Thursday, December 13, 2012

Kids In The City

Okay, I know most readers of my blog are urbanists, etc.  Kids and fatherhood are usually topics I try to avoid as most people I've met who read this blog are usually younger than I and without kids.  And, raising kids is obviously a pretty personal thing; stuff usually left off the Internet and kept private.  But, I see a crisis here in STL that is really worth talking about, and I hope to make a couple points without getting too personal.  But parents talking about kids and raising kids in a city vs. a suburb or small town can easily get personal fast.  So I hope not to offend or come across as judgemental on how/where one chooses to raise a family.

Let me start with a disturbing fact:

28,895 people up and left the city in the 10 years from 2000-2010.  21,999 of those who left (~76%) were under 20 years of age. 

Of the 21,999 people under 20 who left, the biggest block of 17,433 were between the ages of 5-14:  school age kids. 

That is a big loss, right?  Now give it some thought.  Is that a direct reflection of parents leaving the city because of the perceived and/or real problems with the public and charter schools?  You would certainly think so.

Another look at the numbers will tell you St. Louis showed a gain of young people in their 20s where an increase of 5,925 was observed.  A gain of 14,471 of the so called "empty nesters" between the ages of 50-64 was also seen.  Nice, we're doing good attracting young, post-high school people and parents of post-high school children who want a hip, vibrant, non-suburban lifestyle.  Yet, we're taking a beating on school aged kids.

I think this is telling of the greatest problems we have to face in the next regime and generations.  Schools and crime.  Whether perceived or real, these 2 problems displace more decent people than anything else.

It's going to be brutal to hear entrenched city leaders in the 2013 mayoral race talk about what a great job they are doing when clearly, people are voting with their feet and continue to leave, sinking us to < 319,000 people.

There's a very personal side to this story of kids being pulled out of the city by parents.  Here are my thoughts as a parent of 3:

One could surmise that kids are not welcome here; that STL is a bad place to be a kid or raise kids.  But, you've got to wonder, what kind of kids are leaving?  Are well educated/wealthy St. Louis Hills parents packing up the beautiful little college bound things in the leather seated mini-vans and heading for the greener pastures of Kirkwood, Wentzville, Millstadt or Chesterfield where the yards are bigger and the neighbors are more homogeneous, right-minded or well-heeled?  Or, are cognizant, active/loving urban minded parents who are trying to live a humble life in the public education system, in a used car in an affordable apartment/house, in a city neighborhood, packing it up because they've been frustrated and disenfranchised by their city public/charter school experience and can't afford or don't want to attend private schools?  Or, are young, low-income single moms with multiple kids leaving to find a way elsewhere because they can't get a footing in STL and are making a jump to the county?  Or lastly, are nice families who want the best for their kids hearing the sensational local news and reading the paper and deciding to not even research or consider options in St. Louis for their kids and are actively planning on vacating for the burbs once junior gets to be school aged...no questions asked? 

I don't have the answers, but judging by the numbers, the ratio is roughly 3 kids/teenagers per every 1 adult heading out of town.  If I had to guess it is probably more young, poor single mothers taking a couple kids and leaving.  If it were married families or committed couples, the numbers would be more balanced toward adults:minors leaving St. Louis.  A further look at the 2010 numbers will tell you that African-Americans are leaving at a much greater rate than any other racial class counted by the census.  Most losses were from the most run down north city neighborhoods where counts were ~ 20% lower.

Yikes.

Anyhow, the reasons for mass minor exodus are probably a little of all of the above (and possibly other) scenarios.  The thing I know for sure is lots of kids are leaving the city.  Each one a lost opportunity for the future.  Each one a citizen that will no longer identify with St. Louis as his/her childhood home or experience.

So where does that leave those of us who have chosen to stay in St. Louis with school aged kids?  More importantly, where does that leave the next generation of parents considering kids or with kids nearing school age?

Let me give you a taste of my experience with the SLPS...

I consider myself an active dad, I love my kids and my wife and want nothing more than for them to live a happy life where they can have some say in what they do for a living and work toward what they think is right or wrong in the world.  Choices are huge with me.  If you have no choices in your schooling and your career and your future in general, you can feel cornered and defensive...sometimes defeated.  And animals act weird and out of their element when they are cornered. Fight or flight is a psychological concept I've always been interested in and STL living keeps me on the edge of that fight or flight teeter totter.

