it doesn’t have to end.

Michael Melinger, Grace Snelling, Lila Taylor, Sara Stemmler

It’s 7:45 a.m on a warm August morning. Several students peek out of the smudged windows of a school bus as they approach one of three well-manicured buildings set against a suburban skyline. They drive past rows of expensive cars around to the side of their school, where they are unloaded. There, they wait apprehensively outside the looming doors of their new elementary school, a strange and unfamiliar place. A place where they were promised opportunity. They may not understand it yet, but each child serves a small part in a much larger project of social equity.

This has been the experience of generations of students in the voluntary student transfer program. If action isn’t taken, it will happen for the last time in 2023.

But let’s start at the beginning.

In 1971, as a result of overcrowding in schools, city officials informed parents of students attending public schools in St. Louis that their children would be moved to a deteriorating, dated building miles away from their current school. After indirect efforts to obtain a fair and equitable education for their children failed, five parents sued the Board of Education of the City of St. Louis for discriminatory allocation of resources and identifiable racial boundaries (purposeful segregation) of schools. The court found that intentional segregation was continuing in St. Louis and in the state, and that remedial action was necessary to mend the harmful consequences of this practice. Thus began the first voluntary student transfer program in the country used as a solution to a school desegregation case.

This case, known as the Liddell litigation, continued to develop for decades, becoming increasingly complex. After years of legal back-and-forth over the intricacies of promoting desegregation in the city and county, the court mandated a voluntary student transfer system in 1983 that included the busing of city students to county districts, the creation of magnet schools in the city with the intention to draw white families out of the county and a more even distribution by race of teachers in St. Louis districts. It was at this point that court mandate dictated that many county districts, including Clayton, would begin to receive African-American students from city schools, as well as fully funding tuition for each student from the state.

By 1999, however, it became clear that efforts to bring white students into the city were having little effect, and there was a substantial push from the state for St. Louis school districts to be declared unitary so that the transfer program could be phased out completely.

Instead, many county schools, including Clayton, agreed to continue with the transfer as long as it was fully paid for by the state; at this time, the districts were profiting economically as a result of the state-paid tuition of transfer students.

Several years later, funding for the program was cut substantially by the state, and many districts used this as a reason to leave the agreement. Clayton could’ve followed suit, but instead joined a state-authorized group of districts in the Voluntary Interdistrict Choice Corporation (VICC) in order to retain the program. This decision was greatly influenced by an unprecedented walk-out held by high school students at the time to protest an end to voluntary transfer.

Today, Clayton once again finds itself at the crossroads that it faced 20 years ago in 1999. The VICC board, comprised of the superintendents of each participating district, votes on the continuation of voluntary student transfer, as well as the number of students that it will accept, every five years. Those percentages of accepted students have been consistently declining for nearly a decade, but, even more crucially, the misinformed idea that VICC no longer has legal grounds has resulted in a perpetuated belief that VICC must come to an end. The VICC board itself is also under this impression, yet according to former Clayton board member Susan Buse, is open to exploring options to continuing the program as more information comes to light.

“There has been a perception that the law requires the VICC program to end soon,” Buse said. “But, that’s not so clear under either the statutes or case law. The Missouri statutes that recognize VICC have no required end date. The court decisions addressing desegregation efforts don’t mandate its quick end. Instead, the court decisions state that these types of remedial efforts can continue until the harm of the past segregation has been remedied – or until the courts find a “unitary status” has been reached, that there is no longer a dual system of racially separate schools. How is St Louis doing? In a 2016 case, the district court, in ruling in favor of VICC, held that unitary status had not yet been found.”

In this case, an African American mother, La’Shieka White, sued the voluntary student transfer program on behalf of her son, E.L White Jr., in an effort to attend a charter school in the city of St. Louis after his family had relocated to the county when he was in third grade. The court decided that he had no standing to sue, as charter schools are not under the jurisdiction of the voluntary student transfer program. However, during the proceedings of the case, Judge Ronnie White stated that because city and county schools remain segregated and St. Louis has not yet reached a unitary school system, VICC remains viable. Thomas Wack, a former Clayton parent and attorney, agreed that the case provided reasonable legal standing for VICC to continue.

