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Education Reporter

New St. Louis School Proves Money Is No Panacea
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Vashon High School reopened in fall 2002 with high hopes. Its gleaming, brand-new facility in the city of St. Louis had been built at a cost of $40 million. A year and a half later, rather than a flagship for successful urban education, it has become a symbol of the failure of big dollars to deliver education in a depressed urban area.

By January 2004, teachers were complaining of frequent fights, habitual absenteeism, and students who strike their instructors, rule as a "mobocracy" and behave with "bold defiance." Dramatic photographs appeared in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch depicting an incipient fistfight watched by grinning students, and a room full of broken furniture.

A December 18 letter to the districts director of high schools bearing the names of more than 85% Vashon parents, students and employees stated that "Students with 20, 30, 40 and even 50 days of absence are roaming the halls, causing fights, disrupting classes and activities all over the building . . . threatening and assaulting teachers, staff and other students." An administrator, feeling powerless to clear the halls, asked a reporter, "How do you ask 50 students to go to class?" (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 1-16-04)

In the wake of these revelations, district officials announced steps to increase the presence of security guards and city police, require the school to send daily discipline reports to district headquarters, use an in-school suspension room and counselors to intervene in minor disputes, and form a task force to develop further solutions. "There's no question that we have a discipline problem at Vashon," Acting Superintendent William V. Roberti said in a written statement. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 1-22-04)

In 1972, the infamous Pruitt-Igoe housing project in the city of St. Louis -- designed by leading architects and built in the 1950s -- was dynamited after becoming a national icon for the failure of large-scale public housing projects. Gangs and vandals had taken over, and its common areas were notoriously unsafe. Vashon High School has a supportive community of parents, alumni and corporations, and the city school district is in the throes of a serious turnaround effort by a new board majority and an outside management firm. It is an open question whether Vashon will regain control of its hallways or will turn into another Pruitt-Igoe.

In the meantime, Vashon stands as a rebuke to those who argue that more money is the answer to the nations educational deficiencies.

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