Living in St. Louis can be a constant fight.  The odds are stacked against you when it comes to raising a family.  When junior turns 5, you don't just walk up to the local public school administration office to sign your kid up for the shiny new neighborhood school closest to your home where you are met with smiles and open arms and plenty of other happy families, familiar faces and neighbors with precious little things in tow.  It isn't like that.  Many of the employees at the SLPS have gotten/retained their jobs due to nepotism and other antiquated ways of entitlement.  Many are accountable to no one and the service you get is horrible and enough to turn a normal, dignified person away after the first interaction.  Many cannot speak proper English, many will yell at you, or are raging racists and will not file your requests if you get cross wise with them or call them out on their behavior or performance.  Yes, we recently gained partial accreditation and that is fantastic, but somebody needs to clean house in the administrative arm of the SLPS.  Many of the teachers, counselors, principals, etc work their butts off and are top shelf educators and administrators.  But if your VERY FIRST touch point with the public schools is some racist, non-coherent person who hates their job, that can be enough to make you walk away.  Why would you want your kids to be around this type of person, right?  It can only go down hill from here, first impressions are very important as a parent.  You can lose decent people immediately, before they have even given the educators and schools a chance to work with your kid(s).  And you know what the most popular move is for a parent who is disenfranchised?  You guessed it:  move to the burbs.

Furthermore, neighborhood schools were abolished for racial de-segregation reasons clearly needed at the time in the 20th Century, but not so much now.  In essence, this deseg action eroded much of what was good about neighborhood schools and played a hand in destroying the fabric of neighborhoods and adding a tremendous overhead of busing and extended school days for kids that should have more time to study and play then sit on a bus for an hour or more to get to a decent school, regardless of where you live.  I realize I am over simplifying the complex history of a deseg policy, but some parents who leave for the county just want their kids to go to school with their neighbors kids.  Simple, right?  Can't blame someone for that.

Additionally, some SLPS schools perform very poorly, some are not safe and have a tremendous amount of knuckleheads/punks filling the seats...many of these kids have no active parents who want them to do better and have more opportunities than they did.  Willful ignorance abounds.  Many have no responsible father in the picture at all.  That's just a sorry fact.  Some don't get any re-enforcement at home to focus on homework and they suffer as a result.  This obviously lowers the quality of education for others in the room and exhausts the teachers and the system.  The thing is, many of the SLPS are simply not an option for any normal, loving parent who wants a dignified, safe learning environment for their kids.

As a result, in St. Louis as an active parent, you have to work extra hard to find the more rare, suitable options for your kids if you want to live here and have them in the best position to get a quality education and childhood school experience.  It's not easy like it is in say west county, where you just pay your crazy high property taxes, fill out the papers at Parkway West and all the dominoes start falling and you are just a happy little fish swimming with the stream.  No, St. Louis isn't like that.  If you want the good options, you've got to fight for them and in some cases you've got to have luck on your side as well.

You have to be informed.  You have to be active and prepared for a fight to get a decent way for your kids.  Sometimes that fight can be exhausting and sometimes contentious.  It keeps my finger on the eject button constantly.  If my kids are wronged and it's out of my control, I'll have to bolt for U.City (the Yale or Jail district), Oakville or Maplewood or some other civilized suburban city to try things out there.  Yet, there are great public, charter and affordable private schools in the city.  More choices exist now than they did previously and for that I'm thankful.  I think there are options a normal family who want their kids to succeed in an urban, diverse environment would consider.  I hear about more and more of them as I listen to other parents and neighbors talking.

I assume that many parents on the brink of a big decision to stay or go know that they are not up for the fight and choose the path of least resistance:  move to the burbs.  That may sound lazy, but can you really blame them?

With all that in mind, let me tell ya, raising kids in the city has been a blessing...so far.  It's a lot of work, and it takes effort.  Let me also tell you that I'd by lying if I didn't say we also have gone through some pretty serious fight or flight scenarios.  An STL parent puts up with lots of crap that many of my suburban parent friends simply do not.  However, these suburban parents don't live in places that I find nearly as interesting and beautiful, but that's another story.  But, it has been an inspiration to live here, one that is completely unattainable in many of the burbs.  The chances of meeting someone I see eye to eye with on many levels (including parenting) are much greater here than other places.  I know what some are thinking...those are adult, selfish needs and its just not right raising a kid in the city.

