St. Louis City Schools

Variety is the spice of learning in St. Louis City


That’s how city parent and Development Director at Crossroads College Preparatory Academy Heather Lake describes her two-year long process of finding the perfect school for her three children.

Lake took into account academic opportunities, enrichment programming and school culture. She researched relentlessly, visited schools and asked principals tough questions. What she didn’t expect is that as her boys grew and changed, so did their needs.

“Schools aren’t a one size fits all venture. You want to find the best environment where your children are going to thrive,” she said. “But they’re all different; same gene pool, dramatically different.”

For Lake, though, that’s the best part of city schools: the incredible amount of options.

Lake and her husband grew up in Orange County, California attending traditional public schools. They moved to St. Louis for work and fell in love with its “cultural richness.” Eventually they ended up in the Shaw Neighborhood after moving from Flynn Park, a neighborhood with a high-performing public elementary school in University City.

That decision was easy.

“When you live in the city, you get excited,” she said. “[It’s] a more diverse way of thinking — people in the city tend to have a more open mind when they’re looking at their options.”

Her three boys — ages 13, 12 and 10 — have already attended five different schools. Each started their education at Kennard Classical Junior Academy, a gifted magnet school in the Saint Louis Public Schools district. And two briefly attended Gateway Science Academy, a public charter school in South City.

But now, the 10-year-old is at Saint Louis Language Immersion Schools; the 12-year-old is at New City School; and the 13-year-old is at Crossroads College Preparatory Academy.

Lake says she quickly realized that each of her children has individual needs. For example, her middle child was bullied, so she knew he needed to be in a more nurturing environment. She immediately moved him to New City, a private school in the Central West End that bases its curriculum around Multiple Intelligences Theory, and she’s looking at Grand Center Arts Academy and Crossroads College Prep for middle school.

Her youngest son, however, could thrive in any school but is interested in the International Baccalaureate program that Saint Louis Language Immersion Schools offer.

“[He] is turning 10 years old, and he’s almost fluent in Spanish,” she said. “That’s an unbelievable gift.”

The academics are only one piece of the puzzle, though; Lake and her husband, who grew up in majority white neighborhoods, also appreciate the “heterogeneous nature” of the students in St. Louis City schools.

“They’re learning how to deal with real life situations. We’re all better when surrounded by people unlike ourselves. You learn more about other people, but you learn more about yourself too.”

According to the Center for American Progress, people of color made up 36 percent of the labor force as of June 2012, and by 2050 new immigrants and their children will account for 83 percent of the growth in the working-age population. This, along with an increasing trend towards “job hopping,” makes adaptability and flexibility a must.

Lake says schools are starting to adjust to this new model of learning, with a greater focus on college and life beyond the neighborhood.

“This is a new generation of school and school leaders that are coming forward, and I think it’s good,” she said. “Kids rise up, so you may as well have a high bar. Because they will rise up.”

At one point, her youngest son was having conflicts with an African American student at school. The child told him that she hated white people and always had. When Lake scheduled a meeting to visit the classroom, the teacher brought her son over and asked how things were going. His response: “Oh…that… It’s ok. We talked it through.”

The girl and him are now close friends. “The cultural awareness is so invaluable to kids,” Lake said. “It’s one thing to be diverse; it’s another to be inclusive and accepting.”

To be fair, choosing the right school can be difficult. From researching to following your child’s progress to helping with homework, it’s exhausting. “Doing what you feel is right for your children may not be convenient for you,” she said. “You have to be willing to withstand the inconvenience to make sure that your children are successful in the end.”

She sites the support of her community “village” to help her through. This includes an active group of parents, as well as strong programs such as the Youth Learning Center in the Central West End.

“[City schools] are not all filled with guns and knives. There are some really great teachers and a strong parent culture.”

For Lake and her husband, the suburbs just weren’t appealing. The cultural institutions, community awareness and diversity in the city make the hard work pay off.

“When you start seeing your children developing into really cool people, it’s all worth it.”

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

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