St. Louis City Schools

"Metro High School made me a city lover"

Metro Academic and Classical High School: “Then and Now”

With my oldest son nearly halfway through eighth grade, we’ve recently stepped up our discussions on the next step - high school. There are many variables in making that decision. In St. Louis, your options are much greater than just funnelling into the neighborhood/district high school. There are charter schools, private schools, neighborhood schools and magnet schools. Options abound. Most dedicated parents and students have a first choice and a back up plan.

So, in many cases, research is necessary. This investigative parenting may take some work and observation. This can take the form of objective readings of statistics, location, facilities, extra curricular opportunity, etc. Some observations can be more subjective or unplanned like simply observing or listening to the students that attend the schools you are considering.

I’ve always been the kind of parent that appreciates a conversations with a current student or a person who attended the school, in addition to a visit to the school or poring over stats.

So with that in mind, I’ll share an interview I recently did with one of my favorite young people to listen to and debate with - he is also my nephew - Ethan Farrar, a current junior at Metro, as well as a graduate of Metro, Rene Spencer Saller, a family friend who says that attending Metro was a pivotal part of her life.

The intent of this interview is to give a feel for the intangibles that the numbers won’t tell, so I’ll try to keep the background and numbers simple and focus on the answers of Rene and Ethan.

Metro Academic and Classical High School is part of the St. Louis Public Schools and is a magnet school, which means students have to be accepted to the school and, in some cases, win a seat through a lottery process. The school was founded in 1972 in a building on the western edge of downtown. It then moved to the former Temple Israel building at 5017 Washington Avenue in the Central West End, before moving to a purpose-built building at 4015 McPherson Avenue in the eastern portion of the CWE.

The school has been earned many of the top awards in the world of education including the Missouri Gold Star in 2004 and the National Blue Ribbon in 2004 and 2008; it has also been listed on U.S. News and World Report’s ranking as 125th of all public high school nationwide. A small school, with just 333 students, Metro is the epitome of both race and economic diversity. The student body is 45.6% black, 39.6% white, 11.1% Asian, 2.7% Hispanic and 0.9% Indian, according the most recent available statistics. The numbers also show that 66% of the student body is female, Obviously, diversity is one of Metro’s strengths, and the school logo and school colors of simple white and black are a nod to the coming together of black and white students.

So if you’re not already convinced that Metro is a special place right here in the heart of our fine city, let’s hear from Rene and Ethan.

Rene was raised in Webster Groves, MO, but is now a resident of St. Louis. She was a member of the 1984 graduating class.

Ethan is a lifelong resident of St. Louis and is currently a junior at Metro. He’s a member of the soccer team and a formidable debater when it comes to history, politics and current events. In the interests of full disclosure, Ethan is my nephew and has remained a wonderful role model and friend for all three of my kids, so forgive any bias.

I asked Rene and Ethan several questions about their experiences at Metro.

How do the current diversity numbers at Metro match up with your experience?

Rene: One of the goals of the school was to keep the student population as representative of the city as a whole; meaning about 60% black kids from North City and 40% white kids from South City and of course some weirdo County kids like myself. In those days South City was way less diverse than it is today; black kids lived in North City and white kids in South City and the suburbs. If you look at the yearbook, there were maybe only a couple Asian kids.

Ethan: Those numbers seem about right. It’s true; it’s great. The 34% male part seems to be in part due to the fact that girls mature faster and don’t skip class as much in general. Guys fail out more frequently. At high school age, girls just more or less have a harder work ethic.

Rene: I mean, it was life changing for me. Webster Groves was not like that. Both the valedictorian and salutatorians of my class were both black, hard working, so incredibly smart...studied constantly and both were brilliant.

Ethan: Yeah, we have a 15 year old doing calculus.

Obviously, Metro is a pretty special place and offers a unique experience. What are some of your thoughts or lasting impressions as to what makes Metro successful?

Rene: There was so much freedom. It is like college. There were no bells, it was an open campus. You could leave anytime you wanted and wander around the Central West End to free your mind. The CWE was very different in the 1980s, it was more like St. Louis’ answer to the Lower East Side in NYC. It had a weird artist, dangerous, edgy vibe. The city was part of my education. Back then there were no dedicated buses so students were issued a Bi-State bus pass to get to and from school. You could also use the bus pass to take classes off campus (e.g., a radio class on MLK Drive, a class at Vashon, a class at the Zoo, or a gym credit in racquetball at the Vic Tanny gym in University City).

