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"City Garden Montessori School in St. Louis: A Story of Education Reform, Gentrification and Housing Advocacy,"

by Christie Huck November/December 2015 issue of Poverty & Race

When I moved into the Shaw neighborhood in the City of St. Louis in 2005, the cost of houses that had been rehabbed were already a stretch for my family and many middle-income families. Still, Shaw and the neighborhoods surrounding it offered one of the only spots in the city where white and minority families live side-by-side, and where people of varied income brackets coexist.

It only took me a few weeks, though, to realize that there are essentially two separate neighborhoods within Shaw--a white neighborhood and a black neighborhood. At neighborhood meetings, mostly attended by white residents, the topic of conversation was often "problem properties," occupancy permits for businesses that might bring "trouble," and the latest crime horror stories.

As my children approached school age, I started to realize how this separation and skewed power dynamic played out in our area schools. I would watch most of the African-American kids in the neighborhood walk home from the neighborhood district school (which was failing and has since closed), or get off the bus in the afternoon. When I would (very occasionally) get up for a 5:30 a.m. run, many African-American young people were waiting at bus stops throughout the neighborhood. Meanwhile, the white families I knew were considering to which magnet or private schools they would send their children.

The formation and evolution of City Garden Montessori’s charter school was developed in response to this.

In 2005, my oldest son, Jude, was four and attending City Garden Montessori’s existing preschool program. Reine Bayoc, an African-American parent, had also moved into the Shaw neighborhood, seeking a diverse neighborhood for her family. Reine’s four-year-old daughter and my son had become preschool buddies, and Reine and I tagged along with them on field trips and outings. We began to discuss the school situation somewhat obsessively, deeply frustrated that diversity, high quality and affordable or free did not seem to exist in schools around us. We approached City Garden’s founder, Trish Curtis, about the possibility of expanding upon the preschool that she had been operating since 1995 (which our children attended), to open an elementary school that embodies all of these qualities.

We got to work with Trish and other parents, envisioning and creating a charter school that would serve this pocket of the city, the goal being that the school would be rooted in these neighborhoods, and reflect the diversity that existed here. The school would implement the Montessori approach, which holds respect for self, others and the community at the core of its philosophy.

This was no small task, and, lacking public school, legal, financial or other expertise, we were way out of our league in many respects.

However, over the next two years, we managed to write a charter, secure a sponsor and, most incredibly, we won a U.S. Department of Education start-up grant of $560,000.

We knocked on doors and talked to families in neighborhood shops, playgrounds and daycares, working to build relationships and trust in order to create a solid and diverse community of families who would embark on this great experiment with us. We recruited Montessori teachers to join us in building a school that fulfills Maria Montessori’s original vision to serve and empower children of all backgrounds.

Various powers that be, in our neighborhoods and beyond, watched us with caution and skepticism; others simply ignored us, dismissing this small group of “nobody” parents.

Though the challenges were steep, amazingly, we succeeded.

Now, City Garden Montessori serves 275 children in preschool through eighth grade. In 2012, we were able to move into a newly renovated 30,000-square-foot building, and we have been ranked the highest-performing charter school in St. Louis according to state evaluations for several years. We have held true to our vision to be an integrated school, with about 50% students of color and 50% white students, and close to half are eligible for the federal Free or Reduced Lunch program (though this number has been steadily decreasing annually).

Interestingly, however, we are in some ways becoming victims of our own success, so to speak.

The neighborhoods served by City Garden had already begun to gentrify when the school opened. However, since that time, there has been an incredible loss of the African-American population in the three major neighborhoods we serve, and a steep loss of low-income households. Housing costs have continued to rise at a rapid rate.

There are many factors at play here. Two major universities and their accompanying medical centers have significant interest in and investment in this part of the city. Over the past couple of decades, the Missouri Botanical Garden, which is located in this area, made intentional efforts to overhaul the better part of one of the neighborhoods, removing low-income housing and replacing it with brand new, market-rate housing. The area contains a burgeoning commercial district, a new research park and, most recently, the first IKEA store in the region. The architecture is beautiful, and highways are easily accessible. All of these things have drawn middle- and upper-income individuals to these neighborhoods.

Middle-class families with children are moving into our neighborhoods at a record pace, however, in order to be eligible to apply to City Garden Montessori. Every week, we hear from young couples that have bought a home nearby—some moving from other parts of the city, some from the suburbs, and some who relocated to St. Louis from other states or even other countries and specifically chose our neighborhood because they want to send their children to City Garden.

This is flattering—and, it poses an interesting challenge.

The geographic area we serve is one of the only parts of the City of St. Louis where people are moving in instead of out, and where houses often don’t stay on the market longer than a few days. Given St. Louis’s history of white flight and population loss, this is pretty incredible.

