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EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill. — Lettie Hicks is a dreamer. The 33-year-old mother of three doesn’t just have big plans for her family but for her entire hometown.
Hicks used to clean balconies and private suites at Busch Stadium just across the river in St. Louis. But she had to quit after complications related to pneumonia nearly killed her, and the doctors couldn’t rule out the industrial cleaning products she used at work as the cause. Losing that job meant that Hicks joined the ranks of the 50 percent of adults in this city who are out of the workforce.
Government and philanthropy have poured untold millions into the former industrial powerhouse with the worst-performing school district in the nation. East St. Louis also has one of the nation’s highest per-capita murder rates as well as some of the highest rates of childhood asthma and lead poisoning. One Illinois Republican went so far as to call it “the shithole of the universe.”
But Hicks and dozens of other locals say that these depressing facts hide a deeper story about the people in a Rust Belt city working together to pick themselves up from the postindustrial wreckage of disinvestment and population flight.
“People come to East St. Louis and say, ‘East St. Louis is so dirty, it’s so poor, they aren’t trying to do anything,’ ” she said. “What I’m trying to do is prove them wrong.”
Student performance in this last-place district is improving. Over the last three years, the proportion of students passing Common Core-aligned national math and reading tests has inched up, growing from 3 percent to 6 percent. School administrators note that from 2014-15 to 2016-17, pass rates more than doubled, from 10 percent to 21 percent, on NWEA, another set of exams used by districts across the country. Since 2013, the district’s four-year graduation rate is up from 65 percent to 71 percent; and since 2014, the proportion of its students enrolling in college within a year of graduating has climbed from 46 percent to 59 percent.
Locals are certain the numbers will only get better, thanks to an innovative but simple new approach that is lifting people out of poverty: Connect all the various services available to families, from housing to counseling to job training, and use the school district, the entity that touches the lives of almost every kid in town, to help parents tap into that network. The concept draws from a reform strategy called “collective impact” that many other struggling American cities are trying in different forms.
Progress has eluded East St. Louis for generations; even as social service agencies flocked to the city to work diligently on their pet causes, the dial hardly moved.
Evan Krauss is the director of East Side Aligned, the initiative at the center of the city’s collective impact efforts. According to Krauss, “Several nonprofit executives who have been working here for twenty or thirty years got together and started reflecting. They could point to stories where they made impact, but when they looked at the city as a whole, outcomes weren’t changing and too many were actually getting worse, and so they began to ask, ‘How can we work better together?’ East Side Aligned provided a space to convene people who were literally a mile or less apart from each other, who had no idea what each other were doing.”
Now, after-school programs are connected to the school district’s data system, so kids can spend their time focused on the academic subjects in which they need the most help. The schools have opened their doors to Hoyleton Youth and Family Services, to provide student and family counseling. Another organization, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville’s East St. Louis Center, is working with parents and high school students to get them into workforce development programs that will lead to family-sustaining careers.
And this year the school district opened the Family and Community Engagement Center, which offers free uniforms and coats and a food pantry. The district is currently raising money to install a washer and dryer at the center. The idea is to draw in parents who need help with basic needs, and then get them thinking about higher-level needs, like job training.
Krauss says that East Side Aligned isn’t a new organization, but a new movement. He and a team of 10 backbone staff aren’t coordinating the services themselves, but instead are working to create “tables” where all of the city’s players come together to organize the services they’ve been providing for decades in isolation. There are several tables of teams working on different issues — one on reducing violence, one on early childhood education, another on after-school programs and others on improving how the city’s children navigate their schools and neighborhoods — all trying to reach a simple but ambitious goal in a city mired by profound generational poverty, “to create a place where kids can enjoy being kids.”
At Gordon Bush Elementary School, pass rates on state tests more than tripled last year. It’s a feat that Principal Brittany Green attributes both to work her teachers are doing and to the wider net that the district and its partners have created to uplift parents.
“We have been able to create this support system that surrounds the family so that when something happens we can refer them to the services they need,” said Green. “We tell them, all the time, this is their school. We aren’t just here for the students, but for the families too, whether it’s a sibling or the mother, father, we try to have wraparound services for everybody.”
