Racial steering to schools shows big task facing new education panel

CITY HALL – Will Suggs worries he’s a victim of racial profiling, but not the normal kind.

Suggs, who lives in the Fox Park neighborhood,  is white. He has two preschool children and would like them to go to a city school. At a fair featuring representatives of various kinds of schools, he asked someone representing the St. Louis Public Schools what was available. A representative automatically suggested a magnet school.

“I found it somewhat disturbing that the neighborhood schools weren’t brought up first,” Suggs told members of the Board of Aldermen’s Education and Youth Matters Committee on July 1. 

Two nearby schools, Siegel and Shenandoah schools, which his children might attend, were 90 percent black, even though they were in racially diverse neighborhoods. 

“What that says to me is that white families are sending their kids elsewhere,” Suggs said. “They’re not choosing the neighborhood public school, and they’re doing that because we’ve leaned on this policy of school choice. We’ve allowed them to take their kids and send them somewhere other than their black neighbors.”

Suggs was one of more than 10 speakers at the inaugural meeting of the education and youth committee. 

The day of the meeting was also the first day that the elected St. Louis Board of Education officially took back control of St. Louis Public Schools from a board appointed by the state. Several school board members told the committee about the possibilities for the city schools under the new arrangement. They also spoke of how the committee and school board could work together.

“I ask that you would see the Board of Education as an ally and as a resource,” Board of Education President Natalie Vowell said.

Among the school board members who spoke at the meeting was Adam Layne. He referred to Suggs’ experience as one instance in which school officials told a person his children were suited for a certain type of school because they were white. 

“That type of stuff is soaked into the blood and the soil of St. Louis, and that’s systemic,” Layne said. “If we want our kids to be able to sit side by side with other kids that look different from them in the classrooms, we have to be willing to have people who want to be a neighbor living next door who look different from them,” Layne said.

Neighborhood development plays a part, Layne said, noting that much more development money goes to the south side than the north side.

“Neighborhoods and neighborhood development does play a big role in the schools that we have,” he said. “It plays a big role in how we fund the schools.” 

At the start of the meeting, 20th Ward Alderwoman Cara Spencer, the committee’s chair, said it was good that her group would spend their first meeting taking public comment. The whole committee thought that was important.

Twenty-Fifth Ward Alderman Shane Cohn, the committee’s vice chair, said the panel was years in the making. The Board of Aldermen didn’t have ways to get the public and institutions in the community involved in critical conversations about education and youth, he said. 

Representatives from several organizations also spoke at the meeting. They included Miranda Jones of Better Family Life, Norah Ryan of the Roosevelt  Community Council, Paula Gaertner of the Thomas Dunn Learning Center and Cici Tompkins of the Children’s Education Alliance of Missouri. 

Jim Merkel Born and raised in the St. Louis area, Jim Merkel covered communities throughout the area from 1991 to 2013 for the old Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis. He is the author of five books about the Gateway City published by Reedy Press. The latest is Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades. He and his wife, Lorraine, live in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis with Miss Jenny the Cat. For more about Jim, visit

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