood. In the street behind us, there were the entrepreneurs Herb and Harriett Hartstein, who owned the Olympic Drive-In, aka The Big O, which showed dirty movies. A dirty movie drive-in, you ask? It had a giant fence with a tarp over it to block the screen from street view. Nonetheless, they periodically were arrested. They once took me along with their twin boys to the Lake of the Ozarks to water ski behind their motorboat.

One street ahead of us, there lived another entrepreneur, Norman Friedman, along with his family. He started an electronics firm that supplied speaker systems for large commercial buildings. I worked in his factory for a couple of summers in the early 1970s, and I still occasionally look up at a speaker cover when I am inside an office building or restaurant and say, “There’s one of our 68-8s.”

There were a lot of Jewish families in the neighborhood, and U City was often called “Jew City.” But other than the Friedmans, who moved away while I was still in elementary school, the U. City Jews were not especially affluent. The rich Jews lived elsewhere.

In the fall of 1959, shortly after I reached age 5, I entered Kindergarten at University Forest Elementary School. In the fall of 1960, shortly after I reached age 6, I entered second grade.

I had spent only a month in first grade. I was an early reader, so they tried promoting me to first grade in April or May of 1960. Academically, the transition went smoothly. Otherwise, not so much. The first day, my neighbor and best friend, Gary Bemis, who lived behind the middle red door in the picture, reported to the teacher, “There’s water under Arnold’s chair.” I had peed down my pants, having only experienced half-day Kindergarten and knowing nothing about school bathroom procedures.

Even by fifth grade, I was only nine years old. While most of my classmates were starting to experience the first hints of adolescence, I was still very much a kid. I was into playing hit-the-bat and corkball (games popular in St. Louis that were knock-offs of baseball), practicing walking on my hands, and watching Saturday morning cartoons on TV. I was bereft when I heard one of my friends and athletic idols, Buddy M., sing a Beatles song while we were on the playground. This hinted at a world of which I knew nothing, involving girls and love songs. I had a similar trauma when at the local public swimming pool, Ricky B. came up to me in great excitement to report, “Judy T. is here—and she’s wearing a bikini!” I found that information to be of no interest. But I must have had some vague sense that the differences in our assessment of its significance had something to do with my being almost two years younger than Ricky.

My father, who taught political science at Washington U., received an offer to go to Princeton for a sabbatical during the 1964-1965 academic year. It broke my heart to have to leave U. City after 5th grade. The Princeton school officials apparently decided that I hailed from the sticks, and they put me in the lowest academic track. But within a week, the math teacher had given an arithmetic quiz, assessed my level of understanding, and gotten things straightened out. Socially, I did not adjust well there—it’s hard to go from the Midwest to the fancy East. I had a similarly jarring transition when I went to college, but I got past it more quickly there.

When my father returned to Washington U. in 1965, in the worst way I wanted to go back to U. City for seventh grade. But my mother had a highly opinionated friend, Judy, who would not allow it. Judy was fanatic on the topic of schools. She herself taught at John Burroughs, a tony private school. She talked my mother into finding us an apartment in Clayton, the reputedly top school district.

Clayton was the most affluent community in the St. Louis area, like Newton near Boston or Bethesda/Potomac near D.C. Clayton is where the affluent Jews and other upper middle-class families lived. Today, it is even richer—the commercial center of the St. Louis area.

Once again, the school officials decided that I belonged in the lowest academic track. But instead of reversing their error the first week, they kept me in the lowest track for two years. Middle school is probably nobody’s favorite time in life, but I found myself especially unable to fit in. It didn’t help that because I had skipped first grade I was more than a year younger than most of my classmates.

Meanwhile, my old neighborhood was in tumult. The years 1964 and 1965 saw the long-awaited enactment of legislation promoting Civil Rights and against housing discrimination. Now black families could move to the suburbs, although affordability issues kept them from buying homes in the wealthier communities, like Clayton. My old neighborhood was the first to be integrated, and real estate agents went around warning white families to sell in a hurry, before property values declined. Quite a few families did so, making the prophecy self-fulfilling. A number of my elementary school classmates joined the diaspora. But enough either stayed put or moved elsewhere within U. City. Hence they were on the mailing list for the UCHS reunion for the class of 1971.

The history of race relations in St. Louis is definitely a troubled one. When I was growing up, you had the almost entirely black city separated from the almost entirely white county. You had the Pruitt-Igoe housing project, infamously demolished in the early 1970s. In 2014, the same year that UCHS became convinced that it had a problem, there was the Ferguson police shooting of Michael Brown. That incident helped to propel the Black Lives Matter movement, even though a grand jury later concluded that Brown had indeed provoked the shooting.

So the magazine story, in spite of its depiction of positive results from the “restorative justice” approach, left me sad about where things stand. I would have hoped for better news from U. City. Instead of measuring improvement by a reduction in suspension rates, I would have liked to read about an increase in students taking AP Statistics or AP Economics, the courses I taught as a teacher.