Separate and Unequal: The current voluntary student transfer program in St. Louis and the uncertain future of public education in our city
January 24, 2017
“Separate and Unequal”: the current Voluntary Student Transfer program and the uncertain future of public education in our city is the third installment of a three-part series on housing, accessibility to education, and the Voluntary Student Transfer Program. The Globe is dedicating three issues to discuss these topics because, as we dove into this story in May and have continued to learn more, the story we want to tell has evolved. We felt in order to do this story justice we had to dedicate the space, time and in-depth, long-term reporting to these issues.
It was a Tuesday at Clayton High School.
May 18, 2004.
Unlike many other Tuesdays at this place of learning, many classrooms lacked one crucial element: students.
According to a St. Louis Post Dispatch article from May 2004, over 700 CHS students walked out of the building at 1 Mark Twain Circle on this Tuesday.
These students united to plan and execute a walkout during the school day to protest Clayton administration’s handling of discussions surrounding the Voluntary Student Transfer program, and its potential ending.
Hundreds of students – of many races – wanted the District to understand that they valued the VST program, and did not want to see it come to a close.
In 2004, the School District of Clayton had to make a decision about the VST program.
The District had to decide whether or not they wanted to continue participating in the program for the 2005-2006 school year while receiving $6,850 per pupil as reimbursement for each student participating in VST in the District, $5,528 less than they received the previous year.
In addition to a walkout, students organized a petition in support of continuation of the VST program. It contained over 600 signatures.
Ultimately, the District made the choice hundreds of students wanted them to make.
Clayton would continue participating in the program, and would continue accepting new students through VST.
Clayton, along with many other St. Louis County districts, would later make this decision to continue to take part in the VST program through five-year extensions in 2007, 2012, and 2016. In its 35 years of existence, the VST program has had over 50,000 black students participate in the program, over 10,000 have been students in the School District of Clayton. But all of this, slowly, but surely, is coming to an end.
The New Settlement Agreement
After 20 years of the VST program as a court mandated part of the Liddell settlement, explained in part two of this series, the state of Missouri, which bore the financial brunt of the program, wanted out of the expensive arrangement.
Up until 1999 the state of Missouri was funding the VST program and the magnet schools and the net cost was substantial. In order to end the program and effectively the State’s financial contributions to it, Missouri filed for unitary status of the St. Louis City and County public schools.
“These remedies don’t go forever and they need to wind down at some point so they filed that motion to end the desegregation programs and particularly to end the state’s obligation to pay for all of it,” Mark Bremer, lawyer representing the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corporation (VICC), said.
Essentially, unitary status would indicate that the St. Louis City and County schools are no longer affected by the vestiges of the prior dual system of racial discrimination.
The issue at hand falls under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment of 1868, where race-based decision making is prohibited only barring the “remedial exception” which says that one can engage in race-based decision making if it is a remedy to a prior race-based violation.
This “remedial exception” only applies to equalize the disparities between the city and county school districts created by the long period of racial segregation. If Missouri was successful in achieving unitary status, this would mean that there were no longer disparities to equalize, thus the VST program would be unconstitutional.
The file for unitary status went to trial in 1996 before Federal Judge George Gunn. Gunn wanted the case settled between the school districts and the state, so he appointed Bill Danforth, former chancellor at Washington University, to be the settlement coordinator.
Bremer, who represented the St. Louis City and County School Districts, had three main conditions for settlement.
First, Bremer wanted the County districts joined with the City districts to run the program, not a judge or any other outside entity as these districts would work in the best interest of the students.
Second, the transfer program could not cost the districts any money because they could not have their necessary resources depleted to educate their own children.
And third, there would have to be a plan to phase the program out. Under the settlement proposed by Bremer there would be enough funding to run the program they were contemplating so that the program would phase out about five percent per year over a 20 year period.
However this phase out was and is quite contentious among all parties involved.
“In my view as a lawyer under the Supreme Court decisions construing the constitution, the desegregation remedies cannot go in perpetuity. They can’t go forever,” Bremer said. “We had a disagreement though because the lawyers for the plaintiffs wanted it to go forever and we said, ‘We’re just going to have to respectfully disagree with you.’ But in any event, we set it up so that it could phase out very gradually over a 20 year period.”
