St. Louis City Schools

"Hidden Gem in the City", La Salle Middle Transitions to Tuition-Free Charter School

This year De La Salle Middle School, a private school previously sponsored by Christian Brothers, transformed to La Salle Middle. The new tuition-free charter school uses a dual organizational model offered in only one other school in the country. “We wanted to be able to serve more kids,” assistant principal Amanda Henry said. “So, we expanded into two organizations.”

De La Salle Inc., a non-profit, provides wraparound services through grants and private donations, while La Salle Charter Schools receives public funding. This means that the school can still focus on the “whole child” or what Henry calls the Lasallian tradition. For De La Salle Inc., this is accomplished through the EnCompass program.

“EnCompass provides all of the things that De La Salle used to do that made it unique,” Henry said. This includes an after-school program that offers a range of classes from yoga to swimming to high school prep, as well as a dedicated graduate support advisor that mentors students throughout high school and the college application process. The organization even sends care packages to graduates in college.

“When you graduate from middle school, we don’t just say see you later,” Henry said. “We follow you every step of the way.” This has led to a 98% high school graduation rate and students attending a variety of high schools, including Mary Institute and St. Louis Country Day School, Rosati-Kain, Grand Center Arts Academy and the Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience.

Most importantly, this partnership allows the school to maintain many of its private school perks. Class sizes are still small, with no more than 18 students in a classroom but most with 15 or fewer. This allows teachers time to give students meaningful feedback, such as personalized letters at the end of each semester. Students are also organized into multi-age learning groups based on their skill levels rather than age.

“I think what’s amazing is nothing has changed,” Henry said. “We worked really hard to keep it seamless between the two organizations.”

The school still starts each day with an assembly led by student ambassadors, and each Thursday students meet with their advisory houses where they can participate in competitions to win a variety of “house cups.” The dual organizational model also allows the school to continue to offer additional resources to families.

“We host Raising Readers on Saturdays to teach parents how to create a culture of reading at home, and EnCompass pays for the breakfast,” Henry said. “That’s something we couldn’t do as just a charter.” This has led to high parental involvement. La Salle tracks data monthly based on how many parents show up for meetings, events and parent-teacher conferences, and it has never fallen below 86% this year.

Transitioning to a charter has provided its own benefits, as well, beyond just savings for families. For example, additional funding has allowed the school to hire a special education coordinator. Henry said this has allowed La Salle to accept more students and provide those already there with better services.

“As a private school, you don’t have to accept the IEP from a public school. Whereas for a charter school, that’s a legal document,” she said. “Charter schools really uphold our core value of inclusivity. Any private school can say this school is not a good fit for you, but as a charter school, we’re challenged to be the one that meets those needs.” Another benefit is the support provided through the charter sponsor—University of Missouri-Columbia. “Mizzou can come back and give us immediate feedback and discuss teaching and learning strategies,” she said. “I appreciate that accountability.”

In the future, La Salle has a lot to look forward to. Next year, they’ll move into a new building with the target of adding 20 more students and eventually additional grade levels. The building was paid for by the non-profit side of the organization, De La Salle, Inc. They’ll also be participating in an “education hub”—one of the recommendations from the Ferguson Report—where they will partner with KIPP and Gateway MST to share resources and professional development. Until then, Henry said their biggest challenge is simply awareness.

“I feel like we’re a hidden gem in the city. A lot of people don’t know about us. Every family we have loves us, and I just wish more people knew we existed.”

Henry said families who are interested in learning more about the school can attend a “Be A STAR” event where students who embody the school’s values are honored each month. An upcoming event will be held on April 22 at 7:30am.

Amber Murphy is a guide to schools in the city of Saint Louis; made for parents, by parents.

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