However, the honest story is that we think we are doing better for our kids future to live in a city where they'll be exposed to a much more broad spectrum of kids and experiences than what we had growing up in smallish towns.

Here are some pluses for me:  my kids are exposed to constant beauty, taste, history and arts in their surroundings. My wife has a background in the fine arts; it's part of why I fell for her back when I was 19.  We have a long history of enjoying the beauty that St. Louis offers in the museums, galleries, stores, parks, restaurants, neighborhoods, buildings and streets.  It's an inspiring place.  I'm a simpleton, and can appreciate a blooming tree in Tower Grove Park or a Marsden Hartley painting in the SLAM, or hearing a favorite song on KDHX and just be floored and completely happy.  I am all about feel and experience...and going out to lunch or hanging out in Ballwin, Olivette or Creve Coeur has never matched the fun and inspiration and welcomeness I've felt in STL spaces that fill old buildings where the brick and mortar and hand cut lumber add to the authenticity of the overall visit.  Take the same pizza and serve it up in a strip mall in Marlborough, MO or a renovated, former beer malt house in St. Louis (think PW Pizza) and I'll take the latter any day.  It will be the same pizza, but a better experience.  One I don't mind spending the cash on and one I'd recommend to friends.

My kids have attended a magnet school in the SLPS for many years now, and I love the building they are in, the neighborhood and many of the families/kids that go there.  The school draws people from all over the city and county from different economic backgrounds.  It's as diverse as a St. Louis school can be I suppose.  Additionally, as a middle class-raised in the suburbs white dude, I like the fact that there are African-American authority figures at their school.  In my up bringing there were black bus drivers, janitors and maintenance men, but few to no black teachers, principals, counselors, etc.  Their current principal holds a PhD and is an African-American woman.  So, playing with, living with, attending school with and listening/learning/looking up to people from different races is exactly what this city and America in general probably needs to get over a lot of the racist B.S. that holds us back greatly.

But the ultimate bottom line is this...I think they are getting an excellent education, and they are smarter and more focused than I ever was as a kid.  The public schools have many amazingly smart, dedicated and hard working teachers and administrators.  We've been lucky enough to have great teachers almost every year for all 3 of our kids.  We are happy, my kids are happy.  But you have to fight for these happy scenarios...the good thing is we are not unique, other families who have fought for their kids best interests are among us.  You walk together in great numbers and you get to be surrounded by extremely dedicated parents from all walks of life from all parts of the city...and you walk side by side with those that have chosen the good fight just like you.  The trials and tribulations are shared...but at the end of the day you're a city person who is succeeding with children that are succeeding as well.  You stayed, fought and just may win.

Now, I know there are plenty who don't have good things to say about schools no matter where they are.  I'm not trying to polish turds here, I'm not bragging, I'm not saying St. Louis has an advantage in any way over the 90 suburban cities in the county...I'm simply trying to explain that you can find a decent path for your family in St. Louis.  It ain't gonna be easy and it won't be perfect...but I don't think there is a perfect school anywhere.  I just wish parents and kids who are succeeding in St. Louis would speak up and tell their story a little...more on that in a minute...

Back to the census data...based on the numerical increases, I like the fact that we have thriving, energetic, young people in their 20s here.  They inspire me and make me hopeful for the future.  STL is an easy sell to young suburban or creative class kids looking for more than their boring childhood environs; or, gay people who want to feel more welcome than a rural/suburban setting can provide, empty nesting progressives seeking an active/walkable scene, entrepreneurs looking for a deal, immigrants who want to live/start a business on the cheap, lovers of architecture, history, I can go on and on about the easy STL sell.

But there's something we don't talk enough about:  we need families and kids that grow up here in order to be an even stronger city in the future.  Again, we lost 29,000 people from 2000-2010.  3/4 were under 20 years old.  Damn. It's the fight of our next decade to sell this place and retain middle class people with school-age kids.  Yep...I really believe this to be true.  It's bigger than crime and black/white racism.

Now that I've been a parent of ~10 years with 3 kids and the blessing of a devoted mom/wife that runs the family and is as up for the city experience as I...I know my kids are on a path to a life of beauty and respect for their surroundings and history and nature that I want them to have.