Conversely, civil rights attorney for the NAACP Veronica Johnson said, “I disagree with [VICC’s] lawyers. Legally if you have a constitutional violation then it is my perspective that the remedy continues until the violation has been cured. Any program that identifies someone by the color of their skin and treats them differently is suspect in an Equal Protection Clause. But if you are doing that because there has been a violation that’s one thing. If you are doing that and there has not been a violation that is something different.”
Finally, after much deliberation, in 1999 the settlement agreement was passed. The law was called Senate Bill 781 (SB 781).
SB 781 completely removed the state of Missouri from the lawsuit. It continued all of the existing programs, but as a court agreement without a judge overseeing it.
Without the court overseeing the program, there needed to be a new leading body, so Bremer and his firm set up the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corporation (VICC).
Under VICC, the transfer program is run by all of the school districts participating in the program.The board of directors of VICC is comprised of the superintendents of those districts.
In making decisions regarding VST, each of these districts votes in proportion to the number of students they are educating as part of the transfer program.
With the state of Missouri no longer giving the same funding to the program, funding was coming from other avenues such as a sales tax the NAACP helped levy which would go towards the VST program.
But the program still did not run at full cost reimbursement for the districts, and it still does not.
Even so, according to CEO of VICC David Glaser, the reimbursement rates VICC provides is not minimal.
“We don’t have a huge reimbursement, but quite frankly, the amount we pay to county districts to reimburse them for the costs at $7,000 is generally one of the highest, if not the highest reimbursement rate of any program in the nation. Even though Clayton’s total cost of education is obviously a lot more than $7,000 per student, the incremental costs of educating that one new student is probably not much more. It’s probably less than $7,000 a student,” Glaser said.
As of September 2016, it is estimated that the School District of Clayton spends roughly $20,000 per pupil per year.
For Bremer, the settlement agreements and the formation of VICC became more than court cases and legal activities he was involved in because of his law degree, thanks in part to Danforth.
“The one who really hammered that into my head was Bill Danforth,” Bremer said. “He said, ‘Lawyers-schmoyers. Don’t get in the way of settling this. It needs to get done Bremer. Find a way around it. Don’t tell me that there are legal obstacles that we can’t hurdle. Find out what they are and figure a way to get over ‘em. Even if it’s never been done before. Even if it’s sort of thinking out of the box as lawyers and doing things that are unprecedented. Just do it and get ‘em done.’ And that’s what we did.”
By the Numbers
“I want to provide a culture for our [students] that will look the same as the world around them and right now we don’t have a natural diversity within the community,” School District of Clayton Superintendent Sean Doherty said.
This lack of natural diversity — minority students living in Clayton — is seen in the fact that, of the 187 black students at CHS for the 2016-2017 school year, 123 of these students are apart of VST and do not live in the District. This leaves 64 black students that attend CHS because they live in the District, have a parent that works for the District, (allowing them to attend for free through Board Grant) pay personal tuition, or attend the District through statutory tuition.
The latter – statutory tuition – allows students from unaccredited school districts in St. Louis city to attend accredited schools, such as Clayton, at the cost of the unaccredited districts.
The most recent case of this was when the Normandy School District and Riverview Gardens District were stripped of their accreditation in 2012. For the 2013-14 school year, Clayton gained 46 students in its District through statutory tuition.
This school year, there are 67 students in the District through statutory tuition. Of these 46 students, 20 are at CHS. 15 of these students are black.
In December 2016, Riverview Gardens regained state accreditation. So, slowly but surely, Clayton’s statutory tuition numbers will decrease so long as other area school districts maintain accreditation.
The VST program’s reimbursement is a little more complicated.
After the 1999 settlement agreement, the state of Missouri no longer paid for the majority of the program’s funding. Because of this, funds needed to be moved around in order to keep the program funded without costing the districts which would inhibit them from educating their own students.
The VICC program reimburses Clayton and other districts participating in the VST program with a reimbursement of around $7,000 per student, money VICC receives from Missouri’s K-12 Foundation Formula and Proposition C.
While this is not technically “full cost reimbursement” for the education of these students, the cost of adding additional students is much less than the average Clayton student.
Glaser said, “Even though Clayton’s total cost of education is obviously a lot more than $7,000 per student, the incremental costs of educating that one new student [through VST] is probably not much more. It’s probably less than $7,000 dollars a student. The analogy I use is if a plane has two empty spots on a cruise ship, the ship is already sailing, all the staff is already on the ship, so how much more does it really cost them to take those last two passengers? Probably not a whole lot.”
