Christie HuckBy Christie Huck

Christie Huck is Executive Director of City Garden Montessori Charter School. With a background in community organizing and social activism, Christie entered the education reform movement as a parent and community member concerned about education equity and integration in schools. She worked with City Garden’s founder and parents to develop the first Montessori and neighborhood charter school in Missouri. City Garden, which opened as a charter school in 2008, provides children with a rigorous, individualized education with a focus on social justice. Christie lives in St. Louis’s Shaw neighborhood with her three children.

On May 5th and 6th, City Garden Montessori School convened individuals and organizations from across the region to discuss and learn about how racial and economic integration—in schools and in neighborhoods—could be a critical mechanism for achieving equity in St. Louis. (You can read more about the convening at this link.)

About 200 individuals participated in meetings over the course of two days, and we were joined by national experts, Phil Tegeler, Executive Director of the Poverty and Race Research Action Council, Tanya Clay House, Assistant Deputy Secretary of the US Department of Education, and Eddie Wartts, St. Louis Regional Field Director for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Perhaps the most poignant statement made during these sessions was that in the US, geographic income segregation is growing primarily among families with children. This trend is certainly a reality in the St. Louis region.

At the same time, Phil Tegeler shared that there are dramatic benefits for children who move from low-income neighborhoods to “high opportunity” areas with thriving school districts. When low-income children are able to access high-performing school districts, the results include higher test scores and better grades, reduced exposure to the criminal justice system, 130% higher incomes as adults, improved college attendance and completion, lower teen pregnancy rates, reduced obesity and diabetes rates, improved mental health, reduced exposure to lead, and reduced exposure to violence and toxic stress.

The benefits of integrated schools go beyond these “concrete” outcomes. It has become evident that racial and economic integration benefits all children—improving critical thinking skills (learning to see and anticipate others’ points of views), resulting in more “cross-racial” friendships and reduced “racial anxiety.” Children who attend integrated schools are also more likely to choose integrated neighborhoods as adults, which ultimately helps to decrease inequities in our society.

St. Louis is the 5th most segregated of the 50 largest metropolitan area in the United States. The events in Ferguson in 2014 exposed how detrimental this is, and has been, for our region.

It is time to address the segregation that exists in our region, and to ensure that all children and all families in St. Louis have access to quality housing and quality schools. Doing so will go a long way toward creating equity. Not doing so will continue to cause harm not just to individuals, but to our region as a whole.

Through collaboration between municipal governments, school districts and housing officials, we could create an innovative plan that includes affordable housing throughout our region, increasing access to high-opportunity districts for low-income children. By continuing to improve educational options in high poverty areas, we will draw middle-class families to these neighborhoods, dissipating the hyper-concentration of poverty that currently exists throughout the City of St. Louis and the inner-ring suburbs.

City Garden Montessori School is working at a very local level to address these issues. City Garden is a racially and economically integrated neighborhood charter school in South St. Louis City. We situated our school in the 63110 zip code because it is one of the most integrated parts of the city. As the school has become more successful, more middle and upper income families are moving into the neighborhood in order to apply to City Garden. From a community development standpoint, this is a “great” problem to have. However, low-income families are finding it more difficult to stay or move into the neighborhood—which counters the intent and mission of the school.

We have initiated a Coalition for Neighborhood Diversity and Affordable Housing to explore mechanisms to sustain the racial and economic diversity of the neighborhood, even while this area continues to rebound.

The events last week marked the launch of this coalition. On Friday, we invited regional housing and education leaders to discuss this issue at a regional level. The level of interest and enthusiasm was impressive.

I think St. Louis has reached its time—to right the wrongs of the past and to forge a new path forward, toward equity. Integration of schools and neighborhoods must be central components of regional change.

As stated in the Ferguson Commission’s report: “These divides we’ve created—between Black and White, between rich and poor and middle class—are bad for all of us, not just some of us(“Forward Through Ferguson,” 2015).” At the same time, addressing these divides will benefit all of us, starting with our children, to create a more hopeful future for our region.

Articles in “From the Field” represent the opinions of the author only and do not represent the views of the Community Builders Network of Metro St. Louis or the University of Missouri- St. Louis.