Alumni Come Out In Droves To Support Sumner High
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Between 1940 and 1960, one high school in St. Louis produced a Wimbledon champ, two Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, an Emmy-winning actor, and a famous comedian and activist.
Back then, Sumner High School was an educational jewel, anchoring a thriving, middle-class, black neighborhood. But Sumner's status as the first black high school west of the Mississippi won't protect it from closure if academics and student behavior don't improve soon.
As St. Louis Public Radio's Rachel Lippmann reports, that's prompted some alarmed alumni to try to save the school they love.
(Soundbite of school bell)
RACHEL LIPPMANN: The end of third period at Sumner High School sends its 550 students streaming through a building where Arthur Ashe, Tina Turner, Chuck Berry, Robert Guillaume and Dick Gregory once attended classes.
Cornell Andrews(ph) is wearing a maroon sweatshirt identifying him as an alum, and is helping teachers monitor the controlled chaos in the hallways. This is the first time Andrews has actively participated in something with the alumni association since he graduated in 1976.
Mr. CORNELL ANDREWS: When I attended school here, there was a great deal of school pride. When it was mentioned that the school might be closing, that was just devastating to most of the alumni.
LIPPMANN: The Sumner that Andrews remembers had a lot of clubs, a student council and a marching band. Today, there are few extracurriculars beyond sports. Just 30 percent of Sumner students read at grade level; just 10 percent can do grade-level math.
Sumner's academic problems aren't unique among urban districts. The St. Louis public schools are under state control for that very reason. So Superintendent Kelvin Adams wasn't overly concerned about Sumner until last year, when a football player was shot just outside the building and guards had to use Mace to break up a gang fight. Adams started looking at all of the numbers.
Mr. KELVIN ADAMS (Superintendent, St. Louis Public Schools): Academics obviously is primary, but safety is a major, major concern of ours. The Sumner neighborhood has the highest crime rate for incidents of batteries and assaults.
LIPPMANN: Superintendent Adams wanted to shutter the school at winter break, but that presented a host of logistical problems. So instead, he installed an interim principal, ordered Sumner students and staff to draft some goals, and gave them an ultimatum: Meet those goals, or the school closes for good in June.
By the end of the year, Sumner's average attendance must go from 78 percent to 85 percent. The number of suspensions and students failing classes must be cut in half.
Mr. ADAMS: We've continued to believe that Sumner is the Sumner that existed 20 and 25 years ago. It is not.
LIPPMANN: There is extra staff and a new police officer on hand to help, but it's alumni volunteers who seem central to Sumner's attempt to survive.
Nineteen sixty-three graduate John Abram(ph) was unhappy when Adams first threatened to close Sumner. He wasn't sure the superintendent fully understood the school's legacy. So the retired Ford engineer is making the most of the six-month reprieve by waking up early to help students prepare for the ACT college entrance exam.
Mr. JOHN ABRAM: I believe that with the benefits of Sumner and its legacy, that those students could get everything that they're looking for right here.
LIPPMANN: Senior Shannis McCollier(ph) found a home at Sumner and is worried about younger students if the school doesn't open next year.
Ms. SHANNIS McCOLLIER: We are comfortable with each other. We are used to each other by now, and if we have to break away and start over again in all those other schools, there will be confrontation.
LIPPMANN: Like John Abram, Shannis says she isn't blind to Sumner's problems, but she's not sure that the superintendent is being fair.
Ms. McCOLLIER: There is no perfect public high school in St. Louis, but he wants Sumner to shape up and ship right...
(Soundbite of snapping)
Ms. McCOLLIER: ...like that.
LIPPMANN: Adams agrees that Sumner's biggest problems cannot be solved in six months. The reprieve is a chance to see what might work at all of the district's struggling high schools. No one expects the Sumner of today to become the academic powerhouse it was 40 years ago. But the numbers are improving enough for cautious optimism that it will at least get a chance to rebuild on the base of that formidable legacy.
For NPR News, I'm Rachel Lippmann in St. Louis.
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