I must admit, I have a bit of a defiant spirit in me.  When I see and hear people I don't necessarily like or respect on any level railing against the city, I want to tell them to fuck off, or better yet, prove them wrong.  But the city really does stack the cards against you when it comes to raising kids with all the modern amenities and with all the suburban pressures that exist.  There's not cheer-leading squads, lacrosse teams, baseball teams at the city's best magnet schools.  Nor for charters.  If you want that stuff, you'll have to work hard to get them involved in CYC, YMCA or other ventures; or, you'll have to move to the higher tax districts and live in a place where you may not have a decent park, history, bar, restaurant or just "places" in general to be; or send them to private schools. 

The elementary city school my kids go to doesn't have organized sports teams, so you have to look elsewhere to get kids involved in sports.  The Catholic schools and the YMCA can help fill this gap..but again, it's extra work and $ for the parents to make this happen.  It's not part of the package.  This drives some away as well.

It's hard work and takes a lot more effort to raise kids to the best of your ability here in St. Louis and that is the honest reality of the current situation.  If you are willing to be active and put the extra work it takes to get your kids involved in the right situations for them, you can make it here.   You can be very happy.  Things are not as bad as the media makes it out to be.  The fact is, most people that complain and bitch about the city schools have ZERO first hand experience with them.  I would urge parents of young children to research the reasonable possibilities for an education before they leave.  Be part of the solution and not the ongoing problem.

In keeping with that last statement, I am going to try and do my part and take on a new side project...I will be researching city private, charter and public schools and interviewing parents on their experiences.  How do you get in?  Is there a lotto?  What are the costs?  Where do you go to get enrollment info and tours?  What are the other families like at that school? 

At the end of the day, I hope to have a guide (not unlike my neighborhood guides) for expecting parents and families/couples with kids to access real information from real people...not haters.  I hope to keep it real and talk about pros and cons.

If you are a parent with kids in a city school and would like to represent...drop me a line if you'd like to meet for coffee/beer/whatever and do a quick 30 minute interview of "your story".  I will respect your anonymity if you so choose.  We can also do an interview over the phone or email if its easier.

I honestly feel that we have hit rock bottom in many of parts of this city and that better days are ahead.  I feel that if decent, hard working parents with nice families who are mostly happy with their kids education would speak up, we could counter the negative stories and the uninformed haters as well.

If you would like to do your part, I can be contacted here:

groth_stl@hotmail.com

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

As a father who is contemplating a move to St. Louis sometime down the road, a school guide would be a tremendous help. The schools are unfortunately a major deterent for many young families who would otherwise love living in the city. I'll definitely keep checking back to see the progress.

Anonymous said...

As a father comtemplating a move to St. Louis somethime down the road, a school guide would be a tremendous help. Unfortunately, the schools are a major deterrent for many young families who would otherwise love living in the city.

leslie t. said...

I really enjoy reading your posts. My fiance and I currently live in the city and will be getting married in a couple of months. Most people ask us where we will be moving to because "you can't raise kids in the city." I'm not entirely sure where we'll end up, but I love where I live, and I don't like that people just assume we'll be moving out of our neighborhood if we have kids. So any kind of research done on the topic will be a big help for us, as we hope in the next several years to be needing to send a kiddo off to school! Thank you!

Heather {ModernMealsforTwo} said...

I thought this was a really informative post. I'm a kidless city dweller so I don't have to face these kinds of decisions, but I have a coworker who lives in Soulard and has a daughter who will be 2 in August. She is already researching suburbs because she plans to leave the city when her daughter gets older. A school guide, or just more honest accounts like yours, would go a long way toward convincing parents to give St. Louis schools a chance.

Anonymous said...

Some form of school guide would be wonderful. My wife was born and raised in South County. We're twenty-somethings who live in DC now, but one day we'll be making the trek back to Missouri to be closer to family, hopefully with a couple kids in tow. We'd love nothing more than to live in the city, but the only sticking point to that has always been the question of schools and a quality education. So any insights into getting a quality education for your kids while living in the city would be awesome.

Anonymous said...

I love what you are doing. We recently moved back from Chicago and quickly chose a house in a good school district because I was expecting. Our neighborhood is lovely however I have regretted the decision to some degree because I miss city living. We considered the city but all the "hearsay" was disappointing. Thank you for taking the time to talk about this-the more educational resources that are available will help people make an educated decision rather than from rumors and what seems to be obvious. Good work.