“It’s a complicated decision, but you know, the court said in the course of its opinion that VICC still had a vital role to play, and that although VICC said that it was winding down, it still had the authority to continue. It’s a good precedent for the continuation of VICC,” Wack said.

Despite the fact that E.L. White was unable to return to Gateway Science and Art Academy in the City of St. Louis, this case has fostered prolongation of the VICC program. White’s decision that St. Louis schools have not reached unitary status gave substantial merit to the claims of those who wish the program to continue.

Since the beginning of the program, Clayton has relied on VICC to bring African American diversity to the District. African Americans make up only 7 percent of the city Clayton itself, with an overwhelming 74.6 percent of residents being white. At the height of voluntary student transfer, the world within Clayton schools looked much more diverse than the city around it.

“Historically, Clayton’s African American student diversity has depended heavily on the voluntary transfer program,” Buse said. “20 years ago, black students comprised over 20 percent of District students. Kindergarten classrooms then looked very different from how they look today. If you look at District enrollment graphs, you will see most enrollment categories holding fairly steady over the years, with the primary reason for the decline in black student enrollment in the District being the continued decline in the voluntary transfer program enrollment.”

Ave’ March walking down the steps from the bedroom she shares with her sister in St. Louis, MO.

According to Clayton Superintendent Sean Doherty, one reason that the program has dwindled is that some superintendents from public city schools feel that it is not mutually beneficial for their districts and students.

“Representatives of the St. Louis Public Schools have shared, “We know that diversity is really important for a community, but our community isn’t that diverse if you truly look at it. It’s almost a really single-race in our schools. So if it’s beneficial for St. Louis County schools to have diversity, how can it also be beneficial for the city as well?”” Doherty said.

However, he also contended that allowing the program to dissipate or end over the next several years would be an oversight and, ultimately, a mistake for both the city and the county.

“Right now, we are working on some strategic thinking that we can put in place to continue partnerships between St. Louis County schools and St. Louis public schools, so that way our students are exposed to different perspectives, different races, different opportunities,” Doherty said. “My feeling is that this is a mechanism that the district has had for many years, this is a program we’ve valued– we will want to continue to do some type of program like VICC as long as possible.”

Currently, only 17 percent of Clayton students identify as black, with 48.7 percent of those students coming from the VICC program. Though demand for voluntary transfer has not waned, the percentage of students that the VICC Board has voted to accept has steadily declined with each renewal cycle, dropping to only 17 percent of applicants being enrolled in the program last year, most of which being the siblings of current VICC students. Hopeful parents continue to apply for a spot in VICC in order to secure a better education for their children, yet, paradoxically, as the years since the push for desegregation increase, their chances of obtaining that better education decrease.

“From my perspective, there is a need [for VICC],” Doherty said. “We still get calls every day from people that have an interest in the program. That’s my impetus for saying, “If we can’t figure out a way to continue [VICC] the way it is now, we need to start thinking about another way we can do it.””

As the number of VICC students dwindles, another population at Clayton is in jeopardy: statutory tuition students who came to Clayton from unaccredited districts. When two St. Louis County districts, Normandy and Riverview Gardens, lost their state accreditation several years ago due to a combination of factors, they chose two neighboring districts that their students could attend without paying tuition (this was paid by the state), neither of which was Clayton. However, some students opted to instead provide their own transportation and come to Clayton, where their education is also covered by the state. At the peak of this system, over 60 students from unaccredited districts were attending Clayton.