Ethan: Now there are dedicated buses that get you to and from home/school, as well as after school activities including practices or games. County kids have cab access. And yeah, I know what you mean, open campus is great. You can leave whenever you have a free period. I take advantage of that as much as I can, it’s great at lunchtime. They treat you like you’re already in college, which is good to prepare you for that next step. It’s all on you. No one is going to force you to stay. It helps you be responsible for yourself and you are treated like an adult. No one is going to force you to do the work, you need 28 credits to graduate versus 24 as most schools, so there is little margin for slacking off. If you don’t put in the effort, you fail out and that’s on you. It’s regimented, one missed credit and you can’t leave campus, two and you can’t play sports or participate in extracurricular activities and at three you’re out.

Rene: Same for me, we called it “NC’ing out” (NC = No Credit), two no credits and you’re out. The open campus gave me a sense of independence and taught me how to use public transportation. It was a great experience, an eye opener. And the city kids were just way cooler than the kids I grew up around. Racism was not an issue, never saw a fight the whole time I was there, sometimes people would self-segregate but it was harmonious. We were churchy, creative, smart kids.

Ethan: Cliques exist based on natural trends, just like anywhere. People are attracted to people who like the same kinds of music, etc. That is normal, but there’s no tension.

Rene: Right, there was no tension. There was no separation of classes. There was less class judgment.

Ethan: Also, I’m taking an International Baccalaureate history class where there’s more discussion. Instead of just focusing on the timeline, like “this happened and then that happened,” it is more focused on “x happened which caused y to happen” and we discuss why. Because of the events that occurred and the connection and the “why” vs. the facts. You get to draw conclusions yourself instead of just getting the usual story and outcome.

So are there cultural benefits of going to a magnet school in the heart of the city?

Rene: Sure, the school was eye opening. They offered a course called something like “urban adventures” where the students would be given a small dollar amount and then be asked to go survive in the city...spend a night in the city and survive over night. I don’t remember all the details, but there was that whole different level of curiosity, in the 1980s helicopter parents didn’t exist. There was much less supervision - you knew you were in a bad neighborhood and it was better to explore it versus avoid it. People and parents were less litigious and that meant you could be more daring with the curriculum.

Ethan: It’s true. Although this is a little off topic, there is an app called ‘find your friends’ that allow parents to track kids so you know where they are at all times. It’s crazy.

Rene: I understand being neurotic about your kid’s safety, but it seems like this is the time in your life where you need to learn independence. I mean, Metro made me a city lover. I made up my mind as soon as I was old enough to move out, I’m going to live the in city and I did.

I keep coming back to diversity. At some places, diversity seems like lip service. It’s hard to define simply with stats. You can feel it when it is genuine versus contrived. It wasn’t just racial either, it was economic diversity. I had friends whose parents were the hippie types and had a mansion in the West End, but in those days you didn’t have to be rich; you could buy a mansion for $50,000 when people were leaving so much behind to move to the County. Architecturally, I got into the old homes and buildings. I found the city kids more interesting. I probably wouldn’t have met the same people and have the friends I do now if my mom hadn’t found out about Metro and let me enroll there. There used to be a rock club on the west end called The Stroll (prostitution area in the Central West End in the 80s near Taylor/Olive) and some friends had a club there and I saw lots of rock bands and starting hanging around with people older than me who were into the music scene. Don’t know if I would’ve met these people had I stayed in Webster. My appreciation of art was fostered at Metro.

Ethan: I never had that juxtaposition of no diversity versus diversity, since I’ve pretty much been in magnet schools in St. Louis my whole life (read: Kennard and McKinley). There were some kids from the county, but most are from all over the city. It was just part of my experience to have economic and racial diversity because it’s baked into city living.

I have an Indian friend now who lives in Chesterfield, so he never really got to see the black culture. He’s a very loving person, loves to get to know people's styles and really likes diversity. Metro completely changed him...he seemed shocked. His sensibilities were flip-flopped. He gained confidence.

We all have different lifestyles and backgrounds, but we’ve chosen the same path. The values are shared for learning and getting along.

Everyone seems to get along. Come on, no fights like on T.V.?

