Monday, June 10, 2013

Gateway Science Academy

This post will cover the Gateway Science Academy (GSA) Elementary charter school(s) which opened in August, 2010.  I say schools in the plural because there currently exists the campus at 6576 Smiley Avenue and the soon to open South Campus for GSA elementary which will be at 6651 Gravois in the former Gardenville School in the Princeton Heights neighborhood.

The South Campus is under a full gut rehab at time of publishing and that's a great thing for St. Louis because this is yet another William B. Ittner masterpiece circa 1907 (with an addition in 1917 by Rockwell Milligan).  This sale marks the first public school being sold to a charter in St. Louis history.  The new school, to be known as Gateway Science Academy South, will start with 350 students in grades kindergarten through five, according to Salim Ucan, vice president at Concept Schools. He said plans call for one grade to be added each year so the school eventually would grow to 650 students, K-12th grade. GSA paid ~$1.2M for this landmark building (source).

Behold the rebirth:




GSA high school is located in the North Hampton neighborhood at 5049 Fyler Avenue; I will cover that school in a future post.

Again, the current location of the elementary charter school is at the former Epiphany of Our Lord Catholic school building at 6576 Smiley Avenue in the Lindenwood Park neighborhood.

no signage marks this as GSA other than a small sign above the door


This former parochial school was closed in the spring of 2010.  GSA is the sixth former Catholic school building that the Archdiocese of St. Louis has either leased or sold to a charter school; this is obviously a boon for the Archdiocese of St. Louis, as the monthly lease was reported at $10,000 by the Post-Dispatch in 2010.  Enrollment in private Catholic schools has dropped precipitously in St. Louis, the suburbs and the metro-east.

This site is still an active Catholic parish and has been since 1911; most familiar with St. Louis probably recognize the beautiful church building at Smiley and Ivanhoe.



GSA is a college prep school managed by Concept Schools, based in Des Plaines, Ill. Unlike most charter schools in the city, this one has attendance boundaries. It gives enrollment preference to students in four zip codes:  63109, 63110, 63139 and sections of 63143.  That does not mean students from other parts of the city will not be accepted, they just don't have that leg up in years where applications exceed capacity and a lottery is initiated.  This essentially builds a "neighborhood school" which is very appealing to families.  It means you may have kids on your street that attend, carpools are easier, or best yet kids can walk or ride their bikes to school.

Concept has a proven record and operate 27 schools in 7 states across the Midwest.


From the GSA website:
MISSION

The mission of Gateway Science Academy of St. Louis is to create a learning community in which: 
•teachers, parents and students work together to develop young people who are confident and achieve academic excellence in a powerful college prep curriculum
•students do not question “whether” they will go to college, but instead ask “when” and “where”;
•students understand that with hard work, dreams are possible;
•students develop the skills in math, science, and technology necessary to become bold inquirers, analytical thinkers, and ethical leaders in the 21st century; and
•students are empowered to become productively engaged in the local community and broader society.
We create a school culture that is built on success, respect, and accountability. The founders of Gateway Science Academy of St. Louis recognize that the success of students is dependent upon the school’s ability to create a culture that fosters meaningful, sustained relationships between teachers, students, and parents and holds all stakeholders responsible for outcomes.
It is this culture that forms the foundation of our school. Gateway Science Academy of St. Louis builds this culture from the point of first contact with families and throughout the students’ academic experience. 
VISION 
Vision of Gateway Science Academy of St. Louis: 
•90 % or above in Math and English in state tests
•95 % student retention, attendance, and promotion
•Establish an effective character education program embedded in curriculum
•High staff retention rate
•Excellent parent and student satisfaction
•Provide engaging, diverse, and effective extracurricular activities
•Productive community involvement
So that's the company line, now let's hear from a family with a child currently enrolled at GSA, I spoke to our friends Peggy and Mike Dotson.

So where are you guys from?
My husband grew up in Maplewood, and I grew up in several cities in various states. My family is originally from St. Louis.
How long have you lived in St. Louis?
I have lived in St. Louis since 1992. My husband has lived here his whole life.
What neighborhood do you reside in?
Our family lives in Lafayette Square. We have lived here for 18 years, since before our kids were born.
How old are your kids?
Our kids are 14 (8th grade) and 11 (5th grade)
What other schools have they attended?
Both kids attended the Lafayette Park United Methodist pre-school co-op before attending full-day pre-school.  Our youngest attended full-day pre-school at Stix then attended Kennard for kindergarten through the middle of 4th grade and then transferred to Gateway Science Academy. He is in 5th grade at GSA. Our oldest started pre-school at Kennard and continued through 5th grade. She has attended McKinley Middle School for grades 6-8.
What other schools did you consider?
We had looked at Kennard and Dewey International for our oldest. We considered Stix, Mallincrodt, and Kennard for our youngest, and then Gateway Science Academy.
How did you make your choices?
We liked the fact that Kennard was an accelerated/gifted program. Kennard had also been recommended to us by other families. The program at Stix was appealing because of its focus on and understanding of early childhood development. We also liked the positive environment at Stix. Although Gateway Science Academy was a new school, we had heard from other families that were very happy with their experience there. The school focuses more time on math and science, areas that we would like our son to have more instruction. While MAP scores are not a major issue for us, GSA does have high scores.