Now that those districts have regained their accreditation, statutory tuition students who reach a “transition year” (between elementary and middle school or middle school and high school), who may have attended Clayton for upwards of six years, are faced with the prospect of returning to their previous district. In order to stay, they must fall into another category of enrollment through a board grant, personal tuition, moving into the district, or becoming a part of the VICC program. 10 students were confronted by this issue for the upcoming school season, and while six of them have found a way to continue in the district, four remain without a solution. In the next several years, at least 30 children will be challenged with the same situation.“

Let’s question. Let’s see if there’s a better way to do this. That’s why I don’t want to wait until 2024 to have these conversations. I don’t want us to wait until the last minute to say, “Oh, is there something better we could be doing?” Doherty said.

The vast schism in education is not a surface-level problem, but rather an institutionalized divide rooted in white flight, segregation, housing codes and the lack of economic motivation for white suburban areas to share their resources with struggling city districts. One cannot put a band-aid over this issue and expect it to heal; it requires monumental reconstruction from the ground up. It requires a mutually beneficial agreement between the city and county to work towards a more unitary educational system. It requires affordable housing in areas with stable school districts. It requires a greater influx of funding to those districts that lack it.

These are the very real problems that perpetuate unequal education in our city and country that must be addressed.

The Guichard Family

First grader Giovanni Guichard wants to be an artist when he grows up.

“I’m gonna be an artist. Like a design artist, a drawing artist. In kindergarten I used to draw stick figures, but I don’t do that anymore. One time I drew myself, and then I got better and better at it,” Giovanni said.

Giovanni and his sister Ari’Yonna have attended Captain Elementary School since kindergarten. Their mother, 26-year-old Deonna Robinson, is currently attending nursing school and working night shifts while raising her two children.

“I grew up in an African American school district, graduated, and am currently in a nursing program,” Deonna said. “I just want a different type of education for my kids that I didn’t receive in high school. I went to Normandy School District, and I told myself I wasn’t going to allow my kids to go to Normandy School District.”

Deonna’s high school experience was a difficult one. Normandy School District was not a place where she felt comfortable or supported, and she wanted something better for her own children.

“I was living in Normandy [when it was unaccredited]. My daughter was going into kindergarten, and I pretty much had the options to send her to the Normandy School District or transfer. And actually her father went to Captain Elementary School and he suggested that we send her to Captain, so that’s how we found out about it. I really didn’t know much about Captain, but I knew that, thinking about what I went through as a child in Normandy School District and my daughter’s personality, she wasn’t going to be able to survive in Normandy School District, because I barely survived. That’s what made me choose a different option for her,” Deonna said.

Ari’Yonna was apprehensive on her first day of school, but was quickly put at ease by the kindness of her peers, who gave her a tour of the building and introduced her to her new classmates.

“I was nervous, and at first I thought everyone would be mean to me,” Ari’Yonna said. “But then people showed me around and all of a sudden they started being nice to me, and caring.”

As Ari’Yonna worried about finding friends in her grade, learning how to navigate the school building and meeting her new teacher, Deonna’s thoughts were fixated on a more pressing issue.

“I was nervous [on the first day of school],” Deonna said. “I was nervous because, I wanna say, a lot of people act like racism doesn’t exist. I was very nervous about that. But ever since my child started at Captain I have not had an issue. At all. I feel like we’re actually a part of the family. That was very unexpected, because I thought they would treat my daughter differently because she’s African American. But no, everyday she used to come home I would ask her, ‘Anything happen at school today, did anyone make you feel uncomfortable?’ Every day she would tell me that everyone was so nice, she loved her school, she was very comfortable and she could be herself there. And that’s why we sent them to this school, so they can be themselves. I want them to know that it’s more than just being African American, there’s all kinds of cultures, and everyone can come together as a whole.”

According to Deonna, both Giovanni and Ari’Yonna have found a sense of belonging in Clayton and look forward to going to school each day, sometimes even waking her up early in the morning to get ready to go. Deonna is especially proud that her children have been exposed to students of other cultures and have grown close to peers who look different from themselves.

Ari’Yonna and her mother, Deonna, sit together as they go over Ari’Yonna’s homework. (Michael Melinger/The Globe)

“[My best friend] was a different color. He was white,” Giovanni said.

