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Back to July Ed Reporter

Education Reporter
NUMBER 150 THE NEWSPAPER OF EDUCATION RIGHTS JULY 1998
STW Career Academy a 'Model' for Chaos
Teacher Labels School a 'Diabolical Gauntlet of Pandemonium'
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ST. LOUIS, MO - In July 1996, the St. Louis Career Academy opened its doors, the first such school in St. Louis' new Career Education District (CED). The district was established by a federal court order to oversee secondary vocational-technical education as part of a federal desegregation case.

The Career Academy was the focus of considerable fanfare and received glowing accolades from the media. An existing public high school building was revamped to receive approximately 300 students, high-tech learning labs, and health care and employment counseling facilities for the community. It was touted by education reformers as the wave of the future - the "New Urban High School" - with the intent that it will eventually be open 24 hours a day. The Career Academy was designed to be one of five "break-the-mold" School-to-Work model high schools in the U.S. that are to be replicated throughout the country.

In May of this year, the Career Academy's facade of "success" and "achievement" began to crumble when one of its teachers came forward to paint a sordid picture of chaos, confusion and ineptitude at the school, calling it "a diabolical gauntlet of pandemonium" for its students. Educator Christine Burns says she "started to get very uneasy feelings about what was happening there even after my first week of work."

Mrs. Burns describes herself as "a veteran teacher of outstanding character, reputation and credentials" who, after eight months' teaching at the academy, desired only to "get out of it" and be "rid of the problem." But then the school district told her to read, critique and sign off on a document entitled "Building the Foundation for Life-Long, Self-Directed Learning," which according to Burns was "full of lies, suppositions and half-truths." Realizing that she could not sign the document, she says that neither could she "walk away without someone, somewhere, knowing what I believe to be the truth about what is happening, or rather, not happening at the St. Louis Career Academy."

Mrs. Burns drafted a rebuttal to "Building the Foundation," which she sent to the school's principal, the CED Superintendent, the court-appointed vocational education monitor, and the school district's seven board members. The rebuttal charges the school with "lying about students gaining in academic achievement." It contends that the school relies too heavily on computers, that "computer labs are typically chaotic and poorly controlled due to lack of manpower," and that destruction and theft of equipment are commonplace. "Students cheat on computerized tests to advance to their next 'tier' (grade)," she wrote, adding that "the school lacks practical, in-classroom teaching, order and discipline." She charged that "children at the academy have been part of a giant School- to-Work experiment for the past two years, subjected to unproven and unorthodox practices and procedures, like rats in a maze."

According to Mrs. Burns, "team learning," the instruction method the academy uses, is "hated or disliked by a large number of the students because brighter students do all the work while other team members cheat and 'slip by.' " No homework is allowed to be given despite protests by parents and complaints by teachers and students. One student is quoted as saying, "This school is very educational. We don't have books or get homework, and we have fun."

Mrs. Burns complains that the school has no library, that textbooks were ordered only after teachers demanded them, and that community volunteers no longer assist at the academy due to the lack of discipline and parental involvement. She says "violence is escalating," and that students have engaged in "scores of fights."

She describes the school admin-istration's "last minute problems" at the start of the 1997-98 school year, which included deciding what courses they were going to teach, how many teachers they actually had, and whether to teach U.S. History or World History to the school's sophomores. (That decision apparently wasn't made until six weeks into the school year, despite the state of Missouri's rules about required courses for sophomores.)

Though the Career Academy has attempted to refute Mrs. Burns' charges, "Building the Foundation's" 37 paragraphs provide some clues as to their validity. Paragraph 9 refers to the school's staff and students as remaining "intensely involved in an ongoing process of self-creation." Paragraph 26 whines that: "In spite of an explicit court mandate to 'break the mold,' the academy continues to come under attack from proponents of the old system." Yet paragraph 30 admits that "students have learned they can fool the computer by 'smart guessing' or by memorizing answers for retests. Some students wonder how much of their learning they will retain. Others have 'maxed out' on the English and math programs, and do not feel challenged by their supplemental work."

The document uses the term "turn on a dime" to indicate the school's educational "flexibility." Paragraph 34 talks about "The Academy's process of self-creation," and "reinventing the school." Mrs. Burns' rebuttal contends that this "'turn on a dime' school has wasted millions of tax dollars (to the tune of $10,500 per student) and also wasted its students' high school educational experience. Lack of attention to details and fundamental educational precepts has been harmful to students."

In a letter dated May 6, Mrs. Burns repeated her concerns to State Sen. Wayne Goode, Chairman of the Missouri Senate Joint Committee on Careers and Vocational Education. She included copies of letters written by students to CED administrators complaining about problems at the academy. Also included were eight pages of obscene material from the Internet that a student had printed during class time, proving Mrs. Burns' allegation that students are breaking the pornography-blocking software codes and accessing pornographic sites on the net. She explained to the Senator how "pleas for help from the school district have fallen on deaf ears."

Mrs. Burns says that her efforts and those of other teachers to have the discipline problems and other valid concerns addressed by the administration have been followed by abuse. She reports that the principal "threatened, bullied and intimidated" anyone who complained.

Alienated by the CED, Mrs. Burns approached officials of the St. Louis Special School District (SSD). The SSD is appealing a court ruling requiring it to eventually merge with the Career Education District, on the grounds that the CED is unconstitutional. SSD officials said they felt Mrs. Burns had little recourse "short of going public." The rest, she says, is history.

Mrs. Burns is also in receipt of several letters from parents echoing her complaints, plus signed statements from four Career Academy teachers verifying her allegations. Several more teachers have made verbal pledges to substantiate her claims. She has made public nearly 50 signed requests from parents and other concerned citizens to Sen. Goode requesting that he investigate the St. Louis Career Academy.


 
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