Teenagers like Montez Holton, valedictorian of this year’s senior class at East St. Louis Senior High School, can personally attest to the benefits that come from different organizations working together. This May, Holton had two graduations. He not only received a high school diploma, but also an associate degree, thanks to a program called Running Start, a partnership between the school district and Southwestern Illinois College. The school district not only covered his tuition, but also gave him breakfast and lunch vouchers for the college’s dining hall.
Holton first got involved with East Side Aligned during the summer after his eighth grade, when the administrators at the after-school program he attended thought he’d be a good representative for the city’s youth. Today, he co-chairs East Side Aligned’s executive committee, working to get youth involved in decision-making. On top of his college schedule and East Side Aligned commitments, Holton usually works over 20 hours per week at a trampoline park in the suburbs.
“I thought this was a good opportunity for me to have a say-so in what was going on in the community and getting things implemented for future generations,” said Holton. Among his priorities, Holton argued for finding money to get more technology into the city’s schools. “We’ve actually started using iPads and Chromebooks in class,” he said. “That was pretty exciting.”
While Lettie Hicks sees promise in the new initiatives, she thinks more needs to be done to stabilize families. Her own family has struggled since she had to quit work. As hopeful as she is for her city, she gets emotional when she talks about the difficulties that residents like her have faced for as long as she can remember, and she worries about the future for her son and two daughters.
A city’s near death experience
From its founding in 1861, East St. Louis was designed explicitly to be pro-business — taxes were low and public health and safety regulations lax. The city’s first mayor, an attorney who represented the railroad companies whose tracks crisscross the city, pushed through a charter that lured industry to the flood-prone area just across the river from booming St. Louis, Missouri. The idea was to beckon the kind of noisy and dirty industries that St. Louis shunned. In its heyday during the first half of the twentieth century, the city hosted stockyards, steel mills, chemical and aluminum plants and oil refineries. These were labor-intensive industries and soon East St. Louis was known as a city where anyone could get a job. Despite the pollution, noise and filth, thousands of new residents arrived, including immigrants from central and eastern Europe and black migrants from the Deep South.
For years, companies used the threat of importing more black labor to dampen unionization efforts. That policy contributed to the racial tensions that fed a 1917 riot, one of the deadliest in the country’s history. In the aftermath, workers started to unionize, and the companies that built East St. Louis began to abandon it in search of cheaper labor. Scholars estimate that the city lost as many as 45,000 jobs in the decades after World War II; its unemployment rate skyrocketed. At the same time, white residents with access to credit began to pick up and head to newer, cleaner suburbs. Today, African-Americans comprise 97 percent of East St. Louis’ population, making it the blackest place in America with a population over 25,000.
In 1971, East St. Louis elected its first black mayor. Political scientist Andrew Theising said the milestone brought hope to the floundering city. But residents soon realized it was a hollow prize.
“Finally, African-Americans get in the seats of power and there’s nothing left,” said Theising, a professor of political science at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. It is a common story. “We can point to Cleveland and Detroit and cities around the country that by the time African-American leaders step in, the industrial base has collapsed, the tax revenues are down and the bills haven’t been paid.”
Since 1971, a succession of black mayors has turned to aid from the state and federal government to keep the city afloat. It was rarely enough. The city still struggles to keep trash from piling up on the thousands of vacant lots that dot its streets. The local police force can’t keep enough cops on the streets to handle the city’s sky-high crime rates. And in 2011, the state took over the city’s schools.
The state hired Arthur Culver, a veteran school administrator with decades of experience turning around low-performing, high-poverty schools. Culver says that the conditions that he found in East St. Louis were the worst he’d seen. After first serving as a liaison between the state and local school board, both sides agreed to make him superintendent. To get the district’s finances in order, he closed several schools and cut the district’s employee count by half, laying off hundreds.
“We cut staff that we knew we needed, and so it was hard to make academic progress,” remembered Culver. “We cut librarians, social workers, counselors, music teachers, PE teachers; we had to get to the bare bones because we didn’t have money.”
