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In East St. Louis, a beleaguered city turns to community resources in effort to transform schools

In East St. Louis, a beleaguered city turns to community resources in effort to transform schools

Picture of Emmanuel Felton
[Photo by Paul Sableman via Flickr.]

There is a seismic shift occurring in the geography of American poverty. While many policymakers continue to think of concentrated high poverty as primarily an issue afflicting the nation’s big urban centers, smaller cities are increasingly home to those Americans with the greatest needs and the least access to resources. This is especially true in the Rust Belt. East St. Louis, Illinois is a prime example. The small, shrinking town situated just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis, was once an industrial powerhouse, a diverse community home to 80,000 people. But after decades of middle-class flight, the city has a population of just 26,000, 97 percent of whom are African American — making it the blackest community in the country with a population greater than 10,000. The exodus has left the city with an ever-dwindling tax base.

East St. Louis’s children face many of the same issues that kids in high poverty communities in large cities encounter. The city has one of the nation’s highest per-capita murder rates and some of the nation’s highest rates of childhood asthma and lead poisoning. Grocery stores are virtually nonexistent, and nearly 90 percent of residents rely on federal anti-poverty programs that may well be decimated as fiscal conservatives have gained power in Washington. And while big cities might score sizeable philanthropic support — for example, Mark Zuckerberg's $100 million donation to Newark public schools — and gentrifying cities like New York can raise taxes on the city’s newly wealthy residents, high-poverty schools in these smaller cities have largely been left to fend for themselves.

East St. Louis schools have struggled for years to make that equation work. While the city’s schools have been lambasted for decades, there has been very little concerted effort to tackle any of the root causes of the problems that manifest themselves on the city’s campuses everyday. State lawmakers have taken over the schools and are threatening to take over the entire city, but have done very little to address the community’s systemic problems or dire financial state. Now East St. Louis is looking beyond just its schoolhouses to provide a path forward for students, and by extension, the city itself. The city is embracing what has come to be known as Collective Impact, a model for harnessing all of a community’s resources to fix complex social problems. In East St. Louis, school officials are partnering with community organizations and other government agencies that work with children under the banner of a collective impact program called East St. Louis Aligned, which aims to ensure that all of the city’s children leave high school ready for life.

The idea is to bring people together who represent all sectors of the city — from the schools to neighborhood associations to business and faith-based communities to health care providers to city and county government and the kids themselves — to alter the trajectory for the city’s next generation. District officials can already point to some early successes. In 2014, East St. Louis’s graduating class earned just $389,000 in college scholarships. That number surpassed $6 million in 2017. They’ve also seen some test score gains.

Even more sustained gains can be found in Cincinnati, which has one of the oldest collective impact programs focused on improving educational outcomes. That initiative is known as Strive. Since 2004, Strive has seen double-digit gains along a robust set of key education metrics. Kindergarten readiness, fourth-grade reading scores, eighth-grade math scores, high school graduation rates, and enrollment in postsecondary education programs are all up by more than 10 percentage points.

Through extended on-the-ground reporting in the community and its schools, I plan to go beyond the usual policy story and give readers a glimpse into what life is like for kids in East St. Louis. My reporting for the 2017 National Fellowship will look at students’ economic, social, health and psychological challenges, and how school district staff and their nonprofit partners at East Side Aligned, who currently provide afterschool services to nearly every kid in the city’s public schools, are working together to deal with those challenges.

I will also report out the hope and vision that has sprung up around the collective impact initiative. While collective impact programs remain relatively rare, they fit into a much larger national push to break down the walls that have long separated communities and schools, particularly in high-poverty, largely non-white school districts. Looking beyond East St. Louis, this story will explore how schools and youth, particularly boys and young men of color, fit into broader efforts around the country to transform long-ailing cities like East St. Louis.

[Photo by Paul Sableman via .]

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