Many middle-class families are moving into the area because, like my family, they like the diversity. Ironically, the rapid pace at which many of these families are moving is resulting in higher demand for property, which leads to higher housing prices and more redevelopment—all of which is driving out lower-income households, and decreasing diversity.

In 2013, our board began to discuss the dilemma this presents for us and to wrestle with how all of this impacts our mission. We know that our low-income families are facing the effects of these changes in a profound way, and feel a great deal of responsibility to help sustain the unique diversity that is present in our neighborhoods—it is the very reason we situated our school in this location. We also recognize that, as a high performing charter school with many community partners, we hold some influence in the community that can perhaps be leveraged. We also have deep relationships with families and neighbors from all backgrounds, offering us a unique opportunity to raise these issues in a public way, initiating community dialogue, and to connect grass “roots” to grass “tops.”

Our board created an Affordable Housing Task Force to examine the changes that are occurring, how exactly these changes are impacting our families and how to respond. We began to explore what our role might be in advocating for continued and increased access to affordable housing for low-income residents.

We reached out to partners we already had, like US Bancorp Community Development Corporation and Habitat for Humanity, and began to develop relationships with new partners, like the Brown School of Social Work at Washington University and a grassroots organization in our neighborhood called Voices of Women.

We surveyed our parents, researched demographic changes and changes in housing costs and began to examine the policies that either help or hinder low-income individuals and families in our neighborhoods. Professor Molly Metzger and her students from the Brown School of Social Work conducted research on the changes in our neighborhoods and produced a report called “The Right to Stay Put.”

We are currently working to transform the Task Force into a broader Affordable Housing Coalition, made up of many local organizations and individuals, to facilitate the preservation and development of affordable housing in our neighborhood, and a comprehensive plan for retaining economic diversity and housing access in the neighborhoods City Garden serves.

The Coalition’s initial plan will be: to identify and assess the housing needs of City Garden families; to assess the current availability of affordable housing in the neighborhoods that City Garden serves; to convene parents, neighborhood residents, community partners, researchers and developers to seek input and to share information about the impacts of changes taking place in the neighborhoods City Garden serves; to identify current affordable housing resources that are available to parents and residents and develop strategies to communicate these more widely; to identify policies that may present barriers to affordable housing in our area and/or policies that might support affordable housing development in our area; and to identify specific strategies in the target neighborhoods, and support action toward increased affordable housing in the neighborhoods City Garden serves.

It is tricky to navigate this new advocacy role. Some individuals have challenged us, claiming that our school’s involvement in housing is “mission creep,” and that schools really have no business getting involved in housing matters.

However, Montessori’s philosophy and approach is built upon the notion that, to truly serve the whole child and allow his or her full potential to be unleashed, one must identify and remove all obstacles to the child’s learning and development. The changes in our neighborhoods present real obstacles for many of our children, as it becomes difficult or impossible for their families to stay in their homes.

Montessori also asserts that, to truly serve the whole child, we must see him or her in the context of an interconnected ecosystem, and that what happens with a child inside a classroom cannot be disconnected from what happens in his or her neighborhood, and beyond.

There is a particular material in what Montessori calls “Cosmic Education” that is a set of wooden boxes that fit together. The smallest one represents an individual atom, the next one, an individual child. The next is the family, then the community, then the neighborhood, then the city, the state, the country, continent, the earth, solar system, and, finally, our galaxy. This very tangibly represents our individual place in the universe, and how it is we connect to the larger world.

This vision of interconnectedness is also why we believe in racial and economic integration. We know that integration in schools is not only the way to achieve true equity, but to break down barriers around race and class that exist in our society, and to recognize and embrace our interdependence with one another. As an integrated neighborhood school, we have an even more powerful opportunity to live, work, play and learn together, united around our children and their well-being.

The changes taking place in our neighborhoods put all of this at risk.

We know that our small pocket of St. Louis is a microcosm of the larger world. Over the past 15 months in St. Louis, we have seen, more than ever before, that racial and economic segregation in our schools and our neighborhoods is not working. Integration of our schools and our neighborhoods is critical to achieve true equity and reform in our city and in our society. It requires us to recognize our interdependence with one another—as individuals, families, neighborhoods, institutions—and to constantly re-evaluate and re-imagine how we might collectively accomplish this essential task.

Christie Huck is Executive Director of City Garden Montessori Charter School. With a background in community organizing and social activism, Christie entered the education reform movement as a parent and community member concerned about education equity and integration in schools. She worked with City Garden’s founder and parents to develop the first Montessori and neighborhood charter school in Missouri. City Garden, which opened as a charter school in 2008 and provides children with a rigorous, individualized education with a focus on social justice. Christie lives in St. Louis’s Shaw neighborhood with her three children. christie@city

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