St. Louis Public Schools, the largest district in Missouri, was struggling to stay afloat in 2007, with $40 million dollars of debt and low test scores. In March of that year, the state school board revoked the district’s accreditation for not meeting state standards and took control.
Kelvin Adams was hired as a first-time superintendent the following year and began the long process of turning the district around. Since his arrival, the budget has been balanced, attendance and grades have gone up, and the district has regained provisional accreditation (a step below full accreditation) from the state. When unaccredited, districts in Missouri by law must pay tuition for students wishing to transfer to an accredited school district.
“When first coming to the St. Louis schools, my main goal was to change perception of the district and to give people a greater level of confidence in the district, and I think that has occurred,” Adams says. “We still have a long way to go, but in a qualitative perspective, people feel better about working here and parents feel better about sending their children to our schools.”
Adams graduated from Northeast Louisiana University in his home state in 1978, earned his masters of arts degree in elementary education from Ohio’s Xavier University in 1991, and received his doctorate in educational leadership in administration from the University of New Orleans in 2005.
Early in his career, Adams was a principal and an administrator in the New Orleans area. After a brief stint as the executive director of human resources for St. Louis schools in 2006-2007, he returned to New Orleans to serve as the chief of staff for the state-appointed Recovery School District, which had been created in 2003 to rescue under-performing schools.
When Adams started his new role, he not only faced massive debt in the district, but a 50 percent graduation rate and an 89 percent attendance rate. While retaining all responsibilities and influence of a traditional superintendent, he found that he wouldn’t be working with an elected school board.
When the Missouri State Board of Education removed authority from the locally elected St. Louis Board of Education in 2007, it had created a new, three-member Special Administrative Board to manage the district. One board member was appointed by the governor, one by the mayor of St. Louis, and one by the president of the St. Louis Board of Aldermen, the city’s legislative body. The old school board still meets on a monthly basis, but it does not have any power in terms of finance and policy.
Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Special Administrative Board, says years of mismanagement and inconsistent leadership was the main reason for St. Louis’ financial and academic struggles. “The district was severely impacted by constant turnover of board members and superintendents,” says Sullivan. “Prior to Dr. Adams, seven superintendents had come and gone in a five-year period, so it’s easy to see why many things weren’t managed properly and how operational and academic problems occurred as a result.”
Adams says he has made many changes in the last four and half years to put St. Louis schools on the right track. One of the biggest was an intense focus on data. Adams took a hard look at the numbers to find places to cut the budget and identify groups of students who were underperforming on tests. “One of the greatest successes in the last few years is having a different mindset about looking at data,” he says, “it’s not always about what you feel makes for better education, it’s about what the data says.”
Working closely with local unions, Adams hired new principals for 60 percent of St. Louis’ 76 schools and closed 14 under-enrolled buildings. To reduce payroll, he reduced principals’ contracts from 12 months a year to 11 months. Adams also saved money by negotiating transportation and food services contracts. “At this point in time, we have a fund surplus of about $11 million and the budget has been balanced for the last three years,” he says.
Getting kids to school
Adams also made attendance a high priority. He placed attendance monitors in schools, who not only kept track of students not coming to school, but would also initiate interventions with families when attendance became a consistent problem. This would include calling parents daily, meeting students at the door each school day, visiting homes, and getting social workers involved when appropriate. Another part of the attendance problem was getting students to school on time, Adams says.
“We also aligned the bus schedules, as previously high school buses didn’t always arrive on time,” Adams says. “So we moved the start time back at some high schools to have a more efficient schedule. Overall, we’ve just been much more deliberate about attendance.”
Early childhood programs have also expanded since Adams’ arrival. He worked with the special administrative board to create more preschool classrooms, and as a result, the number of children enrolled in early education increased from about 1,400 in 2007 to about 2,300 in 2012. Since 2007, attendance is up from 89 to 92 percent overall, and from 80 to 90 percent at some of the district’s 15 high schools.
Adams says the district wouldn’t be making progress without positive relationships with both the Special Administrative Board and the Missouri State Board of Education. “I feel that they support the decisions we make locally,” he says. “While we are moving in the right direction, there is still a long way to go to make the district even better.
The authority of the Special Administrative Board has so far been extended twice. The state will decide again in April 2014 whether the board needs to continue its work or if power will return to the locally elected school board, Sullivan says.
“We’ve worked exceptionally well together,” he says. “It is a textbook example of people coming together to focus on one thing: providing a great education for students.”
- St. Louis Public Schools
- Tenure: 4 years
- Schools: 76
- Student enrollment: 27,144
- Staff and faculty: 4,469
- Per-child expenditure: $15,658
- Students receiving free or reduced-price lunch: 87%
- Dropout rate: 18% (2011)
- Website: www.slps.org