There were several decision points in sending our son to GSA.
1. We were unhappy with the middle school he would have attended after Kennard.
2. We liked the fact that GSA focused on developing skills in math and science.
3. When we visited the school, we noticed the generally positive environment. The teachers were young and enthusiastic, and the families there seemed to be very happy. Parents are very involved.
4. We also liked the fact that sports were available, which was not an option at Kennard.
5. We liked their homework policy - the fact that they even have a homework policy was encouraging. Research shows that homework is important, but too much homework is counterproductive. GSA's policy takes this research into account.
6. The last period of the day is for tutoring/enrichment. Students who need extra help can use this time to get that help. Students who do not need help, can get started on their homework or read. They have had enrichment programs in the past.
How do you sign up?
Their application procedure and acceptance policy is outlined on their web-site http://www.gsastl.org/enrollment/admission-procedure/ 
GSA opened the middle/high school this year. It is located at Brannon and Fyler. This year they have grades 6-9. They will add a grade each year to eventually have 6-12. I don't know if they have plans to open a separate high school or if this building will always house both middle and high school. I have talked to several families with kids in the middle school, and they are very happy.
Who's the charter sponsor?
Lindenwood University is the charter sponsor. I honestly don't know the extent of their involvement.
What are the transportation options?
There is no bus service. Many of the kids walk. Others are driven by parents. They do have a pretty organized drop-off/pick-up lane that has someone directing traffic. Afternoon dismissal times are staggered with the younger kids being dismissed 10 minutes earlier. Before and After care is available and is very reasonable. You can take advantage of the service without having to pay for a full month of care. You only pay for the day you use it and even then it is pro-rated based on the amount of time your kid is there.
Rank the following on a scale of 1-10:
Safety - 8 -school has recently improved safety with the front door remaining locked at all times and all visitors required to have ID tag. It is my understanding that this ID tag includes a background check.
Teaching - 9 - most teachers are young and energetic, excited about teaching. The kids seem to respond well to this enthusiasm. The school helps teachers if they need to improve classroom management and other skills. They seem to work well as a team.

Principal - 9; Principal is very responsive to parent concerns. My few interactions with him have been absolutely refreshing as he responded with honest and open reply. I have heard the same from other parents. He is always happy to talk to parents, which is very different from any other principal I have worked with. 
Curriculum - 7 - The curriculum is fine. The school puts strong emphasis on and encourages reading.

Physical Resources - 7 - the elementary school has access to the gym and the playground and fields across the street. School's building is fine. They recently remodeled the entry way to make it more inviting and efficient for the office staff. Classrooms are fine. Cafeteria is fine. The library is very small. Food is cooked on the premises. 
Overall - 8 or 9 - we are happy with this school. The school truly seems to have the kids' interest at heart, and is willing to do what it takes to see them succeed. The principal has the authority to fire teachers who are not performing and make other changes that are in the best interest of the school. The teachers and staff seem to be happy and work together as a team. Office staff is very friendly, helpful and competent.
Are there enrichment courses?
The elementary school no longer has Spanish classes. They do have computer class. The last hour of the day is devoted to tutoring or enrichment (according to the child's needs). There is no gifted programming. Kids in 6th and 7th grade can qualify to participate in the Ivy League program, a program designed to prepare high achieving kids for admission to one of the Ivy League universities. In the Ivy League program, kids have additional instruction and participate in educational and team-building trips throughout the year. Foreign language is available in middle school.
Are there extra-curricular opportunities?
The school offers a variety of after school activities. Sports are available at all grades (soccer, basketball, volleyball, baseball, etc.) This year they even offered spring soccer. The athletic association is very active. The school also provides a variety of after school clubs and encourages all kids to participate. The clubs are led by the teachers and range from yearbook and student council to bowling, cooking, and Lego robotics or film-making. The club options change each semester.
What's the student body like (where are they from, what are the demographics)?
The school gives priority placement to neighboring zip codes, so most kids live near the school.
Cons?
The main drawback of the school for me is the lack of buses. 
Pros?
There is definitely good parental involvement. In addition to the PTO, there is and Athletic Association and a Men's Club with over 80 members who serve the school in a variety of ways. 
We also like the uniform policy.
Sounds pretty good to me.  GSA is yet another viable option for St. Louis families.  To all parents and families, please do your research before tucking tail and leaving St. Louis for the suburbs.

Educate yourself and visit the schools and talk to people about their honest experiences.  As Benjamin Franklin said:

"Being ignorant is not so much a shame, as being unwilling to learn."

Most in this region think it's a foregone conclusion that there are no acceptable, civilized or even sophisticated options for public/free education in St. Louis.  You couldn't be more wrong.

In closing, as an added bonus, the school offers family trips to Spain and Turkey for a fee of ~$1000 for family and ~$800 for students including airfare, lodging, dinner, museum fees and personal guided transportation.  You just can't beat that.  These trips are offered over Spring break and summer.  Some good friends of ours just took advantage of this and had an amazing time.

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