Deonna added that before Giovanni’s best friend moved schools, the two were inseparable, talking constantly throughout the day and climbing trees together at recess. Today, Giovanni calls his friend to keep in touch.

This is just one of the many positive connections that her son has made at Captain that Deonna feels have allowed him to mature and develop self-confidence. To Deonna, one of the greatest values of the VICC program is that, when she heads off to school in the morning, her mind is at ease. She knows that her children are safe, comfortable and supported.

“Every day when I go to school, there’s not a doubt in my mind about whether or not my kids are okay,” Deonna said. “I know that they are.”

The Donaldson Family

Some of Mahalia Donaldson’s earliest accounts of the Clayton School District involve she and her siblings piling into a cab as the bell rang at Captain Elementary School.

Clayton schools are all Mahalia has ever known. Introduced to the District as a 5-year-old, she began to make friendships and find her way in the classroom, following in the footsteps of her older siblings.

However, Mahalia wasn’t always destined to go to Clayton.

Mahalia’s mother Carlisa was faced with a choice when she had twins nearly 20 years ago. Her eldest was enrolled in private school and the idea of putting all her kids in a private education was fleeting; an alternative was needed.

That alternative was VICC.

“I didn’t know much about [VICC],” Carlisa said. “I knew that if you lived in the city, you were African American, you could transfer to county schools. I didn’t know what the differences were between districts. So when I first went, I don’t believe I had a choice. I think there were certain deadlines that I missed because I just didn’t know what it entailed.”

Mahalia’s older brother was initially assigned to Mehlville School District and later transitioned to Clayton in sixth grade. Simultaneously, Mahalia’s twin siblings were working their way through Captain Elementary. Mahalia soon followed in the footsteps her siblings, entering the school that had no walls and lines the street of Northwood Ave.

For many kids, learning stays within the classroom and stops when homework is completed, but [insert name] instilled in Mahalia a passion for lifelong learning. As a child, Mahalia was dragged along to countless lectures and museums in the pursuit of knowledge.

Mahalia poses for a portrait. (Michael Melinger/The Globe)

“A big thing for me has always been okay, you go to school on Monday through Friday, but outside of that you’re going to have outside support, outside influences, outside programs,” Carlisa said. “Like I’ll beat you over the head with programs, dragging them here and dragging them there to lectures. All types of things to make sure that, although I like what is happening in Clayton, Clayton is not going to be the end all be all to the influence over what you see.”

This additional support has not been lost on Mahalia. For many VICC kids, Clayton can seem very distant, but her mother’s efforts have drawn Mahalia closer to the community.

An avid band member and participant in theater productions, Mahalia has found a niche in CHS where she feels accepted. Beyond extracurriculars, she continues to challenge herself and others inside of the classroom, as she is currently enrolled in various AP and Honors courses. However, she still often considers the lack of representation for others in the VST program and African-American students as a whole.“

I think that’s the case because when you live in a place where you can see the positive impact that having a good education has, like when your neighbor works at [Washington University] and your dad’s a lawyer, it’s easy to see the power of education, but when you don’t live in that type of environment, it can seem pointless,” Mahalia said.

This is the reality for many VICC students, and this feeling can even be exacerbated in certain situations that include the expression of racism and hatred inside Clayton. Mahalia’s mother has served on the Parent of African American Students committee (PASS) for the greater part of her time at Clayton. PASS is committed to creating a dialogue and dealing with the issues that African American students face, a large portion of which are in the the VICC program.“

I was involved with a lot of meetings [and know] the District is aware of issues. The District says that it are willing to make some changes and more positive directions. And I’ve seen where the meetings have been there. A couple of other communications have gone forward, but I’ve never been one to wait for things to change,” Carlisa said.

Despite the negative challenges facing some VICC students, Mahalia has had a positive experience in the District. With her years in Clayton winding down and all of her siblings graduated, she looks fondly on her time.