The way students are accepted into Clayton from the VST program is based off of the number of projected available openings in the District, while still maintaining target class room sizes.
If classrooms are not at capacity by resident students, those extra spaces can be filled with VST students or students paying tuition to attend Clayton schools.
Clayton’s target classroom size ranges from 18 per class in kindergarten and first grade, increasing in grades second through eighth up to 20 and finally growing to 22 students per classroom at CHS.
A substantial element of the costs of VICC is transportation. These services cost upwards of $18,000,000 per year and VICC receives $5 million in reimbursement from the State. VICC uses around 200 busses and 100 cabs to bring VST students to and from their schools everyday.
According to Glaser, from a financial standpoint, the VST program works best as less and less students participate. As written in the 1999 settlement agreement, the program has been in the process of phasing out since it was created.
“Financially, [VST] does not work well, quite frankly, unless our program is declining,” Glaser said.
Notably, the 1998-1999 school year, one of VICC’s peak years in terms of enrollment, 13,263 students were enrolled in VST.
Since then, in accordance with the settlement agreement, the program has been decreasing by about five percent each year.
4,471 students total enrolled in VST across all participating districts for the 2016-2017 school year, including 611 new students accepted into the program.
VICC projections indicate that about 150 new students will be accepted into the VST program for the 2023-2024 school year, the last year VICC will accept new students. Of the 150 new students, Clayton is projected to receive five of these students through the program.
According to Assistant Superintendent of Student Services Greg Batenhorst, these five students will all be placed in kindergarten at Clayton’s elementary schools in order to allow these final VST students to be in the District for as many years as possible.
These five students would be set to graduate from CHS in 2037.
For the 2012-2013 school year, 365 of the 2,504 students in Clayton Schools were in the VST program. This year, 276 of 2,637 students in Clayton are a part of the program. It is projected that in the 2023-2024 school year, there will be 134 VST students in the District.
In addition to the diversity VICC and the VST program have brought to the District, VICC also produced millions of dollars in revenue for the District in the past three decades.
In the 2015-2016 school year, of the District’s $55.5 million in revenue, $2,184,572 of it came from VICC.
However as the VST program phases out, this revenue will be lost as well. In 2023-2024, the last year new students will be enrolled in the VST program, the District is projected receive $943,200 in revenue from VICC – $1,241,372 less than 2015-2016.
The School District of Clayton CFO Mary Jo Gruber predicts that this loss of revenue from VICC will have monetary effects on the District.
“Over the next 20 years, as the program phases out, the funding from VICC will decline with the decline in enrollment,” Gruber said. “This decline in funding could result in overall District deficit spending.”
Sometimes, when CHS sophomore Al Slater is going to sleep at home after football, basketball, or lacrosse practice, and doing his homework, he cannot fall asleep.
Slater lives in North St. Louis and many nights he is kept up by loud noises: police sirens, gunshots.
“It’s pretty sad,” he said. “I try to go to sleep after doing my homework and I just can’t because of the police sirens and shootings and loud noises coming out of nowhere.”
For Slater, attending the School District of Clayton, being in the area, and sometimes sleeping at a friend’s house in Clayton gives him a sense of peace he doesn’t get in his own neighborhood.
“Being able to go to Clayton is especially significant in my life. When I am in Clayton, I feel like things are a lot better and a lot more fun. Where I live, you hear a lot of sirens throughout the day. But in Clayton, things are really peaceful,” he said. “When I wake up in Clayton I can actually hear the birds, but when I wake up at my house in the city all I hear are sirens.”
After attending Mark Twain Elementary School for kindergarten, Slater’s grandmother, a former educator, applied Slater for the VST program.
In first grade, Slater was at Captain Elementary. He has been in the School District of Clayton ever since.
Slater lives with his aunt because his mom and dad both have had substance abuse problems. Currently, Slater’s mom is living with a friend. His father is homeless.
“My mom and dad were on hard drugs, and they both had to go to rehab,” he said. “At first my dad was living with his mom [after rehab] until she passed away, now he doesn’t have a home. He’s homeless. My mom is living with her friend. I don’t see her that much, but it’s fine.”
Slater’s grandpa lives right down the street from him in their North St. Louis neighborhood. Since Slater is a part of the VST program, he has the option to take the bus to school every morning. But he doesn’t.
“I don’t take the bus. My aunt heard on the news that this little girl got shot waiting for her bus to come,” he said. “Walking to the corner alone, it’s pretty scary because something could happen to me.”