Culver says that some of that huge financial deficit was due to poor planning at the district level, but he also points to Illinois’ school funding formula, which has often been named one of the very worst in the country for students in poor districts. While Culver has made strides in turning around the district’s finances, one-time grants and appropriations have been key to filling the gaps. He was able to get more than $30 million from the state legislature alone he said.
Emerging from the bunker mentality:
In the decades of distress that preceded Culver’s arrival, locals say school staff often kept their heads down.
“I’ve been working here for 32 years. When I came into this position, the schools were in a protective mode and thought they could handle everything from within the school system. That didn’t work very well,” says Renae Storey, a regional vice president at Children’s Home & Aid. “There was pressure to get test scores up, and so when we would come in to do counseling or crisis intervention, they felt it was taking away from that time.”
Ann Brown remembers feeling unwelcome at her children’s schools. She and her husband, who have three kids, are part of the city’s small middle class. Her husband was in the military, and Brown spent years working as an administrator at the region’s YMCA.
All three of Brown’s kids are now college graduates, and she believes East St. Louis’ schools prepared them well. But she also remembers being met with frowns and disapproval when she showed up at parent-teacher conferences, still dressed up from work, with a portfolio in which she furiously jotted down the teachers’ observations and read from notes to explain her own concerns
“I know how the parents feel when the teachers will just say, ‘Oh, we need the parents more involved,’ ” said Brown. But “when I come in, the way you’re talking to me, it seems like you don’t want me around. Everyone wants to be respected.”
The tenor started to change in 2012, when the school district discovered a new idea being pushed by the Obama administration — a grant program known as the Promise Neighborhoods initiative, which could bring millions in funding. But one of the grant’s prerequisites was that communities show a demonstrated history of collaboration between schools and social service providers to improve childhood outcomes.
When Culver gathered the city’s social service providers for a conversation about applying, he quickly realized they had no track record of working together; it was one of the first times they’d ever had such a meeting. But the group, including nonprofit leaders, university officials and government agency heads, realized the idea’s potential, and the seeds for East Side Aligned were planted.
After East Side Aligned launched in 2013, the school doors swung open for groups like Children’s Home and Aid, which provides counseling to students. Now, the group is embedding a social emotional specialist in the district to work with teachers and social workers to create spaces to help children and families cope with the adverse childhood experiences that often come with living in East St. Louis.
In 2017, the school district hired its first director of parent and student support services, Tiffany Gholson. In that role, Gholson doesn’t just manage dozens of school district employees, a mix of social workers, nurses and truancy workers, she’s also responsible for coordinating how her staff works with all of the community partners clamoring to work in the schools. And she oversees the new Family and Community Engagement Center.
“This center is a place where you can get help furthering your education to get you on your feet. We’re going to help you with financial aid, we’re going to answer all those miscellaneous questions and refer you out to our partners,” said Gholson. “There are so many hidden gems here in East St. Louis that just aren’t advertised enough.”
And Brown, who complained that some of her children’s teachers rebuffed her as a parent, was hired as the district’s new family and community engagement coordinator. One of her main roles is to provide a caring ear in the new parent-facing office.
Lettie Hicks says parents are as excited about the district’s new responsiveness as they are about the rise in test scores. The parent group she works with, Community Organizing and Family Issues, got the district to bus every kid to school. Before, many children had to make their own way through sometimes dangerous streets, which are often lined with litter and poorly lit.
Now, “parents don’t have to stress or worry about how their kids are going to get to school or think, ‘Oh, I hope a car doesn’t hit my kid on the way to school,’ ” said Hicks. “We’ve had numerous victories, but that’s the victory that made people here actually see the work that we are doing and what was possible.”
Money isn’t enough, but it’s essential
Yet, just as East Side Aligned is hitting its stride, Republicans in Washington have slated many of the very programs it has connected for cuts. President Trump’s latest budget proposal included cuts to after-school and job training programs. And the proposed cuts to welfare programs like food stamps and Medicaid, for example, would fall hard on East St. Louis. More than 75 percent of children here use these programs, among the very highest rates in the country.
