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Sumner to stay open as an arts, activism school

THE VILLE – The historic Sumner High School is getting new life as a school specializing in activism and the arts.

The high school at 4248 Cottage Avenue, the first for African-Americans west of the Mississippi, was on a list of schools set for closing under a plan the board issued in January. But strong public opposition caused the St. Louis Board of Education to put the decision for Sumner on hold until March, to reconsider potential ways to keep the school open.

Under the new plan, approved by the school board Tuesday, the school would stay open for at least three years to allow a new focus on music, dance, art and activism. That would ideally increase enrollment by 10 percent a year and make the school more sustainable. 

Community organizations such as the Center of Creative Arts, the Opera Theater of St. Louis and a new advisory board made up of Sumner alumni, partner organizations and local leaders would assist.

At the same time, the district would work to designate the high school as a national landmark.

District Superintendent Kelvin Adams said a number of groups, including the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival and the Sumner Renaissance Group, had approached the district about participating. Starting in the fall, they will help to bring drama, visual arts, dance and music to students during the school day.

In a spring semester, seniors could do internships with the professional arts organizations. 

The organizations that are helping would pay the salaries of one or more program directors who would integrate the electives for the various specialties into the school curriculum.

“Hopefully, these programs will incentivize kids to come to school, but more importantly, to increase their academics and attendance as well,” Adams said.

A presentation at Tuesday’s meeting stated that those who had arts experiences in high school tend to have higher levels of civic engagement. Further, according to the presentation, those with a lower socioeconomic status who have experiences rich in the arts tend to get much more involved in student government and school service clubs than others with a similar socioeconomic environment who don’t have arts experiences. 

Those who had arts education were more likely to vote or participate in a political campaign and had fewer discipline problems, the presentation said. 

Through the program, the district hopes to increase the number of electives, encourage teachers to stay longer and increase partnerships with area organizations.            

An initial advisory board would include Charles Berry Jr., son of Sumner alum and Ville resident Chuck Berry; retired educator and Ville neighborhood resident Thomasina Clark; Abby Crawford, director of education for the Center of Creative Arts; Ron Himes, founder and producing director at the Black Rep.; and Sumner alum Jackie Vanderford of Sumner Renaissance. Others on the board will include Nicole Hudson, Assistant Vice Chancellor, Washington University; and Dr. Jerome Morris, Professor of Urban Education, UMSL

The school was established as District School Number Three in 1867. It became Charles Sumner High School in the mid-1870s, named for Charles Sumner, an abolitionist senator. The school has numerous famous alums, including tennis player Arthur Ashe, comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, singer Tina Turner, opera singer Grace Bumbry and Tuskegee Airman Wendall O. Pruitt.

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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