So, Slater’s 84-year-old grandpa drives him to school, a 30 minute drive, and picks him up after practices everyday. For Slater, this can be very stressful.
These stressful times can lead Slater to spend nights at his friend’s house in Clayton, something he enjoys.
“I think it’s fun being around Clayton. Sometimes [my friend’s] help me out if I have money situations or need school supplies, I’ll get that from a friend. If I need somewhere to stay because of family problems, it’s pretty fun,” Slater said.
In addition to the fun he has in Clayton, Slater also gains positive role models through his participation in the District – namely Gene Gladstone, CHS head football coach and technical educator.
“Gladstone is always helping me out,” he said. ”If I need a ride to workouts or football practice, he’ll help me out with that. He’ll pick me up from my house when he lives 20 minutes away. I really appreciate him for that.” In school, Slater strives to take advantage of all that Clayton offers him, especially in sports.
“I play football, basketball, and lacrosse. My aunt wants me to do something active and she doesn’t want me to be in the house all day or in the streets like most of the people in my neighborhood. You can see that the people in my neighborhood, teenagers, too, are on hard drugs. It’s sad to see them walking around sad and with faces all messed up.”
In the classroom, Slater believes that he works towards success.
“I try to make good grades,” he said.“It’s kind of hard because Clayton is college-prep and is advanced. I try my best.”
Slater feels that he utilizes the community and educational aspects of Clayton, and feels that for those apart of VST who do not are missing an opportunity.
“People who come to school and don’t do their homework and don’t participate in class, or stuff like that, they shouldn’t be in the program. They’re wasting their time at Clayton when they can be doing that stuff at Normandy or something like that.”
Slater believes that being in the Clayton community has allowed him to get an education and opportunities that put him on the path towards success. If he were to not go to Clayton, Slater is not as confident in what his life would be. “Right now I picture myself as not like my mom and dad,” he said. “If I didn’t go to Clayton then I’d probably be like my mom and dad.”
CHS senior Brooke Jones is what the School District of Clayton calls a “lifetime” student.
She entered the District at Glenridge Elementary when she was five-years-old, and has been at Clayton ever since.
While in the District, Jones has been a highly-achieving student, a star-athlete, and, among many other things, a student attending Clayton schools through the VST program.
For her mother, Sharhonda Blount, placing her daughter in Clayton through VST was an easy choice.
“It’s a good school,” she said. “It’s one of the top schools, how could you not send your kid to one of the top schools?”
Jones’ status as a lifetime student has helped her to have many positive social experiences, but the color of her skin and the way it differed from many of her classmates is something Jones was conscious of from a young age.
“Since I was here since kindergarten, I just kind of blended right in with everyone else. I never felt like I didn’t fit in. I’ve always emotionally fit in, but it was more, I guess you could say, appearance-wise, I looked different,” she said. “My best friend had straight blonde hair and mine was kinky black. And I was like, ‘How come we’re not the same? Why do I have to be different than her? All my classmates look very similar and I’m just not like that.’ But as far as emotionally and personality-wise, I always had friends.”
This is not to say that Jones has not faced racial issues while at Clayton. In fact Blount remembers a conflict regarding her daughter’s race in their first year in the District.
“In kindergarten I had to call the teacher. Brooke and another kid were teasing kids and knocked over their blocks,” Blount said. “The teacher took away Brooke’s blocks, and didn’t take away the other kid’s blocks. If I saw issues like that, I would address them.”
This incident in which Blount feels her daughter was treated differently because of her race is not isolated.
“I feel like my daughter had to work harder for the grades she earned than someone else,” Blount said. “And I think she’s had to do that because of her skin.”
Jones echoes these sentiments of differing treatment between black students and students of other races.
“As a whole, I would say [VST students are received differently] because I think people perceive people from the program a tad differently,” Jones said. “I wouldn’t say it is part of the program, but more so because of the racial difference and they know that the students are African American and from a lower class. I think they see the students on a lower level academically and class-wise so they treat students as if they are lower sometimes, but not all the time.”
Although Jones has, according to her mother, excelled in the classroom, Jones feels that her race causes for some of her educators and classmates to pass judgement on her.
“You just feel like there’s an unspoken thought, ‘That this kid may not know what she’s talking about. She may not know her information.’ But I do. And when I go to talk to certain teachers, they just kind of dumb things down for me when I don’t need that to be the case. I’m an educated person,” Jones said.