Ethan: There’s a zero tolerance policy for violence. You fight, you’re out. There’ve been a couple scuffles, one kid got expelled for having weed in her purse and lashed out at the security guard. She’s gone.

Rene: I didn’t get picked on. I was a ‘weirdo’ at Webster. I got to Metro, and I won’t say I was super-popular, but I made lots of friends very easily. My first year at Metro was when rap was coming in. It was when I heard “the Message” by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five. We all listened to W-ESL free-form radio. I met a friend in French class who liked the same stuff and we ended up rapping in French over the air on W-ESL.

Ethan: There’s less separation and intolerance. We are used to being together.

Rene: Right, I remember my black friends asking us to show them how to dance punk rock or new wave. There wasn’t much to it, just try not to get knocked unconscious. We wanted to break dance - there was an exchange of ideas. There was a lot of music and dancing in the cafeteria.

So schools are also expected to bring extra curricular, what are your thoughts on the after school hours stuff that helps define the high school experience?

Ethan: We have all the extra things, but it is not typical. They have band and sports and clubs and all that, but it is different than what I imagine a large public school would be. I mean, there are maybe 2,000 kids at a large district school and maybe only 30 play on the soccer team. You have to be really, really good to make the team, so most of the kids won’t play. If you want to play soccer at Metro you are competing with 25 out of maybe 300 kids. I can play and I love it, and I don’t know if I’d be playing at a big school. I played basketball for only two years before making the team at Metro, and I made the team and got to play. It was just fun and kept me in good shape. Clubs aren’t regimented. If you want to do something else, like an anime club, just talk to the principal or anyone, even the janitor, you name it and they’ll set you up.

Is that common? Do students do that?

Ethan: Oh yeah, there is a Disney club. Dr. Who kids. Not sure who started it, but there is a group called “Vogue Like Me” where they do dance/modeling. I mean, the atmosphere in general is like a family, by the time you are in junior or senior year, you know everyone and accept them. I mean, you don’t have to like everyone in your family, but you have to get along. And you still care about everyone even though you might not be close friends.

So how are the teachers?

Rene: (to Ethan) Yeah, what’s the relationship like with teachers - is it still on a first name basis? Almost like college?

Ethan: Oh yeah, there’s less separation and division. No ‘Mr. So and So’, more of a rapport. It makes for a better classroom environment, more of a discussion. You can talk and not be ashamed of being right or wrong. Less structure of “here’s what you are going to learn about and I’m the ultimate authority,” more like let’s discuss this. You can just talk.

[In some classes there are just] four or five [students] and that is a great teacher to student ratio; yet, some are more like 50 kids to a teacher as in gym, something everyone has to take. Most core classes are around 20 or 25.

No school is perfect: What would you change?

Ethan: Some teachers are a problem. It might be harder to get teachers who don’t do a good job with young people to a different role. The student body has a high level of expectations. Most teachers are dedicated, not all. Sometimes, they just seem to keep less interested teachers around for no reason. But the good ones are great. The IB teachers build so much into the courses.

Thanks guys. Closing thoughts? Would you recommend it to a friend?

Ethan: I think it’s a really good public school. The programs are there to let you succeed. IB is really good, high level stuff. If you put the work in, the environment is better than anywhere; you’ll be happy to be there. You are treated as an adult and I’m more happy to work when you are doing a job like an adult would have to do … but you have freedoms and you are learning. That really does matter. Sometimes parents don’t think that matters, but it really does. When you are 16 you are an adult, or developing as an adult - this is a respectful last step toward adulthood.

Rene: When I was still there Betty Wheeler, the founder of the school, was principal. She made the school great. [She put a lot emphasis on community service and as a result] I tutored a Russian girl in English. The principal approached me with this opportunity, so I got my hours for that! We became friends. I volunteered for the Red Cross doing cold calls to urge people to give blood. It connected the school to the community.

Betty really believed in that. There was this thing called “the Metro hug” and you just got a hug every day. It was like family, everyone was on a first name basis. Betty was an amazing woman. She was married to a Harlem Globetrotter Sam “Boom Boom Wheeler” and just had a lot of juice. She was a great woman and she built a great place.

Mark Groth

Mark Groth, a 20-year St. Louis resident and father of three, is an avid blogger and St. Louis booster. Mark's interested in St. Louis history, schools, neighborhoods, parks and culture.

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