East St. Louis continues to pursue a Promise Neighborhoods grant, but is less hopeful of receiving one, although the city received a high score on its 2016 application. The Trump administration has shifted the program’s focus somewhat away from education and toward law and order. Culver has been able to land other grant funding, however, such as a federal School Improvement Grant for several of East St. Louis’ lowest-performing schools. But he worries that grants are not a sustainable source of funding.
Although the city has one of the highest tax rates in the state, the community’s meager tax base means that local funding represents just under 15 percent of the district’s revenue. In the average Illinois district, local dollars make up nearly 70 percent of the budget. “When you look at per-pupil wealth across communities, the state averages $225,000 per kid,” Culver said of Illinois. “We have about $18,000.” That means that East St. Louis schools are largely dependent on state dollars; and though Illinois passed a new school funding formula last year, Culver and other superintendents say it doesn’t address the needs of the state’s poorest communities quickly enough. As things stand, Culver says that the state money won’t be enough to sustain the district’s nascent progress.
Locals are the first to acknowledge that pouring more money into the city isn’t the only answer. For years, corruption and mismanagement meant much of the help they received was wasted or inefficient.
Evan Krauss, East Side Aligned’s director, struggles with how its work can transform the city without economic development. He said he’s been asked, “Are you working in a hospital or a hospice?”
“In a hospice, you’re trying to ensure that there is a quality of life until that end point,” he said. “Whereas in a hospital, you’re going to treat the problem, and it’s about improvement to sustain life. That’s a question I can’t answer. And I think people are split on which East Side Aligned is.”
Johanna Wharton, director of special projects at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville’s East St. Louis Center, is part of a team looking at matching East St. Louis residents to federally funded workforce training opportunities. Wharton says there has been a hesitation by some players in the area to reach out to East St. Louis residents. “They think they’re not going to finish the training program, they’re not to going pass the drug test, or they’re going to get one check and quit,” said Wharton.
She points to one county program, for instance, that works with the area’s laid-off steel workers, but not with the average East St. Louisan.
“They have money they can’t spend because they’re investing all of it in the laid-off, dislocated workers, and not on people on [welfare] or on food stamps,” said Wharton.
To address this, she says, her university has volunteered to do the recruiting and also “to hold hands with people who are ready and prepared to get certifications and work in living-wage jobs.” Wharton and her team are already working to connect Head Start parents and high school students with workforce development opportunities.
Montez Holton will be going away to college this fall. He plans to enroll as a junior at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, where he’ll study biology. He eventually wants to go to medical school and become a doctor.
While Holton isn’t sure if he wants to live in East St. Louis, he does want to support the community by opening up a practice in East St. Louis and giving jobs to youth interested in medicine. He thinks bringing jobs to East St. Louis is key. Like a lot of employed East St. Louisans, Holton has to leave the city to work: “It can be stressful thinking about how I’m going to get to work.”
Lettie Hicks doesn’t see a future for her city if jobs don’t return. In President Trump’s first State of the Union speech, he vowed to cut off programs to people who aren’t willing to do “a hard day’s work.” In fact, congressional Republicans just passed a bill that would include work requirements for food stamps. Hicks agrees that jobs and not a more expansive social safety net are the ultimate solution for her city and others like it. But she says before people in her community are thrown off the rolls, they need access to “decent jobs with real benefits like a 401k.”
“It’s like the system has it programmed where we will always need the system,” she said.
But Hicks believes that if anyone is going to come up with the solution, it’s going to be people like her who’ve lived it. Indeed, East Side Aligned, isn’t just about helping organizations work together, it’s also about giving residents like Hicks the tools to hold those institutions accountable.
“What we need is for the officials making decisions for us to listen to our stories,” said Hicks. “You can’t plan a strategy for me if you’re not asking me what my family needs. Include me in those decisions.”
This story about collective impact was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.
Emmanuel Felton reported this story with the support of the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, a program of the University of Southern California Center for Health Journalism.