Jones, a four-year varsity starter for Clayton’s girls’ basketball team, certainly has the statistics to support the claim that she is a standout athlete. In Blount’s opinion, her athleticism is being celebrated much more than her academic skills, which has concerned her.
“Even though she was a basketball player, the kid has a 3.7 GPA. With that being said, she was labeled, and African-American athletes are labeled as if they need a sport in order for them to be successful. She doesn’t need a sport,” Blount said. “She’s being labeled with the sports piece, and she doesn’t even talk about that unless someone brings it up. I think for a lot of teachers, they’re going to talk about sports and say, ‘I heard you were a good basketball player.’ You’re not hearing them say, ‘You’re a good studier or a good student.’ I felt insulted by that and I did mention that to teachers.”
This is not to say that Jones has not had what she believes to be exceptional teachers while in this District; teachers who believed in her academic abilities.
“Mrs. Teson has always been a really great teacher who has boosted me up. In middle school there have been a lot of different English teachers that have told me to try for the higher routes and told me I’m a great writer,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of great experiences in terms of teachers telling me to excel. In fifth grade, Mrs. Vondras tested me for the gifted program and told me to try my hardest and even though there may be some issues I’d encounter being an African American student, just try my hardest and push for it because I have the capabilities. There has always been encouragement and I have always been grateful for it.”
Jones believes that her being a student in Clayton through VST has given her many positive opportunities and role models.
“I think it has given me motivation to better my life and better my situation for myself and my family. It gives you a view of what you can have,” she said. “For example, if I were to go to a city school, I wouldn’t see upscale schooling and I wouldn’t have a lot of opportunities with kids whose parents are, for example, doctors. It’s given me more opportunities to see what my life can be.”
Although undecided about where she will attend for college next year, Jones plans on going on the pre-medical track. For Blount, Jones being a student at Clayton has molded her into a successful learner.
“I don’t have to address anything to do with academics,” Blount said. “She knows what to do. She knows what her expectations are. That’s her top priority. Clayton teaches you to build your own sense of education.”
Mahogany and Mari Donaldson
Every morning before school, Mahogany and Mari Donaldson board a bus in their North St. Louis neighborhood at 6:50 AM. For one hour, these twin sisters, juniors at CHS, ride around St. Louis before arriving at Clayton High School, around 25 minutes before the bell rings, indicating that first-hour classes have begun.
According to Mari, VST students on these busses may engage in many different activities: sleeping, doing homework, talking, or listening to music. The Donaldson’s often elect to do the latter in their 60-minutes on the bus as the sun rises.
The Donaldson’s have been a part of the VST program since kindergarten and have been riding the bus to and from the School District of Clayton for all 12 years they have been in the District.
“I never really ever got frustrated with taking the bus because I’ve been taking it since kindergarten,” Mahogany said.
The Donaldson’s live in what they describe as a nice predominately black neighborhood in North St. Louis.
But this does not mean they do not notice the differences between the neighborhoods they see in St. Louis City during their bus rides and Clayton neighborhoods they see as their bus gets closer and closer to its destination every morning: Clayton High School.
“We live in the good part of the city, but the other people on the bus don’t live in the nicest parts of the city. So, if you drive from our neighborhood to the other city neighborhoods to Clayton, you can definitely see a change in the neighborhoods,” Mahogany said.
Mari echoed these sentiments.
“There is a clear socioeconomic difference between the neighborhoods and a racial difference, obviously,” she said.
Although neither twin remembers much about their first few years in the District at Captain Elementary, they both began to learn about how they were able to go to the Clayton schools as they got older.
“I started to understand the program when I was in sixth grade. All through elementary school we were all just kids, but then we realized all the black kids were sort of shipped in,” Mari said. “I don’t want to say we are different, but we definitely come from different lifestyles and backgrounds.”
For Mahogany, the bus – where she and her twin have collectively spent many, many hours – is where she began to pick up on the nuances of the VST program.
“[VST] made sense to me,” she said. “When I looked around the busses, they were all black kids.”
Mahogany and Mari have an older brother who graduated from CHS through VST, and a younger sister, who is a freshman at CHS.
“I have asked my mom why she chose Clayton when she could have chosen [many] other schools in the area [through VST], and she said, ‘because it’s the closest and it’s the best school,’” Mahogany said.