VICC has given Mahalia the opportunity to succeed and build friendships where she wouldn’t have otherwise. And her mother has faith in the decades-old choice to send her kids to Clayton.

“I’ve heard that that program is due to end,” Carlisa said, “A part of me is worried, a part of is concerned about what’s going to happen to the younger ones that come up. I mean, [Mahalia is] my youngest, so, I know that some people may say with any one problem, you know, I’m done, she’s going to be a senior and what happens next is not in my business, but it really is our business. What’s going to happen to those young people in our community who don’t have the ability or opportunity resources? I’m not sure, I’m really not sure.”

The Broussard Family

On her first day of kindergarten, Gabriella Broussard woke up, got ready, was driven to  Glenridge Elementary School by her parents and cried on the playground.

In a new school setting surrounded by unfamiliar peers, she immediately sought out anyone that looked like her. Finding two girls (whose names she later learned to be be Chanel and Gionna) on the swingset, she asked to play with them, and they said yes. This is her limited memory of her first experience in the Clayton School District.

According to Gabriella’s father, Andres Broussard, the violence and instability in St. Louis City public schools meant that he did not consider them as an option for his two daughters. It was either work overtime to pay for private school, or get them into Clayton through VICC. Andres’ effort to ensure that his children would be able to go to Clayton is one that Gabriella feels has benefited her.

“I’m kind’ve glad I didn’t [go to private school] because I like going here, and you get the feel of both [a public and private school]. I think the diversity would’ve been lower than being at Clayton, because it’s a public school,” Gabriella said.

Although Gabriella lives in the city, she does not take the bus, and instead is driven to school by her parents. This has been beneficial in allowing her to feel less disconnected from her friends in Clayton, but was also an important factor to Andres, who was warned by friends to avoid putting his children on the bus.

“Whether it’s a public bus or not, it goes through the city and picks up all the children, and some of the children are much older, they mix the high school students and the middle school students, so that’s not a good mix,” Andres said. “So it was always told to me, get them in the school, but whatever you do, don’t put your children on that bus.”

Despite the fact that Gabriella described Clayton as “an amazing school to be in,” she believes that the district lacks representation of students and teachers who look like her, an issue that will be exacerbated if VICC is terminated.

“I do wish I saw myself more represented in the school, as an African American woman,” Gabriella said. “But I know we’re getting a lot of new teachers next year, some being African American, which is amazing, and I feel like Clayton is trying harder in that area than other schools. But I feel like we still need to try harder. It would be better to come to school today if I could see myself represented in my teachers and my peers.”

According to Gabriella, the loss of the VICC program would have a devastating impact on both African American and white students.

Gabriella poses for a portrait. (Michael Melinger/The Globe)

“It’s not a want, it’s a need to have this program in the Clayton School District. It’s not just beneficial for the African American students. For the white children here who don’t see much outside of Clayton, to see more people in their school with different cultural backgrounds is beneficial in ways that they don’t really understand.”

Andres, who has had family members go through the program and heard the stories of those who benefited from it, echoed this same idea.

“[The VICC program ending] would be tragic for some children. I was just reminiscing, back 25 plus years ago a guy who had gone to Clayton School District told me that it had prepared him when he got to college for the amount of homework that he had gotten. And he was saying how thankful and blessed he was to go through Clayton. It would be unfortunate if people didn’t have that option. Everybody wants a great education for their children. That’s what we all want.”

The March Family

It’s 5:45 a.m. and Maki Pickett has just woken up ahead of the two hour bus ride that awaits him. His siblings get a mere 15 extra minutes of sleep.  And before the sun can even rise, all of them will be on their way to school.

On any given morning, Samantha March, a Clayton alum and mother of four children in the VICC program, is preparing her kids for the long day ahead. Samantha was a part of the VICC program, graduating in 2004, and is now is passing along the same experience to her kids.

“For the most part we enjoyed the program,” Samantha said.“We really had a great time.  We made lots of connections with people in the Clayton community and I expect the same from my kids.”

