A Charter School’s “Mission Creep” in St. Louis

City Garden Montessori School

New Orleans The bimonthly newsletter, Poverty and Race, is one of those semi-archaic, old school artifacts that still comes, unadorned, in the mail of all things, on buff colored paper without pictures, as it has for many decades, while steadfastly documenting and debating the necessary and ongoing steps to reduce poverty and the destructive impact of racism. Often more academic than activist, I have always found it a compelling touchstone and beacon for the work, often carrying it around, even unread, for months, until at least flipping through the pages. They keep on, keeping on, and I respect that.

Surprisingly, I found myself reading a piece I would normally have skipped over called, “City Garden Montessori School in St. Louis: A Story of Education Reform, Gentrification and Housing Advocacy” by the school’s executive director, Christie Huck, who was also described as a former community organizer. The rough outlines of the piece involve Huck’s moving to the Shaw neighborhood in St. Louis with her family hoping for diversity and seeing on her occasional early morning jogs the host of African-American children waiting for buses to the area public school in the dark, while middle class white neighbors debated how to get their children in magnet and other schools. She elected to send the first of her three children to a local Montessori school and joined with other parents of a similar persuasion to convince the school to become a charter school and expand to the rest of the elementary grades.

The story almost seems banal, it’s so often repeated around the country, but in Huck’s case she was not able to ignore the fact that two separate neighborhoods divided by race and class were increasingly stratifying in Shaw. Furthermore the neighborhood was gentrifying on steroids, raising home values and, paradoxically for families claiming to seek diversity, pushing out the black families. The school began an affordable housing program realizing that unless lower income and African-American families could afford housing in Shaw, it would devolve into a largely white, urban enclave. Many of the school parents whined and moaned that the school was in danger of losing its way for their money with “mission creep” by getting involved in affordable housing and trying to maintain the historic character of the Shaw neighborhood.

What a series of contradictions! I’m not a fan of charters, and am unsurprised that many parents pushed back in hopes of protecting their little island in the storm. ACORN had an office for many years on Grand Avenue in the boundaries of the Shaw area way before gentrification. As much as one part of me read the article shaking my head and suppressing an “I told you so,” the whole way through, most of me wanted to root for Huck and her allies efforts to embrace the full scope of the community and try to preserve its diversity and complexity not only in their self-interest but understanding that it was necessary and the right thing to do.

We may need fewer charters and god knows less clueless, self-absorbed gentrifiers, but just like we need to keep rooting for the Poverty and Race newsletter, we need to encourage and embrace the Huck’s who try stay the course, no matter the contradictions or how they got there to make the way forward work for everyone.