According to Mari, many of the other students in the Donaldson’s neighborhood participate in the VST program either by being transferred to county school districts or attending magnet schools in the city.
“If [all of my neighbors] went to the same school, we would probably be closer. We already know the people in our neighborhoods pretty well,” Mari said. “One person, who lives down the street from us, goes to Gateway. Nobody wants to go to the city schools because they are not as good as the county or the magnet schools.”
Mahogany’s ability to attend this District is something she is grateful for.
“I like the program because we do receive a quality education out here,” Mahogany said.
More than the quality of education students in Clayton Schools may receive, both Mahogany and Mari enjoy the culture of the community in Clayton.
“We go to a good school all around. Our school has a good atmosphere with students and teachers who have open minds,” Mari said. “We have black friends who go to different schools, and they have very different experiences with racism. And it’s just different.”
But this does not mean either Mari or Mahogany think CHS is perfect. Mahogany is the only black student in many of her classes.
“I am the only black person in four of my classes: Honors Biology, Math, P.E. and one other,” she said.
Mahogany is a member of Cultural Leadership in St. Louis. Through her involvement, she participated in a “school swap” and attended Metro Academy for one day earlier this school year.
“I did a ‘school swap’ at Metro and I just loved it,” she said. “There were more black people but they were smart black people.”
Although both Mahogany and Mari enjoy the diversity at Clayton, the twins agree that they would like more black students in the District.
“I like Clayton, but sometimes I wish there were more black people,” Mari said.
Right now, Mahogany is interested in attending universities where they can be around more minority students after they graduate from CHS in 2018.
“Being a minority at Clayton is like a taste of the real world. It has made me want to go to a historically black college or university. I have never gone to a primarily black school so I wanted to give it a try,” Mahagony said. “I want to see more people like me, more educated people like me.”
Mari agrees with her twin sister.
“I like Clayton and its diversity, but I would like to go to a university where I can be around people like me all of the time,” Mari said.
But Mahogany, a cheerleader, volleyball-player, Black-Student Union (BSU) member, and Mari, also on BSU and principal’s advisory council, feel that their race and their being part of VST has not prevented them from being apart of the Clayton community.
“Anybody could fit into this community,” Mari said. “There are kids for everyone here.”
An Uncertain Future
They all said yes.
On November 18, superintendents from 10 county school districts, as well as the St. Louis Public school district, met to approve another – the final – five-year extension of the VST program in St. Louis.
All 10 remaining districts voted unanimously to continue accepting new students as part of the VST program through the 2023-2024 school year.
This program has existed for the last 15 years off of extensions voted on by the participating school districts. But, according to VICC’S legal council, VST cannot survive on these extensions forever.
The VST program was never designed to last infinitely.
“In my legal opinion, [VST] can’t go forever. And I am [VICC’s] lawyer and they accept my legal advice. Plus it was set up to phase out in a 20 year period and it’ll go longer than that,” Bremer said. “It’s phasing out more gradually than what we contemplated at the time of the ‘99 settlement agreements. It’s in the settlement agreement that it’s planned to phase out, so we’re merely doing what we planned back in 1999.”
In addition to the outline from 1999, Bremer’s legal opinion is also based off of precedent set by Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in her opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger in 2003.
O’Connor said, “We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest [in student body diversity] approved today.”
Bremer, as a lawyer for VICC, takes O’Connor’s projections into account.
“What can’t go in perpetuity is a race-based program,” Bremer said.
And VST, indeed, is based off of race.
Johnson, who has spent decades working as a lawyer for the NAACP in this case, does not agree with Bremer’s belief that the program must legally come to an end.
Her stance stems from her belief that funding is still in place for the VST program and that without the program, schools would be more segregated in St. Louis than they are presently, violating the standards that led to the VST program being created over 30 years ago.
“I refuse to believe that it is going to come to an end,” she said. “I really refuse to believe that.”
The reality is, unless the legal position of VICC’s legal council changes, the program will indeed end.
So, with the last students accepted through VST in the 2023-2024 school year entering in kindergarten, the last black students participating in the program will graduate CHS in 2037, with exception to siblings of VST students that are born in or before 2023, who will also be allowed to enter the District.
The question then becomes: what is next?
Currently, there are conversations around changing the conditions of the program from race to socio-economic status.
According to Bremer, the effects of a socio-economic based program could be similar to a race-based program in terms of diversifying school districts.
Since the VST program will not officially end for another 20 years, school districts have time to create a new model for diversifying their schools.