Samantha has focused much of her time advocating for her children’s’ education.  Maki and his three siblings have been in Clayton schools for their entire educational careers, with Maki, the oldest of the three, starting high school next year.

However, the younger three have a couple more years of frolicing on the playground, as the youngest is only in first grade. More importantly, they will continue to gain the skills they need to succeed in Clayton. Ave’ March, a fourth grader at Glenridge Elementary and Samantha’s second oldest, recounted a classroom experience that went beyond adding and subtracting.

“My teacher read us this book one time. It said your race is different, your sex is different, but if you feel your bones they’re the same,” Ave’ said.

This idea is central to Samantha’s philosophy about the education she wants for her kids.  A strong advocate for equity, she has pushed her kids to take every opportunity possible. However, there can be limitations.

The March kids upstairs at their house in St. Louis, MO. (Michael Melinger/The Globe)

Friendships are short lived and the divide has created a learning environment that is not conducive to productive education from the standpoint that that can be the only time VST kids can see their Clayton friends.  This divide is represented both socially and physically. Many VST students travel miles to attend Clayton and the divide is clear.

“We should all be growing together. And the way that our zip codes are set up, the way our economic status is set up. We’re so segregated and separated here in Saint Louis,” Samantha said.

Despite the challenges, Maki has found a way to succeed inside the school walls.  He has become an avid percussionist and is committed to morning practices up to four days a week.  The Clayton School District does not currently provide the transportation needed to make these practices at the crack of dawn, so Samantha takes time out of her day to drive him.  This is just one of the many sacrifices she makes in the fight for an equitable education for her children.

“I think in St. Louis it’s almost what you have to do,” Samantha said.  “If you live in the city, you have to make some sort of sacrifice for you children to get a good education.”

Caleb Whitfield

“I was heartbroken.”

As senior Caleb Whitfield prepared for what he always assumed would be his freshman year at CHS, his dad told him he wouldn’t be coming back. Normandy was slowly gaining its accreditation back, and many Clayton students previously from that district were told that the school wanted them back.

“I had made all these bonds with these people. I didn’t want to leave. I don’t think I would be able to flourish or grow in the way that I did here. Being here was a great opportunity for me. I really found myself here. I don’t think that would have been an option if I had been sent back to Normandy,” Whitfield said.  

Luckily, Whitfield would find that he could choose to stay within the district where he has remained since his seventh grade year. His arrival was largely a result of his father’s push for a better education after his own lacking experience at Vashon High School.

“Him going to Vashon, he didn’t want me in that environment. He really wanted the best for me. It was really important to him that I got the education that he didn’t get. He felt that this was a place where I could grow and succeed . . . Me being in Clayton was one of the greatest decisions he ever made.”

Whitfield’s instant comfort at Clayton was a stark contrast to a trend of bullying that both his father and his peers experienced while at their inner-city schools. Much of the discovery of his own identity as a gay man was fostered by an accepting culture unique to Clayton.

“If I was at Vashon, coming out would’ve been totally different. I would’ve been bullied. I was never bullied here. My friends were like ‘Yeah, we already knew. But cool,’” Whitfield said.

While Whitfield found Clayton to cultivate an accepting environment overall, he was able to find his niche of friends as a result of his passion for theatre, another reason he ended up at CHS.

Caleb poses for a portrait. (Michael Melinger/The Globe)

“My dad has always known that I wanted to do something with theatre. When he was researching schools, he looked into schools that were big on performing arts. Clayton had that. Theatre has always been something I wanted to do. To finally get the opportunity to do something I love was really eye-opening. I don’t consider the other theatre kids my friends. They’re more like my family. That was life-changing for me.”

For students entering the district through the VICC program should it continue, Whitfield has one piece of advice in regards to Clayton’s rigorous academic environment:

“Don’t be so hard on yourself. Don’t feel like you have to be at a certain place because this is where you’re at. Don’t feel like you’re the odd one out. And mingle. Make new friends. Form those bonds. Enjoy these four years because they go by really fast.”

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