“We could end up having a non race-based program,” Bremer said. “Those can go forever.”
Possibilities for modeling the program could be using free and reduced priced lunch eligibility as a determinant for ability to participate in a socio-economic based transfer between St. Louis city and county public schools.
This means that the transfer would not necessarily be limited to bringing only black students into county schools. Johnson is not convinced that this model would be successful.
“I don’t think it would be that effective. I think that diversification on the basis of socio/economic is also very important but I don’t think that it is going to capture race in quite the same way and race is a part of it,” she said.
But, school districts in St. Louis, including Clayton, are continuing to explore models such as a socio-economic based program.
“There is a commitment to continue some type of program, just differently than the way it is currently set up,” BOE President Kristin Redington said. “I have had conversations with other Board members and other members of the community because of what an appreciation for the diversity the [VST] program has brought to all of us and our students being prepared for a world environment.”
A notable element that impedes diversity in county school districts, such as Clayton, is the cost of living in these areas. A potential way to diversify Clayton’s schools would be to increase the amount of affordable housing areas within the District, an idea Doherty is interested in.
“I have asked the City Manager if the City [of Clayton] looked at a plan in terms of affordable housing. And, the Clayton has looked into this previously, yet I have not seen much change,” Doherty said.
Although there are many uncertainties regarding the future of public schools in St. Louis, one thing is certain: the VST program will end.
For Bremer, who has been instrumental in the program for decades, the slow ending of the program does not upset him because the phasing out was what was designed in the settlement agreements. This does not mean he does not take pride in his distinct involvement in the program.
“I am honored to have – I get choked up talking about it – I am honored to have had the opportunity to do this,” he said. “It’s a law student’s dream come true to do something that is very significant and in being instrumental and pulling that off that benefits so many people.”
CHS Instructional Coordinator Stacy Felps has been a part of the School District of Clayton almost as long as the VST program. For Felps, the ending of the program, and the uncertainty of diversification of the Clayton schools, is deeply saddening. But she and other leaders in the District are still looking at ways to harness the diversity in the District in the best ways they know how.
“It makes my heart hurt. We as a building are still facing how we can make this better. Nobody is taking the approach of, “It’s fading away anyway so we’re not going to do anything.” Nobody is doing that,” Felps said. “I think there have been a lot of challenges and it hasn’t all been good. But thinking in terms of opportunity, it’s going to be a loss of opportunity.”
David Aiello, CHS psychology teacher, has been a part of the District since 1985. In terms of the success of the program, Aiello is less convinced that VST accomplished diversification in the ways it sought out to.
“I don’t know if all the costs, all the efforts, all the failures equate to the successes that have happened. I don’t know,” he said. “And I don’t know if this is one of those things where you have to have more losses than you’re going to have successes because there’s been 200 years of institutional racism in this country and you’ve got to start breaking that down even if it’s going to be some two steps back to make one step forward.”
An element of the program that Aiello believes was not executed as well as desired is the magnet school program.
Magnet schools in the city were originally supposed to be places of learning where white students could be transferred to in similar ways to black students from the city transferred to the county.
In the 35 years VST has existed, around 7,000 students, of many races, have attended these schools whereas over 50,000 black students have been transferred to county schools through the program.
“The whole promise of magnet schools, I think we gave up on it too fast and too quickly and we didn’t set it up for success as well as should have,” he said. “The whole idea of having suburban white kids coming into the city, as much emphasis should have been placed on that as bringing black kids out to the white suburbs. And it didn’t, it just didn’t. The magnet schools have turned into where the smart black kids go who live in the city and that was never the goal and we gave up on that way to quickly and too easily.”
If a new program for diversifying schools is not created, then students of all races will go to school based on where they live, if they are part of public school education.
“The basic rule in the state is that you go to school where you live. So unless you change where people live, if our housing is segregated then our schools become segregated as well,” Glaser said.
Although the uncertainty of what the future holds for St. Louis public education may be daunting, the effects of the VST program so far in its 35 year existence is undeniable.
“Those children, you think about generations of children who went to that school system before Arthur filed suit, before Mrs. Liddell filed suit, you think about generations of children who went through segregated schools and received an inferior education and while [VST] may have not reversed that, [VST] certainly improved the opportunities that are available for those children and just the fact that we fought for it, I think, tells those children that they are worth it, that other people think this is really important, that your education is really important,” Johnson said. “So take that to heart.”